Some Palestinian Christian leaders deny any type of sectarian discrimination whenever the issue of religious discrimination in Palestine comes up. Those Christians who are oftentimes affiliated with Arab nationalism are quick to label whoever dares to speak about this an “Orientalist,” “Muslim bigot,” or “Islamophobe.” In their view, the discrimination against Palestinian Christians exists only in light of Western imperialism: the West fabricated it to support colonial interests. So was there never any religious sectarianism within Palestinian society, and is sectarianism a result of Western imperialism? The diaries of the early-twentieth-century Christian Palestinian educator Khalil Sakakini tells a different story.

Khalil Sakakini (1887 – 1953)

A Palestinian Christian educator, Sakakini advocated for Arab nationalism and secularism in Palestine and elsewhere in the Arab world, and the Ottomans arrested him for this. Believing that national education would raise the Arab nation, he established several schools in Jerusalem in the twentieth century and spent his life educating others. He also opposed Zionism and, as an Arab nationalist, did not distinguish between a Muslim Arab or a Christian Arab. He published many political articles and wrote more than 12 books on the Arabic language. But despite all of that, his fellow Palestinians who were Muslim targeted him because he was Christian, as he mentions in his diaries, which his daughter Hala Sakakini first published in 1953, titled Hakaza ana Ya Donia (This is How I am, Oh World).

Palestinian Christians and the Dream of a Secular Arab State

On January 10, 1919, three Palestinian leaders visited Khalil Sakakini at his house in Jerusalem, wishing to hear his perspective on the political situation and his strategy for the Palestinian Arab cause. Sakakini suggested that they should send a delegation of Arabs to travel around Europe and present the “Palestinian cause,” and learn foreign countries’ stances on the issue of Palestine. He thought they should get King Faisal to represent the Palestinians. However, in Sakakini’s words, some Levantine Muslims would object because the king is from “Alhijaz” (in western Saudi Arabia), and some Christians may oppose because they believed that he started the revolution as a Muslim prince. Nonetheless, Sakakini refused both of the objections, saying that King Faisal presented himself as an Arab first and he worked for the Arab nation as a whole.

This and other conversations between the educator and Palestinian leaders of his time offer a window into what Palestinian Christians thought of Palestine and Arab nationalism. They believed that there was no place for distinguishing between Arabs, whether they were Muslims or Christians. Such a secular nationalist thinking had been dominant among Christian Arab intellectuals during the twentieth century. They rejected the Ottoman “dhimmi” status for Christians and longed for an Arab nationalism that would grant equal citizenship to Christians and Muslims.

But supporting an Arab national state did not erase sectarianism, even though Palestinian Christians who enthusiastically supported Arab nationalism denied that sectarianism existed in their society. They believed that offering their silence at the altar of nationalism made their case for a secular nationalism stronger. However, Khalil Sakakini’s diaries show how a twentieth-century Palestinian Arab nationalist leader saw sectarianism affecting Arab Christians in Palestine.

Sakakini wrote that, during the First World War, the Ottomans used Islamic propaganda to inflame Muslims in Jerusalem against “the Christian enemies”: Russia, France, and Britain. However, Sakakini observed that Muslim sectarianism did not just target Westerners. Some Muslims threatened to slaughter and expel Arab Christian women and children from the country. He saw this phenomenon and inferred Muslims had such conversations in their homes. So Sakakini’s observations show that Islamic sectarianism existed even before the British Mandate, which rules out the popular idea that Western imperialism and Zionism are the sole sources of sectarianism in Palestine.

Although Sakakini opposed the Greek Orthodox Church—claiming “I am not Orthodox” because of his nationalism, and rejecting Greek dominance of the Church— Muslim sectarians still viewed him as a Christian. Fesal Darag, who wrote a book about Sakakini’s life, comments that despite his furious preaching against the Balfour Declaration, sectarian mobs still harassed him during Christian holidays. Due to the pressure he faced in Jerusalem, Sakakini thought about fleeing to America.

In spite of all that, Sakakini never ceased to believe in the dream of a national pan-Arab state and worked to accomplish that goal through education and advocacy.

Like Khalil Sakakini in the twentieth century, a lot of Palestinian leaders today are strong supporters of secular Arab nationalism. Perhaps the only difference is that they no longer believe that a pan-Arab state is a feasible option, as Sakakini thought. They still are, however, supporters of a secular Palestine. Nevertheless, I wonder if, like Sakakini, they are really aware of the sectarianism Christians face today in Palestinian society. I hope that while dreaming of a state of our own, we should start to address this issue, which has existed in our society for centuries. It is better to address these issues now than remember them only after we become like our neighboring countries. Let us learn from history. We have to be clear that silence did not offer us anything in this past, and keeping this silence will not offer us anything either—not now, nor in the future.