American Evangelicals in Egypt: Missionary Encounters in an Age of Empire.
Heather Sharkey has written a masterful book that--along with a handful of recent monographs by scholars like Beth Baron, Ussama Makdisi and Paul Sedra--effectively reshapes how we understand the history of Western missions in the Middle East. Moving beyond the staid bipolarity of missionaries as imperial agents (as construed by nationalist narratives) or as saviors and civilizers (as portrayed in their own hagiographies) Sharkey has mined rich sources (from missionary and Egyptian archives) to provide a far more nuanced and compelling story of American missionaries in Egypt from 1845 to 1967. In the process she delineates several important theses.
First, and most obviously, despite their small numbers and even more miniscule successful conversions missionaries had a dramatic impact on Egypt. They acted as catalysts for the internal transformation of the Egyptian Coptic church; they energized a countervailing modernizing Islamic socioreligious movements; they pushed forth and greatly advanced a secular educational model; and they helped shape the Egyptian nationalist movement. Yet, in Sharkey's telling missionaries are hardly the omnipotent and omniscient characters of earlier narratives who single-handedly transform whole societies in one fell swoop. Rather, Sharkey argues that their influence was mitigated and negotiated by local individuals and groups with whom they interacted. In other words, their impact was more a product of interplay between their missionary and cultural visions and suppositions and the realities they encountered on the ground. Not least of these is the simple fact that missionaries were hardly able to convert any Egyptians--a reality that frustrated them to no end, and magnified their antagonism toward Islam and its institutions. While missionaries were important historical actors within Middle Eastern history, Sharkey convincingly argues that the experiences of missionaries in Egypt were equally instrumental in reshaping America (and its views of the Middle East). The letters, reports, journal articles, speaking tours and fund-raising tours were means through which missionaries interwove their constructions of the Middle East into the narrative of American evangelical Christianity and America itself. Fourth, Sharkey asks us to take seriously that faith--an amalgam of intangibles--is still central to human history despite the attempts by modernity to replace it with an absolute--and thus impossible--rationalism. For far too long, historians have far too easily dismissed religious sentiments as irrelevant to (or at least unfathomable in) understanding historical changes. Instead, Sharkey contends that missionary history is not only about the spread of Christianity and personal conversions, but rather it sits at the focal point of cultural, political and social histories and is central to understanding both American and Middle Eastern historians.
In fleshing out her arguments across five chapters, Sharkey provides a chronological history of the Presbyterian missionaries in Egypt (with some welcome allusions to other missionaries particularly Catholics). She begins her exploration of this history by looking at the years 1854 to 1882, and the relationship between the Coptic Church in Egypt and the newly arrived American Presbyterian missionaries. Thus, she contends that the introduction of print technology and culture was in part the animating force behind the nineteenth-century "Coptic Enlightenment." Moreover, the democratic nature of the presbyterial structure was a model for the Coptic Majlis al-Milli which gave lay people a role in church affairs, and the philanthropic bent of missionary work helped set the foundation for the Coptic Church's social welfare programs. In the subsequent chapter, Sharkey examines the rise of a far more confident American missionary movement in Egypt. Between 1882 and World War I, American missionaries shifted their focus from proselytizing among Copts to converting Muslims. The aim of "the evangelization of the world in this generation" prompted three conferences (Cairo 1906, Edinburgh 1910 and Lucknow 1911) wherein various Christian organizations sought to create an ecumenical mission to Muslims whose practical manifestations involved establishing an Arabic language school and the publication of Christian literatures targeting Muslims. This new aggressive approach--which included attacks on Islam as a retrograde and fanatical religion--brought about a backlash on the part of Muslim activists who construed missionaries as part of an imperial plot to destroy Islam. This set in place a Manichean narrative of a struggle between the two largest world monotheistic faiths that mirrored that of the Christian missionaries themselves.
World War I brought an end the heady years of the Presbyterian mission in Egypt. This "Christian civil war" combined with the quick rise of Egyptian secular and Muslim anti-imperial movements and sentiments to severely diminish the scope, funding, and impact of the missionaries. In chapter 4, Sharkey details the rising activism of al-Azhar faculty and students (culminating in the 1926 Caliphate Conference), the founding of the Society of Muslim Youth, and most importantly the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood. All these movements borrowed the tactics and goals of Christian groups like the YMCA and effectively acted as a countervailing force in Egypt to the Presbyterians. In addition to the rise of Muslim activists the numerical growth and organizational maturity of indigenous evangelical pastors also curtailed the latitude of the missionaries. Ultimately, the over-reaching and antagonizing zealousness of missionaries like Zwemer, the scandals which rocked some Christian orphanages, financial woes as well as a cultural shift among Presbyterians in America toward a more relativist type of Christianity forced a change in the Presbyterian mission in Egypt toward standing as Christian witnesses instead of active proselytism. It is within this context that Sharkey elucidates the history of the American University of Cairo as the crowning achievement of the Presbyterian mission and a testament to the failure of its original goals of conversion en masse to Christianity.
The final chapter in American Evangelicals in Egypt tells of the twilight of the Presbyterian mission in Egypt. The nationalist fervor after World War II, the 1952 revolution, the 1956 Suez Crisis and the 1967 war progressively constrained the missionaries from their work, and ultimately led to their departure and closure of the mission. The anti-American sentiment that the 1967 war generated (because of perceived American complicity with, and support for, Israel) made the relations between the Egyptian Evangelical Church and the American missionaries all the more difficult. With that the last Americans to leave Egypt was Miss Ellen Van Dyck the eighty-two-year-old granddaughter of one of the earliest American missionaries, Cornelius Van Dyck.
On this ironic--and somewhat sad--note Professor Sharkey concludes her history of the American missionary movement in Egypt. Throughout the narrative she coupled her painstaking research with a nuanced reading which maintains the humanity (with the concomitant foibles and strengths) of all the actors in this drama that spans a century and an ocean. Her rendition of this story resuscitates the tales of the missionary as an essential part of the relationship between America and the Middle East, and provides historical explanation and precedent for its inherent difficulties and successes. As such, I would strongly recommend her book to those scholars and general public interested in the history of Christianity and missionaries, American foreign relations as well as the history of Egypt.
Akram F. Khater
North Carolina State University
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|Author:||Khater, Akram F.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2011|
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