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The American Revolution as affected by the Muslim World

Part -II

Syed R. Mahmood

Challenges for the First American Envoy

In the year of 1803 during the war of Tripoli against the United States, David Porter was a first lieutenant on the famous battleship; PHILADELPHIA. He was captured by the forces of Tripoli during the Barbary War. He became a prisoner of war with the other marines. After the peace treaty of June, 1805, he was released. During the war of 1812, David Porter, now promoted to Commodore -- was a terror to the British Navy for which he received much distinction from Congress. Later, having exceeded his authority in the West Indies, he was court-martialed and he subsequently resigned his commission and became a rear admiral in the Mexican service. In 1829, he returned to the United States from Mexico, having served as Commander-in- Chief of their naval forces.

As a first American envoy to the Ottoman Empire, Porter had a very challenging assignment. He had to compete with the European powers to win friendship and gain economic benefits for the United States. Other than promoting the business of American household goods and the sale of arms and American technology in the region, he also had to build an American image as equal to the European powers: the British and French. It is interesting to see that even after one hundred and eighty years; America still needs to work hard and smart to build the American image in the Middle East and Europe. He assured the Ottomans that Americans do not have territorial ambitions, unlike the Europeans in the Ottoman regency.

Porter’s primary responsibility was to uphold the Treaty of Navigation and Commerce between the United States and the Ottomans, not to promote American ideals. Porter had to face a real test of his diplomatic skills, when a few Syrian- Jewish members were arrested and charged for murder. This issue became a political embarrassment for the Ottoman authorities, because it was commonly believed that the Syrian- Jewish members were framed by non- Jewish members. Finally they were released.

It was probably the first known intervention by the American authorities on the behalf of a Jewish community in the Arab land. Porter boasted to the Ottoman authorities that in America, Mohammedans (Muslims), Jews, and Christians are treated equally. One of the most important creeds of the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson is that all men are created equal. It was a good reminder to the authoritarian rulers of the Ottomans. At the same time it did not cross in Porter’s mind that the African Slaves and Native Indians were also Americans. Why they were not treated equally?

Porter faced another challenge. His own countrymen-- the American Christian missionaries, were constantly threatening his authority as an envoy. Some missionaries were working in the area since early 1820. Their mission was to convert Muslims, Jews, and Arab Christians to Protestantism.

David Porter felt that the missionary work is counter- productive to his diplomatic efforts to promote friendly relations with the Ottomans. Porter did not want missionaries to                   offend the Mussulmans (Muslims) by trying to promote Christianity. He was afraid that their reactions will create trouble for the missionaries. He informed them that our Treaty with the Ottomans does not provide any clause to protect Americans, who can stir up problems. Porter was very frustrated due to the non- cooperative attitude of the missionaries. At one point he asked the Ottoman Administration to expel all American evangelicals from the kingdom.

Porter laid a strong diplomatic foundation for America in the region as a regional power. He died in the Ottoman Empire on March 3, 1843 at the age of sixty-three.

American Missionary Influence on the Ottoman Empire

It is a very intriguing experience to study the history of American missionaries and their activities in the Ottoman Empire. Readers will find covert maneuvering styles of approaches by the missionaries to achieve their objectives.

The foundation of this new Nation is based on separating church from the state, but the passion of religion among certain groups of Americans was very strong. Protestantism in America had strong roots. Some Christians had a burning zeal to spread the message of the Gospel and spiritually save the world. The American missionaries of this newly independent state had a very strong urge of patriotism and desire to promote individual freedom and democratic values of America around the Globe.

Some missionaries thought their roles were as ambassadors of the United States. They also had a strong desire to promote American culture and enlightenment in a backward Muslim world. They opened schools, medical clinics and libraries. Missionaries also played a roll in discouraging the local population against the Ottoman Empire and later in anti- colonial movements.

It was very demoralizing for missionaries to see that after an investment of money, time and efforts, they had very little success in converting the Ottomans: Coptic Christians, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims to Protestantism. Despite that, they continued their efforts. Some of them believed that by teaching the Ottomans how to read and write, perhaps their children will be open to Salvation through Christ.

The Government of the United States was not officially recognized by the Ottoman Empire until the treaty of 1830 between the two countries. American citizens and missionaries were using the British Embassy in Istanbul to apply for traveling documents (Seyahat tezkeresi) from the Ottoman administration. British Consulate offices were also providing these services to Americans.

