Phoenicianism: a Parable of Lebanese Nationalism

The popular conception of the Middle East prior to the 20th century is one of ideological homogeneity, with Arab nationalism dominating the cultural and ideological paradigm. The 20th century however saw the emergence of alternative forms of nationalism that grew to rival the traditionally dominant presence of Arab nationalism. Minorities embraced nationalism as a precursor to establishing statehood or to challenge colonial powers, thus diluting the traditionally dominant position of Arab nationalism in the region. From its beginnings, Christian intellectuals and politicians developed Lebanese nationalism to confront the prevalence of Arab Nationalism that had come to permeate Syria and Lebanon at the end of the 19th century. Lebanese Christian Maronites saw Arab Nationalism as a threat to their ‘ancient particularism’ and sought to utilise nationalistic ideals to reintroduce and popularise their traditional particularism as a response to the ever-growing dominance of Arab nationalism in the region.

In the midst of the Lebanese quest for independence and during the mandate period, there were two rival imaginations in Lebanon: Phoenicianism and Arab Nationalism, with the latter conventionally dominating the regional ideological archetype. Phoenicianism placed an emphasis on the ancient Phoenician identity of Lebanon and the Lebanese; this ideology was embraced mainly by the Christian Maronites, whose contemporary identity as merchants was comparable to the merchant identity of the Phoenicians. Indeed, the accepted etymological origins of the term ‘Phoenician’ is thought to be the Greek word ‘phionix’, meaning ‘red’, alluding to the purple textile industry for which the ancient Phoenicians were known for. As in the case of other communities aiming to establish statehood in the region, celebrating and emphasising a historical connection to the land would create a narrative that would justify the existence of Lebanon as a viable national community based on age-old historical memories and a proud pedigree. Whilst the 20th century development of Phoenician identity was borne out of a desire to establish statehood, it inevitably became a significant point of contention between Lebanon’s communities, with each community seeking to define their country’s national identity. The goal of Phoenicianism was to set Lebanon within a territorial and ideological realm that would maintain its cultural independence from the rest of the Arab world, creating an ideological fragmentation of “us” (the Phoenicians) and “them” (the Arab nationalists).

In establishing national movements to secure independence, Lebanon […] underwent a territorial and political transformation through the escalation of community divides

Phoenicianism existed in stark contrast to the traditional ‘qawmi’ Arabist ideology that permeated the Middle East until alternative forms of nationalism began to take hold across the region in the 20th century. ‘Qawmism’ is the belief that there is a single organic Arab nation and state borders are hindrances to the creation of a single Arab nation. Thus, Phoenicianism would inevitably spark controversy and opposition in its pursuit to establish a Lebanese state that existed outside of the traditionally Arab status of the Middle East and instead celebrated an ancient civilisation. Rashid Rida was a Muslim from Qalamun and criticised Phoenicianism prior to the ideology’s sole connection with the Lebanese national movement, condemning notions of non-Arab identity in Syria and Lebanon. According to Rida, the Lebanese quest to depart from their Arabism is a quest to depart from the Arab umma, demonstrating the divide between the Arab ‘qawmi’ and the Phoenician desire to establish an independent Lebanese state. Rida opposed the establishment of a Christian state in Lebanon, viewing Lebanese nationalism as an obstacle to his struggle for the establishment of Greater Syria as an Arab-Islamic state. Rida’s staunch Arabism was such that he synonymised the Phoenician Lebanese independence movement with colonial schemes, asserting that France was to blame for promoting a pro-minority policy by encouraging the Christian denominations in the Levant to possess a separate and falsified national identity with a distinct national narrative.  To compete with the historical precedents of Phoenicianism, Rida constructed a historical narrative for Arabs as a nation more ancient than the Phoenicians, inhabiting the land before the civilisations of Phoenicia and Egypt. In establishing national movements to secure independence, Lebanon, and by extension the Middle East, underwent a territorial and political transformation through the escalation of community divides by way of nationalism.

The most significant adversary to the Phoenician movement in Lebanon was the Sunni Community, further exemplifying the impact of nationalism in eliciting conflict in the Middle East. The writings of politician Muhammad Jamil Bayhum typify the arguments against the non-Arab identity of Lebanon propagated by the Muslim Lebanese. Even prior to independence throughout the Mandate years, Bayhum was a staunch supporter of Arab unity and a devoted opponent to the French mandate, opposing the Phoenician idea from all perspectives: as an Arab, as a Muslim and as a Lebanese. Bayhum viewed all modern separatist movements in the Arab world as modern propagations of Shu’ubiyyat, which took on a derogatory meaning to denote a non-Arab who rejected Arab pride and embraced sepatist groups within the Middle East. As with Rida, Bayhum viewed modern Shu’ubiyyat as an extension of Western imperialism that sought to re-assert the colonial process through subtle division and confusion in the Arab world. According to Bayhum, Lebanese Christian nationalism was a reassertion of French colonial endeavours rather than an action of self-determination. Bayhum’s rejection of the Phoenician movement and his staunch support for Arabism is a product of his generational status; Bayhum had witnessed the fall of the Ottoman system and fought against the separatist tendencies of Lebanon. His rejection to Lebanese nationalism and Phoenician heritage is rooted in a ‘Qawmi’ desire, thus demonstrating the ideological divide that existed in the 20th century Middle Eastern in the quest for statehood. The growth of an alternative form of nationalism that rejected Arabism and embraced the individual history of Lebanon was a challenge to the nationalist status-quo, indicative of the transformative consequences of nationalist tendencies across the Middle East during the 20th century.

Nationalism during the 20th century cannot be ascribed to one explanation, but rather as a sociological, economic and political reaction to changing leadership and as an extension of ideological and political modernisation across the Middle East. Thus, as nationalism of all sources came to define the political and territorial paradigm of the 20th century in the Middle East, alternative forms of nationalism arose to reshape the traditional nationalistic perspective that previously dominated Middle Eastern nationalist rhetoric. Lebanon in particular demonstrates the influence of nationalism in creating dialogue and debate concerning community identity and dividing allegiances, between commitment to the country and to the greater Arab nation. Through exploring the genesis and progression of Phoenicianism within Lebanon, the impact of nationalism during the 20th century is made evident.

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