A Missionary Zeal for Human Rights

Nuban "friendlies" employed by the British to suppress recalcitrant Nuban groups, 1917. From M.W. Daly's "The Sudan"
Nuban “friendlies” employed by the British to suppress recalcitrant Nuban groups, 1917. From M.W. Daly’s “The Sudan”.

On October 22nd, Ryan Boyette will be honored by Human Rights First at the organization’s annual gala at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan. As the 2014 recipient of the Human Rights First Award, Mr. Boyette will join the ranks of such esteemed advocates as Saad Eddin Ibrahim of Egypt, Denis Mukwege of Congo, and Albie Sachs of South Africa. Such recognition seems at first glance well deserved. Human Rights First describes Mr. Boyette simply as a “human rights advocate” who refused to leave his adopted home in the Nuba Mountains region of Sudan when his “aid organization” evacuated their staff in the wake of growing conflict in 2011. Over the past three years, with admirable courage and determination, Mr. Boyette founded Nuba Reports, an organization that employs an “all Sudanese” staff to document human rights violations and the humanitarian impact of the Sudanese government’s bombing campaign of the Nuba Mountains region.

The aid organization through which Mr. Boyette first travelled to Sudan in 2003 was Samaritan’s Purse. It is, indeed, a very particular type of aid organization, one run by Franklin Graham, a conservative preacher, noted Islamophobe, and the son of Billy Graham. After eight years of dedicated missionary work, Mr. Boyette resigned from Samaritan’s Purse in 2011 to avoid the staff evacuation. While his decision demonstrates considerable commitment to his new home in the Nuba Mountains, there is no indication that it signals an ideological break with evangelical work. Indeed, in late 2011, Nicholas Kristof of the NYT still described Mr. Boyette as an “evangelical Christian deeply motivated by his faith.”

Mr. Boyette’s rapid transformation from soul savior to life saver raises a troubling question about the evangelical appropriation of the language of human rights. When Human Rights First only describes Samaritan’s Purse as an “aid organization” and Mr. Boyette as a “human rights advocate,” their tactful silence about his evangelical motivations draws evangelical humanitarianism into the ambit of human rights work. In so doing, Human Rights First legitimates to a theological project that many in the human rights community—as well as many Sudanese—would find unpalatable.

Mr. Boyette’s successful metamorphosis into a major human rights advocate is particularly ironic in the context of Sudan. In the late 19th and throughout the 20th century, Christian missionary activity has played no small part in shaping the social and political divisions that structure the very conflict Mr. Boyette is now being lauded for documenting.

Llewellyn Henry Gwynne (1863-1957) of the Church Missionary Society of Sudan and other dignitaries at the Gordon Centenary in Khartoum, 1933.
Llewellyn Henry Gwynne (1863-1957) of the Church Missionary Society of Sudan and other dignitaries at the Gordon Centenary in Khartoum, 1933.

Perhaps the most iconographic evangelical in Sudanese political history is Charles Gordon, the Governor-General of Sudan (1833-1885). In the months before Gordon’s death in Khartoum at the hands of the followers of the Sudanese Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmed, the British general and the Sufi rebel exchanged letters, each attempting to convert the other to their faith. When the British returned to Sudan in 1898, and defeated the forces of the Mahdi’s successor, it was partially to avenge the “matrydom” of Gordon, who had become a popular Christian icon back in England. Historian Heather Sharkey describes the missionaries as “partners in empire,” while anthropologist Janice Boddy describes Christian missionary activity as a tool for “quiet crusade” to civilize pagan Sudan. In the following decades, the British justified their rule with the language of “civilizing” the natives and spreading Christianity, especially in the south.

The Christian penetration of the south was deep, contributing to the cultural, linguistic, and religious division of the northern and southern regions of the country. As Mahmood Mamdani has written, the British colonial authorities gave Christian missionaries “exclusive charge” of educational and social policy in the 1920s. English replaced Arabic as the official language in these areas, as Sunday replaced Friday as the official day of rest. Islamic proselytization was banned while Christian proselytization was encouraged. Following the creation of an independent Sudan in 1956, the Christian identity crafted in missionary schools and through British colonial policy became a point of ideological conflict between Khartoum and the South. In the Nuba Mountains region, the animosity towards communities of Christian converts reached a fever pitch in the early 1990s, as the newly installed Islamist government in Khartoum led an atrocious—and arguably genocidal—counter-insurgency campaign through the region.

