Arabs or Phoenician?

Are Lebanese Maronite Christians Arab or Phoenician?

This may seem like a ridiculous question, but Lebanese history has hinged on this very issue, particularly among Lebanese Maronite Catholics.

Source: Wikipedia: Phoenicianism

Phoenicianism is a form of Lebanese nationalism, especially popular from the 1920s through the 1950s. It promotes the theory that Lebanese people are not Arabs and that the Lebanese speak a distinct language and have their own culture, separate from that of the surrounding Middle Eastern countries. Supporters of this theory of Lebanese ethnogenesis maintain that the Lebanese are descended from Phoenicians and are not Arab. Some also maintain that Lebanese Arabic is not an Arabic dialect, but has become a distinctly separate language.

Maronite Catholics were particularly fond of Phoenicianism. Still are. It was and is their justification for Lebanon as a nation separate from Syria. Sunni and Shi’a Lebanese considered themselves Muslim Arabs and viewed Phoenicianism as an imperialist lie meant to subvert a pan-Arab state.

What emerges is that Maronites – the historical core of Lebanese nationality – did not view themselves as Arab.


From the movie WEST BEIRUT: At: (0:26) the boy proclaims he is a Phoenician NOT an Arab.
In real life: This was more exclusively a Maronite attitude, but it had an effect.
The Sunnis were usually pan-Arabists. The Maronites were Western-looking “Phoenicians.”
They often detested each other. The country was inherently unstable.

So who are the Maronites?

Acts 11: 26 The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

The Maronites are the remnant of the first Christian Church in history at Antioch. This was centuries before the Muslim Arab invasions in the 7th century. The Maronites trace their roots back to the disciples.

During theological debates in the 3rd and 4th centuries, the Maronites consistently sided with the Western Churches rather than Eastern Churches, hence their affiliation with Rome.

They were driven from Antioch to the mountains of Lebanon during the Muslim invasions. They then got isolated for centuries, and were considered lost, until Crusaders, to their amazement, re-discovered them in Lebanon. The pope considered it a miracle of God that they even survived; but surviving would prove to be a major Maronite strength.

Maronite Catholics are in affiliated communion with Roman Catholicism. Maronite parish priests can be married, and the Maronites have a litugy in Syriac/Aramaic; but other than that, they are identical to Roman Catholicism in belief and practice. A Maronite in a Western country does NOT have to convert to join a Catholic Church. As far is Rome is concerned, these are Catholics of a different rite; that’s all.

Maronites were/are the most Westernized of the Arab immigrants, the easiest to assimilate, and the most moderate. From the time of the Crusaders, to the time of French intervention in the 19th century to save them from Muslims seeking to exterminate them, to today, the Maronites have looked to Western Catholicism and Western countries for inspiration, not to fellow Arabs, not even to local Orthodox Christian confessions, not even to Greek Orthodoxy. The Maronites love Lebanon; it is the nearby Arabs which bother them.

Some Maronites have diluted traces of Crusader ancestry, and many can pass for European, which suits them just fine. Fair eyes/hair, while not usual among the Maronites, is still twice as common among Maronites as among other Arabs, indicating ancient mixings with Crusaders, Greeks and Romans. If the Arab world holds the Crusaders as murderders and butchers, the Maronites viewed the Crusaders as temporary liberation from Islamic tyranny. It cemented their affiliation with Rome.

Starting in the 19th century, after Muslims slaughters1, the Maronites started migrating in massive numbers to the West: to America, to France, and particularly South America. They and the Lebanese Orthodox Christians formed the vast majority of Lebanese immigrants at that time. Only recently has this changed.

The Maronites’ horrific experiences in the 19th and 20th centuries of being slaughtered by genocidal Muslims tends to moderate the common anti-Israeli tendencies found among many Arabs, even Christian ones. Some Maronites love Israel for assisting the Christians during Lebanon’s Civil War. Some are neutral, feeling Israel was not as helpful to Maronites as portrayed. Some dislike Israel, feeling Israel’s presence aggravated Lebanon’s situation when it dumped Palestinian refugees into Lebanon in 1948. But almost all of the Maronites distrust Islam enough that Israel is at best a secondary concern to them.

