Becker, Adam. 2015. Revival and Awakening: American Evangelical Missionaries in Iran and the Origins of Assyrian Nationalism

Becker, Adam. 2015. Revival and Awakening: American Evangelical Missionaries in Iran and the Origins of Assyrian Nationalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Reviewed by Secil Dagtas (University of Waterloo)

What is the relationship between the modern categories of “religion” and “nation”? The general tendency in popular and academic works has been to approach this relationship as one of tension, contradiction, or replacement. Revival and Awakening takes a different approach and unearths the co-constitution of these categories in the borderlands between Qajar Iran and the Ottoman Empire with a particular focus on the global underpinnings of this process.  

In this book, Adam Becker explores the role of the American evangelical mission in configuring the relationship between Syriac Christianity and Assyrian nationalism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The East Syrian encounter with evangelicalism considered by Becker shares common ground with historical ethnographies of other Protestant missionary contexts in the Middle East (Boddy 2007; Mahmood 2015) and elsewhere (Comaroff and Comaroff 1991; Keane 2007; Stoler 2010). Here, too, we find the entanglement of missionary work with a Western civilizing mission, discourses and practices of purification, concerns with language, education, hygiene, and women’s roles, and the workings of affect and intimacy towards the cultivation of a pious modern self. Yet the absence of direct colonial rule or a mandate regime, the connections of the targeted populations to early Christianity, and the political positions of Syriac Christians under two different Muslim imperial rules render the context of this study particularly unique.

Becker’s argument, which has several implications both for the anthropology of Christianity and studies of secularity, delves into a range of neo-Aramaic sources on East Syrian life published by the American mission between 1834 and 1918. Through a close reading of periodicals, almanacs, journals, commentaries, travelogues, novellas, and articles authored by both indigenous and missionary Christians in the region, he identifies various components of Protestant moral reform and traces their effects on national identity formation. Becker argues that the development of nationalism among Syriac Christians and their contested claims to ancient Assyrian identity are rooted in processes, practices, and attitudes that owe their existence to the missionary encounter itself. Along with changing attitudes towards language, death, the body, time, gender roles, individuality, and piety, this reform has entailed new media and knowledge production processes as well as novel modes of sociality and embodied collective practices.

One significant intervention that the book makes in this context lies in its conceptualization of Protestant individualism. Becker tackles the individualization of religion in his discussion of the missionary moral reform’s emphasis on the interior self, Christian soul, and heart in educational practices, bodily discipline, and prayer (Chapter 3), as well as in the representations of death as a solitary individual concern (Chapter 5). Yet he also challenges what he calls the reduction of evangelical modernity to “a Protestant version of autonomous Enlightenment reason or an abstract individualism” (23). The evangelical individual salvation in Urmia, Iran and the Ottoman region of Hakkari, he argues, was inseparable from a visceral set of social relations, a new rhetoric of community, and new modes of sociality, all of which were introduced and promoted by the mission. The disaggregated individual self was simultaneously the autonomous constituent of a horizontally organized and equally represented collectivity, positioned against the hierarchical social relations that existed within the indigenous community and its clerical bodies. As such, the new individual self not only formed the basis of the new ideas about the social (that is, national) itself, but also anticipated the calls for national unity.

While this intervention is crucial, it could benefit from dialoguing with an already existing debate in the anthropology of Christianity. Anthropologists have long contributed to the questioning of the “Western assumptions of the bounded, singular, individual self” by showing how these assumptions have been challenged in colonial contexts by indigenous modes of personhood that were relational, composite, “partible,” “fractal,” or “dividual” (Strathern 1988; 2004). In the context of the Christianization of indigenous populations, the relationship between dividuality and individualism has been explored most recently in the controversy over “partial” Christian personhood in Melanesia (Mosko 2010; Robbins 2010) and a series of essays in a special issue of HAU (2014) that respond to this debate from various non-Western ethnographic contexts. It is not possible to give an extensive review of the debate here. Yet we can say that at the heart of it lays the importance and limits of modern individualism in (Protestant) Christianity, mostly in reference precisely to how converts negotiate the Christian discourse of unmediated “individuality,” interior self, and personal salvation in relation to their sociocentric lives, modes of exchange, and interactions.

Similar tensions between Euro-American and indigenous visions of the self are identifiable in Becker’s discussion on the differing and at times contradictory attitudes of Protestant and East Syrian Christians towards book gifting and death rituals (Chapters 2 and 5). Yet Revival and Awakening seeks to deconstruct the dichotomy between traditional relationalism and modern individualism less through its attention to the rift between two distinct modes of personhood in two different traditions of Christianity, and more in the political framing of the sociality of Christian individualism itself. In other words, instead of positing the traditional Syriac understanding of sociality as a challenge to the Protestant individualism of American missionaries, Becker echoes those who are skeptical of the individualist conceptualizations of Western Christianity itself (Bialecki 2011; Coleman 2004; Daswani 2015). Yet his analysis focuses more explicitly on the normative collective subject of political modernity that such individualism gives way to: the nation.

