(AINA) -- Following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, Assyrians, including Chaldeans and Syriacs, have found themselves in the bitterly ironic position of having to defend the integrity of their identity against an erroneous association with the Arab identity by both misinformed Americans and a persistent fundamentalist Arabist ideology transplanted from the Middle East.
The horrific attacks against New York and Washington served as a painful reminder to Assyrians of the numerous massacres and genocides they have endured throughout the centuries. Assyrians throughout the U.S. lined up to donate blood and assistance to the victims of the attacks. Assyrian organizations officially and unequivocally condemned the attacks (AINA, 9-17-2001) and denounced the loss of life. Still, though, Assyrians have found themselves as victims of hate crimes presumably because of their Middle Eastern background and a mistaken identification with Arabs. Most notable of the hate crimes was the burning of St. John's Assyrian Church in Chicago on September 23rd, in a suspected arson attack (Chicago Tribune, 1, 2). Although no injuries were suffered in the early morning attack, over $200,000 damage was sustained. In a second incident, St. Mary's Assyrian Church of Roselle, Illinois, just outside of Chicago, received a thinly veiled threat in the form of a letter asking "Are you with the U.S. or with the enemy? Other Assyrian individuals and businesses have received threats as well.
Assyrians are not Arabs. Assyrians, including Chaldeans and Syriacs, are the indigenous Christian people of Mesopotamia and have a history, spanning seven thousand years, that predates the Arab conquest of the region (history of Assyrians). Assyrian civilization at one time incorporated the entire Middle East, most notably the area of the Fertile Crescent. The heartland of Assyria lies in present day northern Iraq, southeast Turkey, northeast Syria, and northwest Iran. Till today, significant indigenous populations of Assyrians reside in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Iran and Lebanon. Assyrians embraced Christianity in the first century A.D. and continued to do so throughout the Arab Muslim conquest. Assyrians are a Semitic people and speak Modern Assyrian, which some scholars refer to as neo-Syriac or neo-Aramaic. The parent language of Modern Assyrian, Aramaic, the language of Christ, was made the second official language of the Assyrian state in 752 B.C. and remained the lingua franca of the Middle East until 900 A.D.
Today, the Assyrian presence in the Middle East is under immense pressure. In the past 30 years, Assyrians have fled from their native lands in record numbers with more than 1.5 million having emigrated to over 30 different countries, mostly in the West. The predominant reason for this flight is because of Assyrian religious and ethnic distinctiveness vis-a-vis their Arab, Persian, Turkish or Kurdish neighbors. Because of these differences, Assyrians are severely discriminated against and are denied basic civil, human, and political rights. In most Middle Eastern countries, Assyrians are not even recognized as a people. In Turkey, Iraq, and Syria Assyrians are officially recognized only as a religious minority, either as "Turkish" or "Arab Christians." Even in the so-called UN protected "Safe Haven" of northern Iraq, Assyrians are referred to as "Christian Kurds."1 In Iran, Assyrians have recently been semi-officially recognized as a people but only after more than 90% have emigrated over the past 30 years.
Having fled their native lands to escape these hardships and to live freely, Assyrians now find themselves in the unenviable position of having to defend their identity in the West not only from a misinformed American backlash, but also from the same fundamentalist Arabist ideology that drove them from the Middle East. In the U.S., the Arab American Institute (AAI) has continued the Arabist policy of denying Assyrian identity and claiming that Assyrians, including Chaldeans and Syriacs, are Arab Christian minorities -- despite angry community protests. In the October 1 issue of Time magazine, AAI was cited as the source for statistics that stated the "majority of Arab Americans are Christians" and that these include "Antiochian, Syrian, Greek, Coptic, Chaldean, and Assyrian Rites." The AAI's perpetuation of Arabist ideology represents an egregious, wilful, and deliberate mischaracterization of Assyrian identity.
The official AAI website does not show Chaldean and Assyrian Rite as Arab, as reported by Time. AINA contacted AAI for clarification, and was informed that AAI had only recently changed this because of protests from Assyrians.
Perhaps the most infamous example of the hijacking of an identity is that of Khalil Gibran, the famous Lebanese writer, author of The Prophet.. The American Arab Anti Discrimination Committee (ADC) has a web page dedicated to the ethnically Assyrian/Syriac, and religiously Roman Catholic, poet and writer. Khalil Gibran never stated that he was an Arab, and in his biography he is referred to as the "little Assyrian boy".2 Yet, ADC takes great pains to identify Gibran as an "Arab", ignoring his self-identification and his real ethnicity. The American Maronite Union sent a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell addressing this very same issue.3
In fact, the distinctiveness of Assyrians, including Chaldeans and Syriacs, from Arabs was most clearly and succinctly expressed in the 2000 U. S. Census where Assyrians of all types, irrespective of their self-identification, asked to be categorized as one people in the Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac category -- notably separate from the Arab category. In a letter to their parishioners, Mar Clemis E. Kaplan, Archbishop of the Western U.S., and Mar Cyril Aphrem Karim, Archbishop of the Eastern U.S., of the Syriac Orthodox Church in America, actually urged their members to "...register as 'SYRIAC' with a 'C' and NOT with an 'N', because to the U.S. Government the word 'Syrian' means Syrian Arab and not Syriac (Suryoyo)". The Archbishops also requested "...all Syriac speaking communities in the U.S. to register as 'SYRIAC' under the combined category of 'Syriac Speaking People' (Syriac/Chaldean/Assyrian)". Even the Syriac Maronites instructed their members to support the Assyrian/ Chaldean/Syriac category as an expression of oneness and to avoid being tabulated as Arabs.
The practical ramifications of the Arabist desire to usurp Assyrian identity are by no means trivial. By counting Assyrians, including Chaldeans and Syriacs, as Arabs, Arabist groups such as the AAI attempt to enhance their demographic and, by extension, political clout in the U.S. This enhanced Arab political clout may then be used to further an agenda that is at best alien and sometimes outright hostile to Assyrian self-awareness and aspirations. Arab American demographic claims illegitimately bolstered by Assyrian numbers may also be used to vie for grants, financial assistance, and services otherwise destined for the Assyrian community to instead further Arab cultural, linguistic, social welfare, and nationalist goals.
Assyrians wish to live in peace and harmony with their neighbors, and to be allowed to preserve and practice their way of life. The flight to the West has brought some measure of this hope, but Assyrians find that they are still targets of attacks on their identity, awareness, and way of life. Now, with the heightened tensions brought about by the September 11 tragedies, Assyrians are on double alert, having to fend off not only Middle Eastern regimes and their American based ideologues, but also misinformed Americans who confuse them for Arabs.
1 See here for an example of Kurdish revisionism, where Assyrians are called "Kurdish Christians", and this is applied retroactively to the Assyrian Kingdoms of Adiabene and Karkhu b't Salukh (Kirkuk), when there were no Kurds there at the time in question (Kurds appeared in North Iraq circa 1100 A.D.).
2 Kahlil Gibran, His Life and World; Jean and Kahilil Gibran; New York Graphic Society, 1974.
3 For another example of the Arabization of non-Arabs, see the article at Arab Media, where most of the persons listed are not Arabs; for example, William Peter Blatty is an Assyrian, and most of the others mentioned are Maronites.