Maronites, though part of the Arab world, will often deny their Arab background – an attitude I have seen in chatrooms where some Maronites can still get indignant when called Arab. Many still insist that they are Phoenicians and not Arabs. They are quick to point out that they spoke Syriac, not Arabic, until the 19th century. Their liturgy preserved their Syriac language. They boast that when their ancestors finally did adopt Arabic, it was they who standardized and saved Arabic from the decay wrought by illiterate Muslims.

The Maronites were thrilled with European intervention and welcomed French assistance in their sturggles with Muslims. Needless to say this did not endear them to their Muslim neighbors; but since the Crusades, and throughout Turkish oppressions, no love was lost between Maronite Catholics and the surrounding “Arabs.”

It was the Maronites who were the agents in the formation of Lebanon. The historical region of Mount Lebanon was their ancient home after being driven from Antioch in Syria. In Mount Lebanon, they hid in the mountains from Muslim predations for centuries.

In the 19th century, the Turks would be forced to formally set up the Mutasarrifate (administrative district) of Mount Lebanon after Europeans threatened intervention to prevent Islamic genocide of the Maronites. French troops were landed to assist the Maronites. However, the very existence of this Christian Mutasarrifate was an insult to the Muslim Ummah.

Finally, under European protection, the Maronites started to prosper. They were able to come down from the mountains to the coast. Educated by Jesuits, they soon became the dominant economic class in Beirut. The Muslims resented this.

Unlike Jewish immigration to Israel, the Maronites are not returning home. They are not invaders to the Muslim Caliphate. The Maronites had never left. It was the Muslims who had invaded on Maronite turf. This is particularly galling to the Muslims who cannot label Maronites as imperialist, as they label the Zionists.

armedmaronites.jpg
Armed Maronites – 19th century
Wikipedia: Source

But their fierce Christianity, and refusal to be submissive Christian dhimmis infuriated the surrounding Arabs and Turks, and drove the Muslims to attempted genocide of these uppity Christians more than once.

Of course, by the early 20th century, the Maronites were the most Westernized people in the Mideast. Proudly (Maronite) Catholic, often bilingual in French, and stubbornly refusing to consider themselves as Arabs, the Maronites were the fly in the ointment of pan-Arab unity.

During the French Mandate area they begged the French to set up a Greater Lebanon independent of Syria, which infuriated the Syrians, as well as the Muslims in Lebanon who wanted to be joined to Syria. Even many of the Greek Orthodox in Lebanon preferred a union with Syria. It was the Maronites who brought off Lebanese Independence almost single-handedly.

But the Maronites were stuck with a demographic timebomb of Muslims who kept increasing in population more rapidly than the better-educated Maronites, until finally the Christians were a minority in their own country. Getting stuck with hundreds of thousands of Sunni Palestinian refugees did not help – something for which many Maronites blame Israel.

The Lebanese Civil War started in 1975 when, after years of PLO abuses and murders, the Christian Kataeb forces finally retaliated with a massacre of Sunni Palestinian refugees on a bus. Of course, both sides blame each other for starting the war.

Fifteen years later, the Civil War was over, with the Christian Maronites losing. The migrations to the West became a hemmorage; and there is a good chance that ancient Christian Lebanon may soon be Christian-free. The first Church in history may be dissolved as its adherents flee West.

Centuries of abuse from Muslims, from the past up until today, have caused massive flights of Lebanese Maronites to the West. North and South America are full of Maronites. Their Catholicity enabled them to blend in well. They could always find a local church and a source of help. Their common knowledge of Western languages helped them seamlessly assimilate. Their usual relatively “whiter” appearance than most Arabs further enabled them. They drink wine and eat pork – not bound by Jewish Kosher, nor Muslim Halal food laws – so their restaurants are beloved by everyone. They can often pass as almost European, which is how they view themselves: Almost Westerners.

Millions of them are found in South America, and in Central America. Probably ten times more than are now left in Lebanon, the state they created; and which is now disintegrating after most of them have been forced to flee from a re-emerging Muslim tyranny.

But for the historian and statisticians, the Maronites/Lebanese are a nightmare. Are they Arab or are they not?