As “a historian who wants to understand the present through the alterity of the past” (xii), Becker also follows an Asadian line of anthropological inquiry into secular modernity in Revival and Awakening. This inquiry differs not only from the fieldwork-based framings of anthropological analysis that Asad (1994; 2003) has widely criticized, but also from a classical philosophical conceptual analysis with claims to universality. Through a close reading of texts from an unfamiliar time and context and in an unfamiliar language, the book allows for “the comparison of embedded concepts (representations) between societies differently located in time or space” as well as in its attention to the “forms of life that articulate [these concepts] the powers they release or disable” (Asad 2003:16).

“Religion” is one such concept that has been historically produced, reified, and which has contributed to the development of “a secularized (but not desacralized) national identity among the indigenous Christian population of the region”, Becker suggests (2015:5). The genealogical inquiry of the modern categories of “religion” and “nation” brings him to the Christian evangelical roots of modern secular political formations. He finds that the Protestant understandings of “true religion” in missionary texts and practices both intensified and disembedded Christianity from other realms of life as “a distinct part of human experience” (82). Religion as such was to be cultivated as a private form of devotion that “required the absence of all intermediaries” (70) and “pertained to the spiritual part of the human being (as opposed to the sectarian, divisive, idolatrous, and intrusive forms of “empty religion”)” (136). The making of religion in East Syria also entailed the appropriation of indigenous concepts and an increased emphasis on belief rather than practice, another major point of classical debate in the anthropology of religion.

Yet again, the distinctiveness of Revival and Awakening lies in the link that the author establishes between religious revival and national awakening. Becker argues that the transition from the evangelical conceptualizations of “true religion” to secular nationalism at the end of the 19th century is not “an ideological break” (135) or a story of replacement as such transitions are often addressed in studies of nationalism under the influence of secularization theory. Instead, the modern ideas of religion fostered by the Protestant moral reform have created the conditions for the emergence and growth of national affect and consciousness. The missionaries put forward a millenarian Christian theology of nations and emphasized the need to unify the East Syrian “nation” as Christians, against the confessional, decentralized, tribal, and heterogeneous socio-political organization of Nestorians and their religious and social mingling with Muslim, Jewish, and other Christian communities living in the region (40-41). Undergirding such calls for unity were modern ideas about race, economy, science, and custom as well as education, individuality, and a biologized Christian body (133) disseminated through a new book and printing culture, the concert of prayer and schooling, and shaped by the missionary interest in Aramaic as the language of Jesus. With the heightened nationalisms in Europe and the Middle East in the run-up to the First World War, such ideas and practices formed the basis of the sacralization of the emergent Syrian nationalism and its language and literary reform, even for the secularized local elites who treated national identity as distinct from religion.

The book’s attention to the missionary encounter to explain such transformations is itself original. Yet it raises questions also about social agency that Becker addresses in various parts of the book, most explicitly in the introductory chapter. In an anticipated response to potential criticisms from postcolonial scholarship, he makes it clear that the focus of the book is not on “the circuits of mutual effects… between the colonized and the colonizer” but on “the effects upon, and functions within, the Christian culture at home that the missionary discourse and bureaucratic apparatus had” (33). He admits that this focus should not mean leaving aside the agency of the Syrians themselves “even if most were associated with the American mission” (31). This agency becomes most apparent in the last chapters of the book where the author turns to indigenous writings. These writings document the initiative of East Syrians educated at the mission in acting as intermediaries between indigenous and missionary traditions, in taking up an Assyrian national appellation, and engaging with the Orientalizing representations of the individual and national self. However, in the end, and precisely because the dialogical nature of the missionary encounter is left aside in the analyzed data, the agency (and history) of East Syrians appears to be derivative of others. The local articulation of modernity and nationalism that we are presented with here is one that owes its formation and existence primarily to the agency of the missionaries and of the ideas and practices introduced by them.

Becker states in a few sections of the book that not all of the ideas circulating by means of Protestant missionaries were new or foreign to East Syrian theology and tradition and that some in fact resonated with and rearticulated classical Syriac ideas, e.g. concerning the distinction between soul and the body, race, and spirituality (135). But these do not constitute the center of analysis. The major force of modernity and nationalism here are the foreign missionaries and their competition with each other. One then wonders about the role of local dynamics, inter-communal interactions, other nationalisms and the political struggles between Ottoman and Iranian rules in the borderlands where East Syrians were situated. How did they mediate ideas of the missionaries and what were their effects on the instabilities and inconsistencies of Assyrian national identity? Drawing mostly on secondary sources, Becker dwells on the Ottoman and Iranian regimes of diversity and the different conceptualizations and historical transformations of “millets”, but these are treated as background contextual information. How can we address their impact and agency in the processes described here without limiting the analysis to regional history? Is it possible to approach the transformations in the East Syriac tradition beyond the language of “old” and “new”, as having its own temporality and dynamism in relation to Western modalities of Christianity as well as global and local forces of modernity?

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