Ussama Makdisi. Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007. 280 S. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8014-4621-4.
Reviewed by Hans-Lukas Kieser
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (October, 2010)
U. Makdisi: Artillery of Heaven
Was the Libanese As‘ad Shidyaq's torture and death in Maronite custody in 1830 a significant martyrdom of a Protestant convert, or the sad end of an obstinate heretic, or – in scholarly retrospective – an early “stunning defeat” (p. 12) of a comprehensively “failed conversion of the Middle East” by US missionaries, a self-proclaimed “artillery of heaven”, as Ussama Makdisi suggests?
Makdisi, Professor of History at Rice University (Houston) and himself of Lebanese Protestant descent, attempts “to traverse what has become […] a chasm of misunderstanding that separates Americans from Arabs.” Ussama Makdisi retrospectively in his most recent book that continues to elaborate the same topic: Faith Misplaced. The Broken Promise of US-Arab Relations, 1820–2001, New York 2010, p. 14. After decades of quasi-analphabetism in Western social sciences with regard to religion, Makdisi represents a younger generation of scholars sensitive to the significance of religion and faith in modern history. In Part I of his insightful book, he juxtaposes the worlds of American Puritanism and of an Arab Maronite orthodoxy submissive to the Ottoman sultan and the Pope. In the center of their “cultural clash” (p. 5) in the late Ottoman world he places the story of Shidyaq in Part II. In Part III he analyses what he considers to be significantly different versions of this story as told in the late 19th century by American missionaries and a contemporary Maronite convert, Butrus al-Bustani (1819–1883). In a culmination of his narrative, Makdisi emphasizes al-Bustani as a unique representative of a “locally rooted ecumenical humanism and a secularized evangelical sensibility” (p. 187).
An editor of an Arabic encyclopaedia dedicated to the Ottoman sultan, and founder of an Arab “National School”, al-Bustani was a seminal advocate of an Arab renaissance. One would like to know more about Muslim Arab participation in his projects, however. Makdisi calls him “an apostel for an ecumenical humanism”, “an embodiment of the Tanzimat” (the Ottoman reform period) and “an exemplary liberal product of the commingling of American and Arab histories” (pp. 13, 211 and 215). Al-Bustani had been an employee in the ABCFM (American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission) in Beirut; had translated the Bible from the original languages, which the missionaries taught; and participated in a new association, namely the “Syrian Society of Arts and Sciences”, again presided by missionaries. Reflecting on Shidyaq's story al-Bustani concluded “divine freedom” to be that what the martyr had achieved in spite of everything, “a freedom that has descended from above, granted to humanity […] and solidly sealed by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ” (pp. 200f.). Makdisi is rather elliptical about al-Bustanis belief that tied him to transnational Protestantism and gave his understanding of Shidyaq a common ground, despite the underlined different horizons.
There are reservations. Artillery of Heaven does not contextualize the American mission as part of an informal “Protestant International” already present on Ottoman ground when the first Americans arrived. The notions, networks and goals of this International, however, shaped the early ABCFM on the ground as much as peculiar US-American experiences. Millennialism was not just an enthusiasm or a “fantasy” (p. 12) of the first generation of missionaries, but a constantly readapted “ideology” and vision of history peculiar to this modern missionary International. With regard to the Levant it evolved from Restorationism (“restoration of the Jews to Palestine and to Jesus”) to Oriental Christians-centered Tanzimat Ottomanism (of which al-Bustani was a representative), revised in 1908, and finally and shortly, after 1917, Wilsonianism. For a sustained argument, see Hans-Lukas Kieser, Nearest East. American Millennialism and Mission to the Middle East, Philadelphia 2010, pp. 34–97. The ABCFM's main effort in the Ottoman Empire after 1830 concerned Asia Minor, not Syria, and did not take place in the metropoles, but in the countryside, far away from European cannons.
Makdisi demonstrates how instructive the Libanese example is, but tends to over-generalize it. The encounter of the ABCFM members for example with Alevis in Asia Minor, a much more numerous group than the Maronites, shows a lot of curiosity to learn on their part, even spiritually – not a “metaphorical war of annihilation with a foreign world” (p. 71). One may also mention Dwight and Smith's preparatory Researches in Armenia of 1833, a seminal systematic piece of ethnographic curiosity; or the Redhouse Ottoman dictionary, still the first choice of scholars today: a significant by-product of as much missionary immersion as intrusion.
Some conflicts were not specifically American-Arab. In principle the Gospel thoroughly challenged status, race and religious patterns. The president of the Syrian Protestant College (SPC) declared in 1871 the College to be “for all men without regard to colour, nationality, race, or religion”; everybody could enter it, “and go out believing in one God, in many Gods, or in no God” (pp. 209–211). This declaration of, indeed, ecumenical humanism did nevertheless not supersede, generally, a Calvinist expectation of Paul-like conversion, unfortunately combined, since the late 19th century, with a generalized feeling of superiority in terms of civilization and race – at the cost of patience toward the Ottoman other; of cognizance of his own rhythm of history and life; and of the space realistically needed to develop, beyond Anglo-American and Protestant dynamics, own creative reactions to an intriguing input.
With good reasons therefore Makdisi emphasizes the issue of race as well as previous traumatic experiences of a failed mission and fair coexistence with the American Indians – failures, I may add, the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica declared to be “due only to the racial traits of the New England tribes.” Despite a gospel proclaiming liberal values and the unity of humanity, the spell of race fatally underlays the modern Anglo-American world, its global dynamics and its encounter with the Ottoman world. Though marked by and using these dynamics, and tributary to “triumphal religiosity” (p. 208), most American missionaries resisted however the Social Darwinism virulent among new élites in the East and West. In contrast to other foreigners they did not spare their own life for the Ottoman others in critical situations of war and epidemic. Despite, and at times because, of their provocative, nonconformist approaches, they left, all in all, a highly positive American symbolic capital that dwindled only with the US power politics in the Middle East after the middle of the 20th century.
Shaped by a feeling of millennial dawn of the early 19th century, the Boston based ABCFM aspired to something more ambitious than the “conversion of the Middle East”: a post-ecclesiastical millennial age of peace and parousia to be ushered in the “Bible lands” – a vertiginous hope whose secularly millennialist counterpart in contemporary Europe was the Socialist International's “classless society” that should end human alienation. Nothing put the missionaries' utopia more into question than the 1915 genocide of the Armenians, the ABCFM's main clientele in the Ottoman Empire. In contrast to their martyrology after Shidyaq's disturbing death, this time they kept largely silent and left open poignant questions of theodicy and missiology.
Makdisi emphasizes the new, liberal “modern missionary” reconciled “to an ecumenical reality” (p. 215) which SPC President Howard Bliss brilliantly proclaimed in 1920. But Bliss did not address the recent trauma that implied, in fact, the end of the American missionaries' self-reliant millennialism that was largely independent of the State. In the same year the SPC was renamed American University of Beirut; it gradually evacuated religion from its curriculum and campus life – and even more so when after 1967 religion became a hotter topic than ever in the modern Middle East.
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Hans-Lukas Kieser. Review of Makdisi, Ussama, Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East.
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