Most Americans have little understanding of the relationship between religion and nationalism in the Middle East. They assume that the two are rooted fundamentally in regional history, not in the history of contact with the broader world. However, as Adam H. Becker shows in this book, Americans—through their missionaries—had a strong hand in the development of a national and modern religious identity among one of the Middle East's most intriguing (and little-known) groups: the modern Assyrians. Detailing the history of the Assyrian Christian minority and the powerful influence American missionaries had on them, he unveils the underlying connection between modern global contact and the retrieval of an ancient identity.
American evangelicals arrived in Iran in the 1830s. Becker examines how these missionaries, working with the “Nestorian” Church of the East—an Aramaic-speaking Christian community in the borderlands between Qajar Iran and the Ottoman Empire—catalyzed, over the span of sixty years, a new national identity. Instructed at missionary schools in both Protestant piety and Western science, this indigenous group eventually used its newfound scriptural and archaeological knowledge to link itself to the history of the ancient Assyrians, which in time led to demands for national autonomy. Exploring the unintended results of this American attempt to reform the Orient, Becker paints a larger picture of religion, nationalism, and ethnic identity in the modern era.
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Adam H. Becker is associate professor of religious studies and classics at New York University. He is the author of Fear of God and the Beginning of Wisdom.
"A fascinating and detailed account on the complicated and essential role that American Congregationalist, and later Presbyterian, missionaries played in 'the development of a secularized (but not desacralized) national identity among the indigenous Christian population' of Urmia, Iran, and its surrounding territory in northern Mesopotamia." (Reading Religion)
“Unraveling the complex process in which the American Protestant project of moral and religious reform helped to stimulate the development of ‘Assyrian’ national consciousness, Becker provides an excellent example of how secular modernity could be configured in a non-colonial missionary context in the encounter between two different Christian communities.” (Talal Asad, author of Formations of the Secular)
“Becker’s masterful work bears on some of the key problems in the contemporary study of religion and modernity. And there are few regions of the world where these issues are more fraught than this once—but certainly no longer—obscure corner of the Middle East. This is a book full of surprises and insights, revealed with a sure hand and impressive erudition.” (Webb Keane, author of Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter)
“Becker’s command of Syriac and Neo-Aramaic allows him to open up a Protestant missionary archive otherwise inaccessible to historians of American religion. The novelty of that research is matched by his ingenuity in engaging larger questions about modern formations of nationalism, religion, liberalism, and secularism. From the American Protestant outpost in Urmia, Becker draws a sparkling picture of a ‘missionary modernity’—a portrait marked by both historical subtlety and theoretical sophistication.” (Leigh Eric Schmidt, author of Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality)
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