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Faith Misplaced

Evangelical missionaries were once leaders in creating a positive image of the US in the Arab world.

By / July 19, 2010

Faith Misplaced: The Broken Promise of US-Arab Relations: 1820-2001 By Ussama Makdisi PublicAffairs 432 pp., $28.95

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It is hard today to imagine a time when the United States was popular with the Arab world. It is even harder to imagine Arabs seeing American Evangelicals as a symbol of self-rule and anti-imperialism. Yet once it was so, argues Ussama Makdisi in his new book, Faith Misplaced: The Broken Promise of US-Arab Relations: 1820-2001.

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Relations began in the early 1800s, with a handful of evangelical missionaries who succeeded, despite their own naiveté and racism, in promoting the US as a land of liberty and self-determination, says Makdisi, a Lebanese-American and history professor at Rice University in Houston. Relations began to falter with the entrance of US allies Britain and France, which carved up and seized control of the Middle East. The US’s failure to criticize their imperialism harmed its image among Arab countries, although the bigger rift in US-Arab relations, Makdisi argues, would come from America’s unwavering support for Israel.

“Faith Misplaced” has already earned accusations of anti-Semitism. This is unfortunate. It is true that Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s “Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present” offers a broader view of US-Arab relations that also addresses economic ties. But while Makdisi’s narrative is lopsided – focusing on how ties to Israel undermined US-Arab relations without mentioning how Arab nations themselves have undermined relations – his well-written book offers fresh insight into the American evangelical presence in the Middle East.

When Pliny Fisk and Levi Parsons set off from Boston in 1819, the US and its citizens were little known abroad. Neither Fisk nor Parsons spoke either Arabic or Turkish. Five years later, they had yet to convert one Arab to Christianity, and Parsons was dead. Fisk established a mission in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1824, 25 years before the first American consul. Over-zealous evangelizing earned the mission animosity among locals, and by 1857 they had only converted 317 Arabs.

The mission’s breakthrough came with the 1866 establishment of the Syrian Protestant College, which was renamed the American University of Beirut in 1920. The school would liberalize and ultimately produce four Lebanese prime ministers, and today it remains a premier university in the region. (AUB provides a useful frame for Makdisi’s narrative, but he is over-reliant on comments from graduates and affiliates of the Beirut mission whose first Arab pastor happens to be Makdisi’s own maternal great-great-grandfather.)

By 1875, two former AUB students had founded two prominent Arab journals, Al-Muqtataf and Al-Hilal. By the end of World War I, “the benevolent image of America among Arabs reached its zenith” because of the influence of Americans such as AUB professor Cornelius Van Dyck, who received the imperial medal in 1890 from the Ottoman sultan, and pronouncements from Woodrow Wilson that America advocated self-determination and anticolonialism.

This was short-lived. Britain and France soon divided the Middle East for their own control, and Christian Zionists started calling for a Jewish state – eventually finding considerable support for the idea in the West.

Makdisi argues that the creation of Israel would become – and remains today – the major wedge in US-Arab relations. Makdisi provides no solutions, and he sees little hope. A year after Barack Obama’s famous Cairo speech, failure to make headway in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has again disappointed Muslims. But offering at least a hint of optimism, Makdisi highlights that Arabs hate American policy, not Americans. Once upon a time, he reminds us, they even got along quite well.

Stephen Kurczy is an international news editor at the Monitor.

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