An English-Arabic Service Book: Forms of Service Sanctioned for Use in the Church of Saint Mary, Wadi Halfa, Sudan. Printed at the Nile Mission Press in Cairo, c. 1930.
An English-Arabic Service Book: Forms of Service Sanctioned for Use in the Church of Saint Mary, Wadi Halfa, Sudan. Printed at the Nile Mission Press in Cairo, c. 1930.

Throughout this period, missionary groups have restyled themselves as humanitarian organizations, but their effect has been no less deleterious. The Swiss-based group Christian Solidarity International was the largest of about a dozen organizations that undertook massive slave “redemption” campaigns throughout the 1990s. These campaigns sought to buy freedom for Christian captives of militia raids in towns and villages across south Sudan. Such campaigns, as some have argued, have greatly expanded the slave trade. In the United States and across Western Europe, evangelical campaigns raised millions of dollars from church groups and school children, inadvertently providing slave raiders, traders, and owners with a lucrative international market in which to sell their captives.

Of course, an evangelical Christian can also be a human rights advocate. Across the globe, some of the most dedicated advocates of human dignity are members of faith communities, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and otherwise. But Human Rights First should acknowledge their honoree’s complicated history in public—or find someone else to honor. A more straightforward account of Mr. Boyette’s evangelism would indicate that Human Rights First respects their supporters and funders enough to give them the more truthful and less compelling story of how and why Mr. Boyette found himself in the Nuba Mountains, documenting the human rights abuses that his missionary predecessors helped to foment. While neither Human Rights First nor their honorees can change the past, they should not efface it, either.

Ottoman Postcards in a Post-Ottoman World

Galata_old_postcardVisitors have fallen in love with Istanbul for generations. In the early 20th century, photographers, both Ottoman and European, captured its blue seas, red roofs, and beige buildings. Despite its beauty, the city’s riot of color obscures a troubling past of missing signs, sounds, and scripts.

Listen closely. The sounds of Turkish give voice to its history. Its raised and rhymed vowels connect the syllables of each word in a harmonious flow, but that flow has been artificially enhanced. During the creation of the modern Turkish state, authorities purged the frictive sounds like “gh” and “kh” found in Arabic and Persian. For instance, in Ottoman words like “yogurt” (Turkish: yoğurt) were pronounced “yo-ghurt” (with the “gh” sound of the English interjection “ugh!”), but in modern Turkish the “gh” was silenced, becoming “yo-urt”. (There’s a reason they still spell it “yoghurt” in Britain.)

Continue reading

When the French Speak Arabic to Africans

All too often, we think of Arabic writing in West Africa—when we think of it at all—as a way to access a history beyond or outside the colonial moment. Yet this document, the front page of the weekly journal of the French colonial government in Senegal, shows that the French authorities depended on Arabic to speak to their subjects, even as they gradually tried to transform Senegambian social and political organization for their own economic gain. Far from being beyond the colonial moment, here Arabic appears integral to it.

The use of Arabic in Saint-Louis, the capital of French colonial Senegal, is not so startling in and of itself. The Arabophone geographers, most notably al-Bakri, report that Islam and its accompanying Arabic script appeared on the banks of the Senegal River, in Tekrur, as early as the eleventh century. The use of Arabic in the Western Sahel appears to have started to grow during the fourteenth century, under the influence of the trade empire of Mali, whose famed Mansa Musa lured scholars from Egypt and as far as Andalusia. Arabic written production in the Sahel reached its peak in the pre-modern period during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the area was under the suzerainty of the Songhai empire. It was in the nineteenth century, however, that Arabic writing became an important technology of government when the ulema’, or Islamic scholars, began to lay claim to temporal power, thus producing “textual polity,” to use the phrase of Brinkley Messick.

Continue reading

The (Jewish) Christian Question

Freud cartoon
By David Levine

A comment on Gil Anidjar’s paper “Jesus and Monotheism” and its discussion at the MESAAS department colloquium on September 11th.

Murder, it soon becomes clear, goes far beyond the “who-done-it?” digressions, down which Freud (and Anidjar) takes his readers. This word designates more than a crime, far more than an action. It describes a kind of relation: the relation of a father to his sons, of a son to his father, of a people to their leader and, ultimately, of Christianity to Judaism.

What Anidjar terms “the Christian question” is an inquiry about this relation. But this inquiry is not about Christianity’s relation to just anyone. It is what we arrive at when we turn the screw of “the Jewish question” one more time. When we ask what it is about Christianity that so persistently maintains this relation—“murder”—to its Others. Certainly this question goes far beyond “the Jewish” one, but in Anidjar’s reading of Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, the “(Jewish) Christian question” takes center stage.

