Tejirian & Simon, “Conflict, Conquest, and Conversion”

In the nineteenth century, missionaries from the West, mostly Protestant, desired to bring Christianity to the Middle East. They were a little late, of course. Christianity had been born in the Middle East and, notwithstanding centuries of Muslim dominance, Christian communities had remained there. No matter: the missionaries zealously established churches, schools, and hospitals. They were not too successful in converting Muslims, but they did have a major, destabilizing impact on Ottoman society. The missionaries brought with them Western concepts, like legal equality and religious freedom, which challenged classical Islamic norms and sparked a violent conservative backlash. If one wishes to understand contemporary debates about “universal” human rights in the context of the Middle East, the history of the nineteenth century missions is essential.

A new book from Columbia University Press, Conflict, Conquest, and Conversion: Two Thousand Years of Christian Missions in the Middle East (2012), by Eleanor H. Tejirian and Reeva Spector Simon, situates the nineteenth-century missionaries in the sweep of other Christian missionary work over the past two thousand years. It looks very interesting. The publisher’s description follows:  

Conflict, Conquest, and Conversion surveys two thousand years of the Christian missionary enterprise in the Middle East within the context of the region’s political evolution. Its broad, rich narrative follows Christian missions as they interacted with imperial powers and as the momentum of religious change shifted from Christianity to Islam and back, adding new dimensions to the history of the region and the nature of the relationship between the Middle East and the West.

Historians and political scientists increasingly recognize the importance of integrating religion into political analysis, and this volume, using long-neglected sources, uniquely advances this effort. It surveys Christian missions from the earliest days of Christianity to the present, paying particular attention to the role of Christian missions, both Protestant and Catholic, in shaping the political and economic imperialism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Eleanor H. Tejirian and Reeva Spector Simon delineate the ongoing tensions between conversion and the focus on witness and “good works” within the missionary movement, which contributed to the development and spread of nongovernmental organizations. Through its conscientious, systematic study, this volume offers an unparalleled encounter with the social, political, and economic consequences of such trends.

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