Mallouhi's 'System of Forgetting'

Youssef Yacoubi, Nottingham University, School of Critical Theory & Cultural Studies; Proctor Fellow, Department of Camparative Literature, Princeton University

Part 5 of the author's Interrogating Missionary Essentialism: The Muslim and "Evangelical" Nonsense

Mallouhi tells us that "Historically, missionaries in the Muslim world have worked with the lower classes almost to the exclusion of the higher classes". This strategy, she argues, was an essential misgiving. The use of the word "historically" here is arbitrary and deceptive since Mallouhi does not tell us about this history. Mallouhi's unfamiliarity, and, perhaps, deliberate exclusion of history, is paramount in her peremptory reflection on missionaries' work in the Muslim world. No mention of historical facts, that missionaries, for example, mirrored the superiority of Colonialists by fostering their theological incomparability, their possession of 'Truth', their mandatory and preordained mission to 'save' the world. Western and non-western scholarships are well aware, and have confirmed beyond doubt, that missionaries have directly collaborated with Colonial Offices. The mutual relationship between churches and the government was proclaimed by France's Marshal Bugeaud, who praised the missionaries' "grand efforts" commenting that the clergy "gain for us the hearts of the Arabs whom we have subjected to force of arms" (Arthur Goldschmidt).

Mallouhi could not (and would not) have considered that the vast majority of missionaries (because of colonial class rigidity!) were unable to reach a secure, elitist, collaborationist class because it did not need 'salvation'? Or perhaps, that those missionaries understood that to reach those who were oppressed and enslaved by colonial powers was easier, being more vulnerable, more proned, by historical necessity, to accept any help, even one that told them that there would be hope in the midst of 'our' oppression. Mallouhi carelessly dismisses over 150 years of missionary complicity (in the Islamic world) in the terror of colonialism and dispossession. To colonise meant at first to identify interests and create them (commercial, religious, military, cultural...etc). As far as the Islamic world was concerned Britain for example:

Felt that it had legitimate interests, as a Christian power, to safeguard. A complex apparatus for tending these interests developed. Such early organisations as the Society for Promoting Christian knowledge (1898) and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (1701) were succeeded and later abetted by the Baptist Missionary Society (1792), the Church missionary Society (1799), the British and Foreign Bible Society (1804), the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews (1808). These missions openly joined the expansion of Europe, (E. Said, Orientalism 1979, p 100)

I don't dispute the existence of acuminate class division in many Islamic societies, but what Mallouhi categorically 'forgets' to do (or does she?) is to situate these divisions within their historical context. The existence of elitism or class division is very much a colonial legacy. When the British, the French (and other European colonisers) left their colonies, they left behind them this division which still divides the Muslim world. Divide and rule was the hallmark of colonial conquest and resulted in dehumanisation of the 'native', and a complete disintegration of society. The national elite, who inherited colossal privileges from the Colonial Office, has continued to do the dirty work for their 'Western masters'. Today, the Arab world is the only part of the world where presidents rule as kings- in both cases they are supported by USA to oppress and silence dissident voices.

On p, 11 Mallouhi's breath-taking simple-mindedness is even more scandalous. She philanthropically elevates all missionaries into a 'hygienic' platform of moral consciousness. In a colonial context, she tells us that Muslim authorities confused (again it is always Muslims who are doomed to confusion) "the missionaries' motives and accuses them of preying on the poor and weak in society." I am sure not all missionaries understood their relationship with their Colonial Office as collaboration, (after all they were white and could not question the idea of being there, it was naturally supposed to be that way!). It is irrefutable (according to the order of things) that they played a fundamental role to support a colonialist system that dominated, enslaved, raped, and dispossessed others. Rev. Muller was unmistakably clear that 'uncivilised' peoples were deterministically inferior, and their only fate was to submit and serve their 'Christian Master', he declared that "Humanity [his Western Colonial humanity] must not, can not allow the incompetence, negligence, and laziness of the uncivilised peoples to leave idle indefinitely the wealth which God has confided to them, charging them to make it serve the good of all." (my emphasis).

I want to ask Mallouhi one question: if these missionaries were morally motivated (as she implies), how moral was it to accept the reality of being there, of taking away somebody's land and dignity just because they had flatter noses or happened to be 'coloured'? Where is the moral outcry of missionaries? I also want to ask a second question: If 'her' missionaries were so loving, why were they there in the first place telling people that their religions, customs and systems of belief were inferior, savage or, at best, not acceptable? It is just a myth to claim that missionaries were there 'to save' the natives. Their unpremeditated 'God given' superiority over others was never questioned on moral grounds. Without 'their grant efforts', the British Empire would not have survived one day. No one 'evangelises/ colonises' innocently; a religion which justifies and supports colonisation is morally diseased and deeply 'Hitlerised'. The methods of propagating Christianity were inhuman and imperialist. To tell people that they needed to seek another 'salvation' because theirs (assuming they were thought to have one) was inefficient, was parallel to what colonialists did in Algeria in 1955 when they arrested all storytellers because they were preserving traditional values. Even today, determining which inducements are 'improper' may be difficult to investigate. Some missionaries still continue to establish orphanages or schools as a pretext for evangelisation. Defining the scope of 'missionary sharing' in many so-called post-colonial countries is arduous and unreliable, particularly when such contact takes place among vulnerable, impoverished and exposed sections of society.