Continue reading

Between Miracle and Afterthought: Hebrew in MESAAS

My parents, native Israelis with wide and deep ties to the Hebrew language, insisted, always, on maintaining a Hebrew-speaking household in the U.S. so that my two sisters and I might carry on in the world with “a miracle” of a language at our disposal. I remember my father telling me excitedly that, “before 1948, no one made love in Hebrew!” I was fascinated by the thought of a language existing by virtue of some dedicated people carefully applying ancient, known words to their contemporary surroundings. I would imagine them staring at birds or one another in an attempt to string together some sounds and silences that might do justice to a subject’s fullest character.

But studying Hebrew literature in MESAAS has been one long attempt to bend my thinking to accommodate the reality that modern Hebrew literature is a contemporary Middle Eastern affair. Or is it? Hebrew literature and Israeli culture fits into MESAAS geographically; but Hebrew has long been a shared cultural language of the Jews that only in the 20th century became a spoken vernacular in Israel. A question of belonging arises: how does modern Hebrew literature fit into MESAAS when we look beyond basic points of contact, such as the Semitic origins of the Hebrew language or the many centuries of political-Zionist poetry?

Continue reading

Teaching Notes III

For those of us who teach or will be teaching an introductory course of Islamic Studies in the United States, there are a number of pedagogical challenges we uniquely face as instructors. In order to reach a deep and critical engagement with the texts, histories, aesthetics, narratives and politics at play in a course such as “Islamic Civilization,” a form of “de-programming” must take place.

I say “de-programming” because instructors are certainly not engaging with “blank slates.” Many students enter our classes having already developed an idea or opinion of Islam, Muslims and related terminology (such as shari’a, jihad, Islamic state, burka, etc.), and this is reflected in their questions and papers. Here’s a sampling of the questions I received through an exercise I conducted at the end of the last academic term:

“What makes Islam hate Israel?” “What is the burka?” “Do mainstream Muslims read the Qur’an?” “Is there such a thing as Islam without belief in God (Allah)?” “Should Muslims get the blame for human misery?” “Is a democratic and religious state possible?” “When do most Muslims visit Mecca (what part of their life)?” “What is the Muslim position on human nature?”

Continue reading

Archives and Canons

What is the opposite of a canon? Perhaps an archive, which contains an overwhelming array of texts that very few people intend to read. I sometimes feel like Raph and I are working our way through an immaterial archive that stretches across the globe. This “archive” contains digital copies of short stories culled from published collections, underground literary journals, blog entries, Facebook posts, and unpublished manuscripts. It also presumably includes letters stowed away in old backpacks and journals forgotten in desk drawers. An infinite array of things just waiting to be catalogued and, perhaps, one day, interpreted.

The challenge of transforming such an archive into a collection is partially the brute effort of finding the materials, compounded by the difficulty of working with texts that are rarely annotated. For instance, we have found digital copies of stories typed by hand by literary enthusiasts into labyrinthine websites like Sudanese Online. The multiple copies create multiple versions which, without a robust editorial effort, jostle one another for authority, not unlike the way in which Sudanese folk tales proliferate in near infinite variation. Although unlike scholars who work on manuscripts, Raph and I are not in the business of sussing out the authentic version of a given text, such variations and inconsistencies take us back to the question of how a literary canon is formed.

Continue reading

Sketch of a Literary Scene

The stories in our collection span the roughly four decades since the publication of Tayyib Salih’s much acclaimed Season of Migration to the North in 1969. Some are works of social protest, others of technical mastery or experimental daring. Despite variations in theme and style, we’ve chosen them because they all revolve around Khartoum in one way or another. For that reason, contemporary literary culture in Khartoum is one of the most valuable frames for understanding the literature produced in and about the city. The questions are deceptively simple. Who writes? Who reads? Where do people in Khartoum go to buy books, hear poetry, discuss literature and workshop their own writing? By offering a brief sketch of the literary scene, based on my own short stay in Khartoum last year, I want to start to explore the city as a metaphor for the bundle of expectations, literary conventions, and social mores that shape what Sudanese writers write and why.

I myself have only become acquainted with many of the stories in my growing collection over the past year, culled initially from the dozens of books I carried back from Khartoum to Cairo in a cardboard box. The less controversial ones I bought in the dusty book shops clustered around the University of Khartoum, but the majority were recommended to me by friends and acquired at a monthly open-air book market called Mafroosh, written up not so long ago in the New York Times.

Continue reading