Beth Baron, “The Orphan Scandal: Christian Missionaries and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood”

The Abstract

Beth Baron, The Orphan Scandal: Christian Missionaries and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 2014. 245 pp. $24.95. ISBN: 9780804791380. In her provocative and insightful study The Orphan Scandal, historian Beth Baron tells a complex story in a consistently engaging and accessible manner, intertwining histories of American and European evangelicals, […]

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Book review by Alain Epp Weaver

Beth Baron, The Orphan Scandal: Christian Missionaries and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 2014. 245 pp. $24.95. ISBN: 9780804791380.

In her provocative and insightful study The Orphan Scandal, historian Beth Baron tells a complex story in a consistently engaging and accessible manner, intertwining histories of American and European evangelicals, British colonial authorities, local elites, state officials, and leaders of the nascent Muslim Brotherhood in the 1920s and 1930s in Egypt. Baron organizes her study around a particular incident—the titular “orphan scandal” that rocked Egypt in 1933. On June 7 of that year, teenage Egyptian Muslim girl Turkiyya Hasan left the Swedish Salaam Mission school and home for orphans in Port Said after sustaining a beating that left her badly bruised. Hasan claimed the Swiss missionary Alzire Richoz had beaten her because she refused to convert to Christianity. Leaders of the mission school—who undeniably had exerted sustained emotional pressure on Hasan to convert—countered that Hasan had been beaten for showing disrespect to a visiting American missionary. Hasan soon became a cause célèbre among activists in the still-young Muslim Brotherhood, with the ikhwan (brothers) using Hasan’s case to rally popular anti-missionary sentiment. This “orphan scandal” in turn embroiled Egyptian state and British colonial authorities. As Baron summarizes, the Hasan case “came to represent the frontline in the war between missionaries and Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. And it showed contestations over legal jurisdiction between the state, religious authorities, and foreign representatives” (85).

Baron’s account is divided into two main parts. After a prologue narrating the events of Hasan’s beating, her fleeing to local authorities in Port Said, and the ways that different actors responded to the ensuing public outcry, Baron turns in part one to chapter-long histories of three different Protestant missions for “orphans” from Muslim, Coptic Christian, and Jewish families. (Islamic law distinguishes “orphans” [pl. aytam; sing. yatim], children who have lost a father, from “foundlings” [pl. luqata; sing. laqit], children whose paternity is unknown. Protestant missionaries worked with both kinds of orphans.) Then, in part two, Baron examines how the Muslim Brotherhood used the Hasan affair to stoke anti-missionary sentiment and to expose the Egyptian state’s constraints (thanks to the British occupation and the Ottoman Capitulations) to control missionaries, in turn prompting the state simultaneously to expand its reach through the organizing of social services (including to orphans) and to act against the growing Islamist movement.

Chapters 2 through 4 present case studies of three Protestant mission efforts in the first decades of the twentieth century in Egypt, centered around care for orphans: the efforts of the American-based Presbyterian mission agencies in Cairo, with a particular emphasis on the Fowler Orphanage for girls established by the Quaker couple Esther and John Fowler and later taken over by the Presbyterians; the Asyut Orphanage in Upper Egypt led by Pentecostal missionary Lillian Trasher; and the efforts of Maria Ericsson and the Swedish Mission to Mohammedans in Port Said. Baron ably assesses the commonalities and the distinctive elements of these three mission efforts. She describes how missionaries viewed abandoned and orphaned children as an opportunity: “Where others saw a stigma,” she writes, “missionaries saw the possibility of ‘winning souls for Christ’: the child was a blank slate who could be saved” (37). While the American Presbyterians began their mission efforts with a focus on elite Egyptian families, the Presbyterians, Baron contends, shifted focus to “working with slaves, orphans, and abandoned children, whose families made few if any claims and who could stay on in Egypt to help the evangelicals” (44).

These different Protestant orphanages sought to keep children in the homes as long as possible so that missionaries “would have time to shape” their charges through routines of religious lessons, homework, housework, and prayer (51). When extended families placed orphans at Fowler House or the Asyut Orphanage, they had to sign contracts promising to leave the children at the orphanage until the age of eighteen (69). When extended families pulled their children from one of these orphanages, the missionaries experienced it as a profound loss: one missionary wrote with lament of “a dear little ten-year-old Mohammedan . . . stolen by her father and married soon after because he feared she might become a Christian” (52). Orphan children were part of what Protestant missionaries viewed as a “spiritual landscape” that they described in militant terms, with missionaries occupying, retreating, battling upon, facing sieges, and ceding territory within this spiritual landscape (39).