A brief examination of missionary literature for the last 150 years demonstrates clearly that missionaries were consistent in their view of Islam; the arrogance, absolutism and self-righteousness of missionaries were staggering. The French seizure of the Grand Mosque of Algiers, for instance, and its forced conversion into the cathedral of St Philippe with the French flag and the cross on its minaret indicated that Christianity came to colonised lands to convert Arab Muslims from "the vices of their original religion generative of sloth, divorce, polygamy, theft, agrarian communism, fanaticism and even cannibalism" (Arthur Goldschmidt, p, 204).

Mallouhi consciously or unconsciously allows herself the comfort of 'turning a blind eye to history'. It is one thing to say, "we can not afford to be arrogant. Muslims look at what the West has done with its technology and see the Iraqi people devastated by political and oil power.'we' Christians need to remind ourselves that our mandate is not to engage in cultural or religious imperialism, nor to attack another religion" (pp. 91-92), but it is quite another thing, to face and engage critically and productively with the facts of oppression, murder, forced conversion executed by so-called Christians in the colonial period. To stop being arrogant is precisely when Mallouhi stops assuming that Muslims are in need of 'Christian salvation'. For a 'Western' Christian to claim concern for cross-cultural communication is fundamentally to think more about the past and its impact on the present. The writer, being Australian, could perhaps have examined the narratives (both missionary and colonial) written in the 19th century about Australia. Australians (native and migrants) were portrayed as mere criminals, savages with no history and certainly no civilisation. They were like the rest, "the White man's burden". Mallouhi, ironically enough, situates "Europe" as the source of all other histories; its knowledge about the so- called 'third world' reproduces, and in the case of Australia, as Meaghan Morris has argued, a known (full-fledged) 'H'/history, something which has already happened elsewhere (Dipesh Chakrabarty, "Who speaks for "Indian" Pasts?" in representations (winter 1992), p, 17).

The book's sweeping biases remain formidable obstacles for anyone hoping to understand Muslims; underneath its delusive commitment to breaking cultural barriers, there is a consistent idea that 'Evangelical Christianity' has got more to offer to Muslims than 'Islam'. Mallouhi's discriminating silence about Islamic 'salvation' is the other unnamed jigsaw that belongs to the world of 'post-coloniality'; it is a 'post-orientalist' insidious tactic of not attacking Islam directly. Mallouhi feels obliged to 'respect' Islam, since her vituperation today would be discredited by a dominant post-modern perspective, based on the necessity of religious and cultural diversity. The idea is: 'We' must still find a way around the polarised discourse of 'absolute' inclusiveness; a way by which confidence in Islam can be perturbed, challenged and shaken. By sharing 'God's love' and by setting 'them' 'our' good models, then, poor Muslims will have to see the error of their religion.

On pp, 33-34 she freely quotes a typical imperialist perspective. Hudson and Maria claim that "If 'we' really wish to see (an indigenous church) let 'us 'set before 'them' a true example". Another instance is on p, 104 quoting an imperialist missionary who could not (would not) question in his entire missionary career the morality of his 'White Colonial Office' indefinite stay in India. Mallouhi should have born in mind the fact that Stanley was saying this whilst India was dominated and oppressed by the British. Instead, her doleful quote of Stanley tells us that 'India should be 'home', 'her' future 'our' future, and 'we her' servants for Jesus sake'. This is pure historical schizophrenia. Stanley Jones moralises colonialism and validates the colonialist idea of making a home in somebody else's land (or was his stay exclusively for 'salvationist' purposes?). Stanley's most contemptuous comment that India's future should be 'our' future is, indeed, an Englishman's definition of future. For the British (including their imperialist missionaries) India was more than a colony, it was a place where the Englishman could dream his dreams (and see them happen) for an indefinite period of time.

Furthermore, Mallouhi may want to consider these further questions: who gives Hudson and Maria such moral right to believe that they could be a model for 'others'? Where does their self-appointed role to sermonise the Chinese come from? These are plausible questions and need some convincing answers. The missionary here is not to question the morality of such an attitude, but to claim it over others. The Chinese are denied the possibility of expressing 'an indigenous, local specific' model of morality; Chinese religious heritage is not worth mentioning because it does not recognise 'Our Word'. What is more condescending, of course, is the missionaries' obsession and ruthless agenda to 'become Chinese' that 'they' may, by all means, save some" (p, 23). This is fundamentalism par excellence. To mimic certain Chinese cultural forms is nothing but a deep-seated 'proselytisist' instinct; the ultimate purpose of such mimicry is to domesticate 'otherness' to oneself. No two can disagree that this is imperialism rather than cultural crossing. To cross culturally is to celebrate (and negotiate) the difference of the other. It is ironic that in this case these misguided missionaries use Paul's argument (also used by Mallouhi herself) for such utilitarian and imperialistic purposes (rendered spiritual and altruistic) forgetting Paul's historical context. At best, Paul's views should be appropriated creatively and critically to the current historical framework, otherwise, the fact remains that he is, in modern terms, one the most misdated, misogynistic and sexist writers of the Bible.

