Rayyan Al-Shawaf

A Fateful Clash

American missionaries in the Levant.

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Indeed, Bustani's ideas put him at loggerheads with most American missionaries, his erstwhile teachers. Not only did he criticize them in writing both for their condescending attitudes toward natives and their narrowly focused schools, but he established his own school, which turned out to be entirely unique, and which the missionaries attempted to undermine. In 1863, Bustani inaugurated the "National School," which taught secular subjects and offered separate religious courses for students of different religions, but which also focused on inculcating in its charges a sense of secular (Ottoman) patriotism and playing down religious differences through an emphasis on moderation. This, explains Makdisi, in a time when "[s]elf-consciously Muslim reformers and the Maronite, Greek Catholic, and Orthodox churches could only propose modern projects that affirmed religious difference, and hence opened parochial schools to rival those of the missionaries but not, in any secular sense, to supersede them."

Aside from a gentle but repeated implication that melding American and Arab views is admirable by mere virtue of being a bridge-building enterprise, a rather idealistic notion to which Makdisi apparently adheres over and above the sometimes fruitful intellectual outcome of such a venture, his treatment of Bustani suffers from only one partial oversight. Makdisi does not quite give Western imperial pressure on the Ottoman Empire its due, especially when it comes to the issue of Ottoman social reform. To be sure, he acknowledges the extent to which Bustani benefited from a serendipitous confluence of historical events—principally the two broad currents of Western missionary activity and Ottoman modernization—that created new cultural spaces for Ottoman subjects. Unlike Shidyaq, Bustani did not have to worry about persecution by the Maronite Church, for in 1850 Protestants were accorded official status in the Empire. And unlike earlier converts, he was not treated with suspicion by the Ottoman authorities, who honored him for his educational work, which they saw—correctly but somewhat simplistically—as promoting Ottoman patriotism. But Ottoman modernization and reform—particularly as embodied in the Tanzimat, a series of legal and other measures beginning with a decree in 1839 paving the way for full equality between Muslims and non-Muslims, and leading up to the Empire's (short-lived) transformation into a constitutional monarchy in 1876—were undertaken both at the behest of encroaching Western powers and in reaction to their encroachment.

Indeed, Western imperial pressure played a major role in prompting the Sublime Porte to emancipate recognized religious minorities and accord recognition to new minorities, such as Protestants, which had been created by Western missionaries. (The Hatt-i Hümayun of 1856, proclaiming the equality of Ottoman subjects irrespective of religious creed, was extracted from the sultan by the British and French in return for their having helped the Ottomans defeat the Russians in the Crimean war of 1853-1856.) This newfound emphasis on religious equality, in turn, created a space through which Bustani ensured that what would otherwise have remained a conversation between Christians—or, even more restrictively, members of the tiny Protestant community—became a much wider intellectual and even social project. Without Western pressure (which at times assumed the form of direct intervention), these developments would not have been possible, and Bustani, far from being honored by the Ottoman Empire, would have been at best marginalized and at worst persecuted.

Fortunately, unlike Bustani's treatment of Shidyaq, which is original in many ways but which Makdisi acknowledges is hagiographic, Makdisi conjures a nuanced picture of his subject. He points out that Bustani adopted the missionaries' designations of certain peoples as civilized and others as barbaric (situating the "Syrians" in between) but notes that, "for Bustani, such descriptions were literary devices to help clarify an Arab predicament, not discourses rooted in the experience and practice of racial discrimination and domination." And he admits that Bustani espoused the missionaries' somewhat patronizing view of women and their role, but reminds readers that Bustani's ideas regarding women's education were nevertheless pioneering, and predated the work of Egyptian (male Muslim) feminist Qasim Amin on the subject by half a century.

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