Children received in missionary orphanages were expected to “study the Bible, sit in on services, and listen to prayer,” partaking in Protestant Christian practices despite their Muslim, Jewish, or Coptic families of origins. Children at Asyut Orphanage, where around 10 percent of the children came from Muslim families, learned English by listening to gramophone hymns like “Onward, Christian Soldiers!” and “Joy to the World” (73). Children did not have to become Christians at the orphanage, but they were expected to “follow the forms of Christian practice and discipline” (95). Baron observes that low-income, socially marginalized Egyptians “initially took this to be a small price to pay for services which were in short supply” (27).

Baron explores the complicated relations between the missionaries and colonial authorities. The colonial authorities protected missionary efforts, yet missionaries often chafed at what they experienced as restrictions. Baron explains that “colonial officials protected the right of Christian missionaries to proselytize, but they did not go out of their way to protect converts and allowed Islamic courts to decide cases of personal status.” George Swan, leader of the Egypt General Mission and head of the Inter-Mission Council when the orphan scandal erupted, described British officials as “hyper-nervous about the Moslem faith” and as keeping “a tight hand on Christian Missions, fearing that they would be a cause of arousing the Mohammedans to fanatical uprising” (36).

Baron’s case studies highlight how European and American women coming from patriarchal denominations in which they would have had minimal scope for religious leadership back home were able to exercise such leadership in Egypt. Baron also teases out differences among the Protestant mission efforts she studies, noting how Presbyterian missionaries closely examined potential baptismal candidates, testing whether or not orphan girls who sought to convert displayed sufficient piety, knowledge, and commitment, whereas Trasher, as a Pentecostal, gave particular weight to spontaneous religious experience—the baptism of the Spirit—in the life of her orphaned charges.

In part two, Baron examines how Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood deployed concerns over Christian missionary activity to mobilize and attract followers, with these efforts focused and intensified by the public outcry at Hasan’s beating and the alleged attempt at forced conversion. Baron explains how the Muslim Brotherhood drew upon an understanding of religious freedom quite different from the understanding held by Christian missionaries in order to organize opposition to such missionary outreach. “To missionaries,” Baron observes, “freedom of religion meant the freedom to choose and to change their religion. To Muslims, it meant freedom of religious minorities to practice their religion and of the majority to protect their own, particularly the young and vulnerable, from proselytizing” (53). Christian missionaries, Baron continues, presented a serious threat in the eyes of the ikhwan: such missionaries “undermined the faith of Muslims, going after orphaned, abandoned, and poor children, whose care was mandated by Islam. The prevalence of female evangelicals roaming the countryside freely and targeting young girls as well as occasionally ‘seducing’ young men, according to critics, presented a cultural challenge to Islamists and the gender order they envisioned” (117). Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, criticized the duplicitous nature of Christian service, warning that “under the guise of practicing medicine, teaching embroidery, and sheltering boys and girls,” missionaries were seeking to pull Muslims from their faith (119).

Perhaps the most fascinating dimension of Baron’s book is her demonstration of how the Muslim Brotherhood emulated and adopted Christian missionary strategies. “Learning from the missionaries,” Baron contends, “al-Banna and Brothers preached in clubs and cafes; traveled to towns and villages to spread the call (da’wa); and set up weekly lectures designed to counter the influence of missionary talks” (124). She continues: “The Brothers learned from their first adversaries that providing social welfare was an excellent way of recruiting supporters and spreading their message” (134). One Muslim Brother emphasized the need to adopt “the active means of the missionaries” (135), while Labiba Ahmad stressed the importance of Islamists organizing and providing social services for the poor and the elderly “in order to block the path of the missionaries” (137).

In her concluding chapters, Baron analyzes how the Egyptian government responded to the orphan scandal in a two-fold manner: by “extracting Muslim children from missionary orphanages and finding them new homes” (166), in the process expanding the reach of the Egyptian state and inscribing sectarian divisions into Egyptian society while also “containing, then crushing, the anti-missionary movement” (152) in the process of beating back the Muslim Brotherhood’s challenge to its authority.

The Orphan Scandal is a model of mission history that offers a humanizing account of mission efforts while situating such efforts within broader social, political, and colonial contexts. Baron’s study should be read by anyone interested in the history of Western Christian mission efforts in the Middle East generally and Egypt specifically, as well as by anyone examining how children—from low-income families in particular and especially orphans—have been a focus of Protestant missionary efforts.

Alain Epp Weaver directs the Planning, Learning, and Disaster response for Mennonite Central Committee and is the author of Mapping Exile and Return: Palestinian Dispossession and a Political Theology for a Shared Future (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014).