A sage, evenhanded look at the souring of a once-promising relationship.
Makdisi (History/Rice Univ.; Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East, 2008, etc.) reaches back to the early Protestant missionary work in the Holy Land to underscore the positive, benevolent model of America to which Arabs were first exposed. The establishment of a mission in Beirut by evangelicals Pliny Fisk and Levi Parsons was one of the first American attempts to “reclaim” the biblical lands and convert the Muslim communities. Though it failed—the Americans were “culturally deaf and arrogant”—they instilled their values of education (especially for girls), anti-colonialism and altruism. With the inauguration of Syrian Protestant College in 1866—the precursor to the American University of Beirut—the idea of converting souls had gently transformed into a more secular vision of tolerance and scientific inquiry. American humanitarian efforts for Greek independence and Armenian refugees of Turkish genocide rendered the United States as a promised land, and Arab emigration to America increased, giving rise to a rich tradition of exile, or mahjar, literature. In his 14 points, Woodrow Wilson set out “an inspiring new template for the world,” which included self-determination for the remnant peoples breaking away from Ottoman rule, a vision that was later cited by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in his famous 1974 UN speech. So what happened? In a word, Israel. While numerous recent books delve more deeply into the Arab-Israel crisis of the modern era, Makdisi maneuvers through this minefield with a steady hand. He pinpoints a pivotal moment during the Suez Crisis, when American president Eisenhower rebuked the imperial powers and Israel for attacking Egypt, and America still held the moral card—before capitulating to Cold War and oil interests. Ultimately, the author is optimistic that relations can improve when Americans begin to shed biases about and ignorance of Arab culture and history.
A work of impressive clarity and scholarship.