Images of Islam

by Deanna Ferree Womack (originally posted here)

Images of Islam abound these days, and many of them are troubling. Those who speak loudly and most forcefully define Islam in the narrowest of terms, making one image – the militant extremist – into a type for all Muslims. I find striking similarities between recent American public discourses and Protestant missionaries’ portrayals of Muslims in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From a comparative historical perspective, it is clear that the oft-repeated tropes about Islam as a violent and oppressive religion have been transmitted uncritically from one generation to the next. This dismissal of an entire faith tradition and its 1.6 billion adherents around the globe stems from a long pattern of Western representations of “the other” that 1) describe a collectivity rather than recognizing individual identities and 2) presume to speak authoritatively without taking the subjects’ own perspectives into account. The problem did not originate with the modern missionary movement, but American missionaries were among the Orientalist thinkers who adopted this mode of discourse on the Muslim populations they encountered in the Middle East. Continue reading

Studies in World Christianity, Issue 22.1

Missionary Eyes and Indigenous Eyes

Studies in World ChristianityFrom the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, Catholic and Protestant missionaries were the eyes through which Europe viewed the religious and cultural systems of the non-European world. Merchants, soldiers and diplomats sometimes fulfilled the same function, but they were birds of passage who rarely had the necessity or inclination to observe the ritual practices of indigenous peoples at close hand. Missionaries, by contrast, were in for the long haul. The objective of conversion required careful and patient observation of local traditions, the slow learning of language, the gradual attuning of the mind to the finer points of ceremonial observance, totem or taboo. Missionaries compared and contrasted what they saw with what they had seen elsewhere, or with what was familiar to them in European Christendom. As they did so, they began to order the miscellany of phenomena they encountered into divisions, categories, even systems. Continue reading