Part 1 of the author's Interrogating Missionary Essentialism: The Muslim and "Evangelical" Nonsense
Christine Mallouhi is a Christian writer who has lived in North Africa and Middle East for 20 years. She writes on cross-cultural issues relating to missionary activities among Muslims. Her book Mini-Skirts Mothers and Muslims: Modelling Spiritual Values in Muslim Culture attempts to foster a strategy that contains Islamic stereotypes about 'Western Christians'. Muslims, according to Mallouhi regard all 'Western' white women as morally deviant and transgressive in their appearance and sexual expression.
Mallouhi proposes a 'firm' modus operandi that, she claims, will diffuse the astringency of Muslim misrepresentation of 'Christian Westerners'. Mallouhi's premise is based on her realisation that Muslim culture is based on "appearance, hospitality and family ties" (p, 7). For this reason, a missionary woman has to act according to 'spiritual' values that Muslims can identify with. Missionary women are urged to express virtues of modesty in their appearance to facilitate 'witness', to build bridges for communication and 'sharing'. In short, Mallouhi is urging her co-workers to "fit in in order to be accepted and gain a hearing" (p, 10).
Before I engage with Mallouhi's main thesis, I want to make a couple of rudimentary points about the book's general style of writing and argumentation. Firstly, the book is not scholarly in any sense; even though Mallouhi makes use, randomly and carelessly, of one or two anthropological 'claims' and other so called academic material, her resources are far from being objective. To support her view of Islamic societies being status/appearance-based, for instance, Mallouhi claims that "Anthropologists tell us that Islamic society is basically status-focus" (p, 13). There is no mention of who said this, and in what context. From her bibliography (p, 105), however, one realises that this information derives from a handful of outmoded biased orientalist writings, most of which written during the first half of the 20th century. Such anthropological investigations are irrelevant to current Muslim realities, and have been invalidated by such leading critics and anthropologists like James Clifford, Talal Asad, E. Said, Stephen A. Tyler, George E. Marcus, Ahmad Akhbar (among many). It is just false to suggest that all anthropologists could come to such absolute consensus about the Muslim world. For one practical reason no one of them would be able to conduct ethnographic fieldwork in all Islamic societies with a population of 700 million people. James Clifford, possibly the most renowned anthropologist and critic in the late 20th century never claimed such a statement or promulgated such a theory when he wrote his most influential book, The Predicament of Culture (1988). His critique is more to do with interconnectedness and its impact on societies. It is in this arbitrary, incomplete (hit and miss) method of 'analysis' that the author develops some of her arguments. These ready-made assertions isolate the Muslim world as one shapeless bag where anything can be jumbled.
Secondly, since the book lacks objectivity and groundedeness in cultural theory, it has heavily resorted to non-objective tools of analysis. Mallouhi's book is anecdotal, based on fictitious notions rather than grounded facts. She bombards her reader with personal experience, isolated testimonials and condescending and biased evangelical literature. For this reason, her book is galvanised by phrases such as 'according to my friend', 'I can share with you' 'We Christians' 'and to help you understand your Muslim friends', 'people have told us', 'Tell them', 'If we want to be true friends to 'Easterners', 'We need each others hands'…etc which she uses to convince her reader that she really knows her subject and, consequently, can be relied on concerning her proposed strategies for 'ministering' to Muslims. This is also to suggest, as Elias Chacour in his introduction to the book, affirms that Mallouhi is an 'expert' who understands and captures the mentality of Muslims/Arabs and 'Third World' peoples (pp, 9-10). This device produces serious distortions in the form of farfetched statements, and sensationalised dramas that testify to the rigidity, indolence and double standardeness of Arabs and Muslims. Mallouhi ignores Islamic histories, politics, secular institutions, Western realities, the active intellectual and theological debates taking place all over the Islamic world.
Hence, the personal dimension for writing this extended review. There are two main reasons that prompted me to react to Mallouhi's inauspicious book: first, with her Christian essentialism, ignorance and academic unfitness, Mallouhi unfairly renders the Muslim world so outlandish and haunted to an already prejudiced readership. Second, as someone who comes from an 'Arabo-Islamic' culture, I feel compelled to respond to some of Mallouhi's heavy-handed, preposterous and totalising views from a 'postcolonial' perspective. By 'postcolonial' I mean the dismantling of narrative practices that persist in producing unjustifiably degrading forms of knowledge about the 'Other'. I am not interested in defending 'Islam' or 'Christianity'. My aim is to demonstrate to what extent this book is deeply problematic in its representation of 'the Muslim World'.
Mallouhi, Christine. Mini-Skirts Mothers and Muslims: Modelling Spiritual Values in Muslim Culture. Spear Publishers (1997), Revised Edition, 109 pages, ISBN 0-9904012-9-4
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Last modified: 13 May 2001