- Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East
Expressed in simple terms, Ussama Makdisi's Artillery of Heaven is the story of early nineteenth-century American missionary activity among Lebanon's Maronite community, or, more specifically, the story of the individual who was their first convert to Protestantism, As'ad Shidyaq. In fact, it is a good deal more than a straightforward account of either; rather, it relates what happens when opposing discourses overlap, or, to be more precise, when such overlap generates two very different narratives around the same historical event. In this particular instance, according to Makdisi, it produced in dialectic fashion what he characterizes as a new narrative, that of Arab secular liberalism.
The historical event in question is the conversion and death of As'ad Shidyaq. At first glance, As'ad's story does indeed appear straightforward; a member of the Maronite ecclesiastical order, he encountered American missionaries sent to Lebanon by the American Board for Commissioners of Foreign Missions during the third decade of the nineteenth century. Shortly thereafter, he converted to the Protestant faith, only to suffer persecution at the hands of the Maronite patriarch. He died a few short years later in a monastery cell. Makdisi relates how this event became contextualized within two different discourses, one used by American missionaries, and the other, by the Maronite ecclesiastical order.
The American missionary discourse defined missionary activity in the Ottoman Empire as an extension of its earlier precolonial mission to evangelize Native Americans; for American missionaries, the Ottoman Empire was part of the same frontier of Christendom that included America's pagan heathen. In contrast to the militant crusaders who had visited the Levant centuries earlier, American missionaries characterized themselves as the "artillery of heaven," individuals who, much like the apostles of scripture, would, through evangelism, reshape the face of the non-Christian (read non-Protestant) world. The American Board was established in 1810, by which time missionary activity among Native Americans had already proven to be a dismal failure, something missionaries rightly attributed to American settler colonialism. It was against this background that attention had turned to the far abroad, in particular, the "Bible lands." In Makdisi's words, the "unconquered world presented a stage on which an original American mission narrative, and an original American promise of salvation at the frontiers of Christendom, might be reenacted, and this time fulfilled" (p. 31). [End Page 289]
The second discourse, representative of the perspective of the Maronite ecclesiastical order, reflected a completely different reality and would produce a very different narrative concerning As'ad Shidyaq. Occupying the area around Mount Lebanon, an area shared with Muslims, Druzes, and other Christian groups, the Maronites constituted a religious sect that, though maintaining its own Eastern rites, had, since the twelfth century, submitted itself to the authority of the pope in Rome. This had meant a break with certain theological tenets considered heretical by the Latin Catholic Church, and even as of the early nineteenth century, given the heterogeneous religious environment in which they resided, there was still some concern that the Maronite community might be turned away from proper belief. Consequently, the Maronite ecclesiastical order was under constant pressure to demonstrate that their rituals and beliefs were in line with those of Rome. This perceived imperative to defend the faith against heresy would, according to Makdisi, define a major aspect of Maronite ecclesiastical discourse. Not surprisingly, it greatly shaped the ecclesiastical order's reaction to American missionary activity during the early part of the nineteenth century, likewise, to As'ad's conversion to the Protestant faith and, more importantly, his concomitant desire to evangelize.
A second important aspect of this discourse, according to Makdisi, corresponded to the social situation in early nineteenth-century Lebanon, at the time under Ottoman rule. The Maronites lived in a highly stratified world, one that allowed for religious differences and that privileged divisions based on rank and status more than those based on...