Protestants, Gender, and the Arab Renaissance in Late-Ottoman Syria

Sunday, January 5, 2020: 3:50 PM
Nassau East (New York Hilton)
Deanna Womack, Emory University
As numerical minorities within today’s Middle Eastern Christian population, Arab Protestants are seldom the subject of scholarly attention. Existing studies center instead upon American missionary activities, neglecting the Ottoman Syrians who formed the first Arabic-speaking Protestant community in the nineteenth century. Drawing upon the panelist’s new book, this paper offers a fresh narrative on the encounters of the Syrian Protestant community with American missionaries, Eastern churches, and Muslims at the height of the Arab renaissance (Nahda) in Beirut, from 1860 to 1915.

This research picks up in 1860, when civil war rent the fabric of Ottoman Syrian society and massacres in Mount Lebanon and Damascus threw the fledgling Protestant community into chaos. It focuses particularly on gender and the activities of women in the Syrian Protestant community, for in the pivotal decades that followed this sectarian violence between Christians, the Druze, and Muslims, women survivors sought to resurrect the Syrian Protestant Church. During this same period, Syrian women and men used the American Press in Beirut to advance the Nahda, a religiously diverse revival central to the story of late Ottoman Syria.

This book challenges the type of historiography on American encounters in the Middle East that places Western male actors center stage. Instead, Syrian Protestant women and men were agents of their own history who sought to create a modern Syria while adapting and challenging missionary teachings. In doing so, these pioneers of Arab Protestantism established a critical link between Protestant practices and the socio-cultural currents of the Arab renaissance. In sum, while other histories of the Middle East have depicted such Protestant authors as secular intellectuals whose contributions were only cultural and humanitarian, this study reveals the religiosity of well-known and overlooked Syrian Protestant writers who changed the face of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Arab world.