As for me, this creates a horror when I try to collect population data. Wikipedia can often list more Lebanese in a country than Arabs, which is preposterous2. What is going on is that the Maronites will sometimes refuse to label themselves as Arabs, and so the statistics can get skewed.

In the Americas, so many Lebanese (Usually Maronite Lebanese) came in that, quite often, they were listed separately from Arabs in general. In some countries – such as Australia and the USA – Maronites have petitioned to allow a separate category for the Lebanese apart from the classification of Arab in their census. An Australian Lebanese can answer “Syriac” (which is not Syrian) as his ethnicity, and refuse the classification of Arab.

For the purpose of Latin Arabia, I consider them all Arab, though I acknowledge that the Maronites are unusually Western; and have a great deal of religous and genetic differences with general Arabs. But they do speak Arabic now, play Arabic music, and eat a modified non-Halal version of Arab cuisine. I do not see how they can be held totally apart from Arabs.

One clear result of this confusion is that Arabs in South America are almost certainly under-counted due to this semi-common Lebanese Maronite practice of refusing to be labelled Arab.

I do not say all Maronites hold this attitude, but enough do that it causes havoc with statistics.

The Maronites do not care. They are wannabe Westerners; and, in the West, they have successfully pulled it off the change of identity.


Bashir Gemayel, Maronite Leader, during the Lebanese Civil War.
He later sought an alliance with Israel against Palestinian and Syrian Muslims.
This did not endear Maronites to the surrounding Arabs.

The presence of so many Lebanese Maronites in Argentina probably explains why the Arab Community in Argentina is not as radically anti-Israel as the one in Chile. The FEARAB-Argentina Website has a recurring image of a guacho, indicating their pride in assimilating into Argentina. This eagerness to embrace and be absorbed into Western culture is an almost unique Maronite trait, borne of centuries of Muslim persecutions.

The Palestinians are proud of being Arabs. The Maronites are not so sure if they even want to be Arab.


1To fully appreciate British duplicity in history, it was the British who armed the Druze (a branch of Shi’a Islam), enabling the Druze and Turks to start a genocidal slaughter. Until that point, the Maronites were winning their freedom from Islamic tyranny. All the while, the British were proclaiming themselves a Christian nation in the 19th century. The British had to relent when Europe finally got wind of the Muslim butcheries, and French troops landed. But even then the Lebanese were not given rightful Independence.

2To see this in action one need merely go to: Lebanese-Argentine, on Wikipedia which lists 1.5 Million Lebanese in Argentina …
and then go to: Arab-Argentine, which lists a spead of 1,300,000 – 3,500,000 Arab-Argentines.

How in the world could Wikipedia even entertain 1.3 Million as the low end of the spread when it lists 1.5 Million Lebanese-Argentines, who are probably only half the Argentine-Arab population?

This is preposterous. The Lebanese alone would set the low end at 1.5 Million. Realization that Syrian Orthodox Argentines are just as numerous, if not more, would fix the low end at 3.0 Million.

So how does this idiocy arise?

The Lebanese Maronites will often not self-identify as Arabs.

Actually, 3.5 to 4.0 Million Arab-Argentines is probably the more accurate spread. This is backed up by other sources, including FEARAB-Argentina.

I have found that a good rule of thumb – except for Chile – is to find the number of Lebanese and double it to account for Syrian Orthodox Christians, and then add another 10% to account for other Arabs and to get a good estimate. The Maronites and Syrian Orthodox are roughly equal, and you add in 10% for the other Arabs – except in Chile where Palestinians abound.

This tends to produce a more accurate figure; and when cross-checked will often bear out.

And it is not just in Latin America.

The Wikipedia Article for Lebanese-American lists 3.3 Million Americans with partial-Lebanese Ancestry; yet lists Arab-Americans at only 1.68 Million.

Tony Shaloub and Ralph Nader show up on both lists.

Now, how in the world can you have twice as many Lebanese-Americans as Arab-Americans?

Keep in mind the semi-common Lebanese Maronite practice of refusal to identify as Arab does cause an undercount in many cases. It is infuriating and makes analysis much harder.