Jesuits, Jews, and Franco-Maronites: La Mission Civilisatrice in Ottoman Lebanon

By Edward Falk
Submitted to Session P2697 (National Identities in Transition, 2011 Annual Meeting
Lebanon; Ottoman Empire; Syria;
19th-21st Centuries; Colonialism; Education; Identity/Representation; Ottoman Studies;
In decades after 1860, education was a principal area of conflict and negotiation in Ottoman Syria and Lebanon. Ottoman Arab youth were themselves the battleground, prize, and frequently the soldiers in a conflict between Anglo-American Protestants and predominately French Catholic missionaries, which the French state interpreted through a lens of the Eastern Question and its rivalry with the British. Despite expelling the Jesuits from France, successive republican French governments gave funding and exercised political influence on behalf of the formerly-banished order in exchange for using its network of schools to teach French and promote French cultural norms in the Levant.
Examining the French Jesuits and the French-International Alliance israélite universelle’s work in Syria and Lebanon, I will argue that despite teaching French, the mission civilisatrice of the Catholic missionaries was fundamentally religious, not cultural, whereas the French Jewish organization sought to introduce their Ottoman coreligionists to French ideals of modernity, citizenship, and civilization. Together these organizations were not quite the storm troopers of colonialism in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, as some would have them, but non-state actors whose relationships to their host and funding states were constantly being reevaluated and renegotiated.
Though the French would not establish a permanent political entity in the Levant until after the First World War, the years after 1860 saw a rise in proposals from the Catholic-Royalist French right to destabilize, invade, or occupy the region on a permanent basis, and the governmental and non-governmental officials proposing these plans for Franco-Christian rule frequently saw the missionary schools and their instruction of French as the first step in any political mission.
Whether intentional or not, the result of these missions was the deepening of lines of sectarian religious identity, supplanting those of class and region. The Jesuits succeeded in their stated goal of filling the halls of government with a generation of Jesuit-educated, Franco-Christian Lebanese, who would shape the orientation of their communities and the state during the mandate period and after independence.