MODERN HISTORY AND POLITICS-Artillery of Fire: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East

Article excerpt

MODERN HISTORY AND POLITICS Artillery of Fire: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East, by Ussama Makdisi. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008. 262 pages. Illust. $35.

Reviewed by Heather J. Sharkey

Lucid and elegantly written, Ussama Makdisi's Artillery of Heaven accomplishes two big things. First, while examining 19thcentury American missionary encounters in the Arab Ottoman territories, it presents a model for a new kind of transnational history that sheds light on American engagement with the world. Second, and at a time when much of the Arab past has been "effectively demarcated as a forbidden no-man's land" because of fear of what "divisive narratives" of the past may dredge up (p. 219), it scrutinizes the raw history of the "multireligious world" in the Ottoman region that is now Lebanon.

The tragic experiences of As'ad Shidyaq (1798-1830) tie the book together. The first convert from Maronite Catholicism to evangelical Protestantism in Mount Lebanon, As'ad Shidyaq died in isolation, imprisoned and tortured by Maronite ecclesiastical authorities who feared that his rejection of church tradition (and by implication, of local power hierarchies) threatened the social order. His death testified to the inability of Maronite authorities to tolerate dissent. But his death also illuminated the ignorance of American missionaries, who converted him without having the power to protect him, and who "ignore[d] some of the most basic stipulations of religious discretion" (p. 88) as they meandered through the region. In some ways As'ad Shidyaq's life anticipated "a more modern Ottoman age that had not yet dawned," an age calling for "a new kind of freedom of conscience" as well as for a new ability to "dissent publicly [and] to privilege individual experience over community or rank" (p. 137).

Makdisi argues that American missionary overtures in Mount Lebanon after 1822 evolved out of very particular American experiences and attitudes that were built on encounters with . and often displacements and massacres of . Native Americans. He argues, too, that missionary efforts in Mount Lebanon constituted "a foundational encounter between Americans and Arabs" that was built on American misunderstandings of Ottoman hierarchies, in which social class and pedigree were often more important, in practice, than religious affiliation. Convinced that Ottoman and Islamic societies were violent, "segregated by religion and race, and unable to modernize of [their] own accord" (p. 170), American missionaries persisted in maintaining that the United States "constituted an unproblematic land of liberty" (p. 178). In reality, for the American evangelicals in Mount Lebanon, "The possibility of changing the world, a theme so evident in postrevolutionary American mission work, emanated from an experience of having imperfectly changed America" (p. …