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Rayyan Al-Shawaf


A Fateful Clash

American missionaries in the Levant.

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Fascinatingly, Makdisi shows how the missionaries during this period also began to idealize America. Their predecessors were pained by certain of the many still-fresh excesses whites had committed against Indians back home, but this newer crop of missionaries rarely recalled those events. More shockingly, they seemed oblivious to the contemporary ills of America, including continued discrimination against Indians, enslavement of blacks, and—from 1861 until 1865—an exceptionally violent civil war. For them, violence and oppression were the exclusive preserve of the Islamic Orient. The story of As'ad Shidyaq became less about Christian evangelism than about a civilizing mission, and less about Maronite Catholic than Muslim fanaticism.

Yet there is an ironic twist to this transformation, one which Makdisi fails to note, probably due to his ever-present concern with offensive missionary attitudes. He shows how, following the war of 1860, increased Western interest in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, together with a renewed sense of purpose among American missionaries, led to the establishment of American cultural and educational institutions (the Syrian Protestant College—renamed the American University of Beirut in 1920—opened in 1866). But he remains so focused on the missionaries' ethno-nationalist biases—which spawned the creation of a two-tiered Protestant community of Americans and locals, a system institutionalized in the Syrian Protestant College—that he misses the salient fact that these later missionaries, in contrast to their less bigoted predecessors, contributed tangible benefits to the community in which they lived. Unlike the early missionaries, who endeavored only to win souls, these newer missionaries opened schools that taught secular subjects and foreign languages, even if the emphasis remained on religion, and scientific theories—such as those of Darwin—were shunned. Significantly, their belief in the backwardness of the region and its people found a ready echo among many Christians and Muslims in Lebanon and beyond, who felt spurred to establish their own schools and educate members of their sects in modern subjects.

The final part of the book, in which Makdisi turns to a man who gained much from American missions in the Levant but also transcended them, is the finest. While Makdisi's earlier juxtaposition of very different American Protestant and Lebanese Maronite accounts of history, and his conception of American missionary activity in the Levant as a continuation of the effort to convert American Indians, contribute greatly to his study's historicity and at times prove ingenious, arguably the most lasting impression left on readers will be the author's insightful treatment of Butrus Bustani (1819-1883), like Shidyaq a Maronite who converted to Protestantism under the auspices of the missionaries. In Makdisi's hands, Bustani emerges as a bona-fide intellectual with a discriminating eye, a quality which led him to cull from both his American missionary tutors and his Ottoman environment those cultural and educational features he considered worth preserving, and synthesize them into a new conception of state and citizen superseding the sectarianism that caused the bloodshed of 1860. Makdisi's account is all the more significant because, in the highly politicized realm of Arabic-language historiography, Bustani is often portrayed as a proto-Arab or Syrian nationalist and subsumed within a larger ideological discourse.

Makdisi demonstrates how Bustani "first vindicated As'ad Shidyaq and advocated a liberal vision of coexistence as a modern way of life—akin to what is called 'multiculturalism' in America today." From the missionaries, Bustani adopted the idea of freedom of conscience as well as important aspects of modern education and technology. And from his Ottoman Arab environment, he embraced an uneasy history of sectarian coexistence and a more recent imperial recognition of the equality of all subjects. Crucially, Bustani felt that he was taking his cue from Shidyaq, and in his short biography of the man, he departed from American missionary themes. "The true significance of Bustani's [biography of Shidyaq]," explains Makdisi, "was therefore not its idealization of the Protestant martyr but the deliberate manner in which Bustani used the story of As'ad to evoke an unprecedented ecumenism, and later a new liberal pluralism as intolerable to American missionaries as it was to the Maronite Church."

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