Mallouhi clearly mirrors the missionary writers' civilisatriste streak when she refuses to identify with a 'competing' convert group into Islam. Here is her painful and schizophrenic moment: "While I wanted to appear modest in Islamic society, I did not want to give the impression that I belonged to this convert group" (p. 29). Throughout the book, Mallouhi's grappling with issues of crossing make one wonder why take such drastic and 'sacrificial' measures and not ponder for once about the consequences? On p, 71 Mallouhi enters the Confession Box by admitting that her modelling system brings a lot of pain, pressure and even embarrassing situations. She says that "I pretend I am not at home, or asleep and, don't answer the door". Instead of explaining her dilemma and frustrations to her 'human' local guests, she insults them by acting (Mallouhi's word), denying them even the possibility of being irregular Muslims- too human and cognisant. She convinces herself that telling lies is a prerequisite of human relations in 'their' culture. In the final analysis, her 'local' Muslim friends resemble helpless children who are easily offended. This practicable diplomacy discloses Mallouhi's inconsistency, and the sinister nature of her modelling strategies. If they live by appearance alone, let 'us' use that weapon against 'them' for 'our' own purposes. This is the more evidence for pure utilitarianism, because by now, Mallouhi downheartedly assembles the broken pieces of the jigsaw and provides her last advice: "we need to find ways to take off the cultural pressure (my emphasis). Maybe, you can go to one of the big hotels and relax among the tourists". Mallouhi could not be serious about her modelling strategies, if, after all, she considers the whole affair to be a pressure for 'Westerners'. To make contact with their 'Western selves' (p, 72), 'Westerners' must now unlearn Mallouhi's modelling system. They are urged to throw Muslim garments away and return to their 'Westerness' in a clandestine world that the locals have no access to. What about her exhortation of 'Western' behaviour on p, 69 and her appeal for 'Scriptural' identity? Where does she draw the line?

Moreover, what does Mallouhi find so iniquitous about this group of converts a part from the fact that, frustratingly enough, they saw some 'salvation' in Islam? How contemptible and treacherous of them! If Mallouhi really believes in tolerance and crossing why does she decide to deny them her sympathy? Haven't they adopted Islamic respectability that she labours to embrace? Doesn't she insist that "the bottom line is that conformity to 'their' (Muslims) idea of respectability ministers to this fear of the dangerous sexuality of Western women", or is this an irregular case of selective tolerance? Mallouhi could not (would not) possibly believe in tolerance if she conforms only so as to 'minister'? This functional tactic runs throughout her argument, and one is not surprised that all the missionaries she quotes do the same thing. Given Mallouhi's willingness and endeavour to help Westerners understand Muslim culture, the most significant question about her book is why she wrote it in the first place? Certainly not out of genuine affection. Mallouhi's consistent misgiving is that she only makes connections that suit her partial evangelical agenda.

What strikes me as inadvertent about Mallouhi's proposals is her understanding of purpose. The aim of adhering to 'the' Muslim code of clothing is to create an image of respectability. Mallouhi recommends such clothing only to appeal to the interest of Moroccans to embrace her brand of Christianity. Respectability is a moral virtue and must be expressed through compassion, respect, and friendship based on equality, not on garments, veils, and Tjellabas. If the ultimate purpose of such 'crossing' is to 'convert' the other, respectability looses all meaning. She loves not the romanticism of Moroccan men, nor the humane conservatism of Arab culture. For her, Muslims sing their inbuilt archaic 'un-Western' song--les apparences sont lumineuses. Mallouhi wants to teach 'them' a new songóles apparences (mes amis!) sont trompeuses; she sees nothing in Arabs but shallowness, dishonesty, sexual deviance and double-standardeness. And that's exactly why they need to be 'saved'. You would not dream in Mallouhi's book of an 'Islam' capable of saving its own peoples. Egotistical, vainglorious missionaries elevate themselves beyond criticism, taking with them only the literalness and rigidity of language, leaving behind them a human world full of possibilities. What one has here is not an analysis, or even a case of cultural and religious communication, but a series of clichés mixed with unfounded assertions.


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

The right of Youssef Yacoubi to be identified as author of this Extended Book Review has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyrights, Designs and Patents Act 1988. Please send your comments and views to:

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Last modified: 13 May 2001