Worried Lebanese

thought crumbs on lebanese and middle eastern politics

Father Zahlawi’s take on East vs West

Posted by worriedlebanese on 30/03/2010

I came across the “open letter” of Elias Zahlawi addressed to the pope a couple of days ago, and decided to react to it today on the site I found it on. Here is a reproduction of my comment.

A short critique of F. Elias al-Zahlawi’s open letter.

Thanks to Adib S. Kawar and Mary Rizzo for sharing this article with us, and for taking the time to translate it, making it available to a larger audience, one larger than the originally intended or expected from its author. It is precisely because of this widening of its audience that I believe some elements should be thrown into the discussion.

F. Elias Zahlawi’s letter belongs to a particular literary style, that of the “open letter”. This journalistic genre is typically ambivalent surrounding its addressee. It has an epistolary addressee (one that the open letter is addressed to) and an actual audience (the one that has access to the support it was published on).

It’s often quite legitimate to ask oneself to whom it was actually written. This question is crucial because the meaning of this act of communication can only be fully understood if one looks at all its actors, the active one(s) (i.e. the emitter) and the passive one(s) (i.e. the recipients). With Father Zahlawi’s “open letter”, the answer is quite easy, and one can deduce that from the style of the letter and its arguments: the letter is intended for its (Syrian and Arab) audience.

One expects a letter from a catholic priest to the Pope to bear a particular language and tone. One would also expect the text to limit itself to presenting and explaining the motivating behind this subordinate’s criticism of the Pope’s policy, acts or speeches. These elements are quickly dealt away with because F. Elias Zahlawi is not here to convince the Pope of anything. He is not publishing a letter intended to the Pope, but writing an editorial to present to his Syrian/Arab audience his adherence to a specific political stand and geopolitical vision, one that is incidentally shared by most editorials in this part of the world. This explains why the doctrinal and pastoral arguments are so extremely weak and sparse. They are completely manipulated to serve the geopolitical argument and perspective advanced by the author. This just another opinion piece, identical in many ways to many opinion papers published in the Arab press in its language, arguments and references. Its “epistolary” style is just a literary tactic that actually flatters the author (by parading a kind of bravado) and confirms his ethnic narrative: that of a binary world divided between West and East, the powerful and the powerless, the oppressors and the oppressed, the rich and the poor. In this binary world, the author faces two challenges that contradict his strict division. Two elements do not fit in the mutually exclusive categories he defends:

  1. F. Zahlawi is Christian (and Catholic), a religion identified with the West (the powerful, the oppressor, the wealthy). This is why he insists on presenting himself as an Arab priest, putting forward an ethnic identity (based on language, culture and an alleged common ancestry) and throughout his article he stresses the divide between him and the Pope who he portrays as belonging to the West, the powerful, the wealthy… So his open letter actually reinforces this divide and shows quite clearly his identity politics and the ethnic strategy he is defending (and which are expected from a person belonging to a vulnerable minority).
  2. The region faces a rather powerful and destructive force that is not “western” but Islamist. Here again, the binary divide is upset. But Father Elias Zahlawi finds a way around this. He considers Islamic groups as a creation of the west and of violence carried in the name of Islam as a reaction to the West’s policy. This re-establishes his binary divide between the West (to which he conflates Judaism and Israel) and the East (that is composed of Muslims and Christians united by their alleged Arab identity).

What is missing from this opinion paper

Well, the editorialist in black dress doesn’t really address what motivated his “open letter”, the Pope’s call for a special assembly of the Synod of Bishops on “The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness” that is to take place in October this year (from the 10 to the 24th). He doesn’t say anything about the catholic church and catholics in the Middle East. He doesn’t speak of the challenges they face or address their current plight (drop of 20% to 70% depending on the country, inertia and difficulties in the ecumenical dialogue with orthodox, protestant and non-chalcedonian churches…). He says more about the plight of American natives and Palestinians than about Oriental christians (that he actually hardly mentions). Why?

Probably because such a synod rejects the binary divisions his worldview is based on, and because he probably perceives such a synod as being divisive; It might tackle some issues in their full complexity instead of the simple terms he defends. So he answers its call with a kind of “preemptive strike” one that doesn’t really strike its opponent but comforts its supporters in their certainties.

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