Even after the 1830 Treaty, the United States did not have consulate offices in other cities in the Empire. American missionaries continued to use the services of the British Consulates for many years. Financially, the United States was not in a position to open multiple offices in the Ottoman Domain.

In 1810, Congregational members of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches along with some businessmen, lawyers, physicians, and industrialists formed an "American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions" (ABCFM). The original idea was to evangelize the Catholic Christians and Native Americans in the United States. Later on, the objectives of the organization expanded and it was decided to open mission centers throughout the non-Protestant world. In the opinion of one of the founders of the board, member Reverend Samuel Hopkins surmised that Christianity could offer the solutions to the problems of poverty, injustice and oppression. Their efforts could also bring humanity closer to each other.

The American Board in 1818 assigned two of their theological Seminary students, Pliny Fish and Levi Parsons, to go to the Ottoman Empire. In November 1819 they left the United States for Palestine, their final destination was the Christian Holy City of Jerusalem.

Their first assignment was to evangelize the Jewish community of the Arab world. They were also instructed to conduct a survey in the surrounding areas: Egypt, Syria, Persia, and Armenia. They also approached Churches of different denominations and Mohammedans (Muslims).

Levi Parsons died during his mission in 1821. Pliny Fish was left alone to continue his assignment in this rough terrain of the Arabian Desert. He traveled very extensively to Jerusalem, Hebron, Jaffa, Baalbek, Tripoli, Alexandretta (former name of Iskenderun, a Turkish port city), and Latakia (an early Syrian port city on the Mediterranean sea). He gathered information and conducted his research on: Arabs, Kurds, Druze, Maronites (a Catholic sect), Greeks, and Armenians.

After a long and exhaustive effort, Fish was able to convert a few Armenians and two ecclesiastics. Pliny Fish, a dedicated missionary, was very serious in his work. In 1822, he established a printing house in Malta. He started publishing Christian religious materials and books in Armenian, Arabic, and Greek languages.

American missionaries were welcomed by the Armenian community. In 1829, the ABCFM board decided to explore the possibilities of expanding their efforts in the Armenian communities of the Ottoman Empire. Three individuals; Henry Otis, Dwight, and Eli Smith were assigned to conduct the study. After one year of study, research and traveling, their report was submitted about the potential of their work in the Armenian and Nestorian communities.

In 1820, the missionary work started on a very small scale. By 1840, their activities reached to a very substantial size of the Christian evangelical movement in the Sublime Porte (Ottoman Monarchy). Forty one missionaries were sent to the Ottoman Empire during the year of 1836. By the year of 1875, the number reached to 137. Later the number was increased to 177 and finally by the year of 1913, the estimated numbers of missionaries actively working were around 209.

Seven Churches and seven missionary schools were functioning in the year of 1850 in the Ottoman domain. By the year of 1860, the number of Churches was increased up to 49 and around 114 schools were thriving and operating in the Kingdom. The missionary activities were very rapidly expanding. A good amount of funds were available from the United States.

The American Civil war and the budgetary cuts created a shortage of volunteers, but the missionary work flourished in the Ottoman Domain -- an American School was opened in Ramallah. By the end of the Civil War, there were thirty three mission schools operating only in Syria. Out of one thousand students, one fifth of them were girls.

A very dedicated evangelist, the Reverend John Hogg with his family decided to spread the words of the Gospel in Egypt. He traveled around 1,160 miles by a boat up the Nile River. He visited sixty-three villages and preached to around seven thousand people. In Assiyut, a Coptic Christian town near Cairo, Hogg decided to open a girl’s school. Later that school became a very prestigious institution.

Ambassador Morris reported that the missionaries in the Ottoman Empire had a great deal of freedom to carry on their activities. Some of the so- called enlightened Kingdoms in Europe did not have the similar freedom. A good number of schools, churches and medical clinics were open to gain converts however, the Missionaries had very little response from the general public. Their work load was increasing to manage the activities to run these operations. In 1870, the American Protestants decided to divide their responsibility of management into three zones: a) Turkey, (b) Syria, Egypt, and Iran, (c) Arabia and the Persian Gulf states.

By the year of 1880, ninety-seven Churches and 331 schools were functioning at full swing in the Domain. In 1913, the numbers of established Churches were 163, and 450 schools were teaching math, science, English, and other courses. The number of enrolled students in 1880 were13,095 and it increased to 25,992 in the year of 1913. Naturally this influx of foreign missionaries and their bold and assertive enterprising approach was bound to create some political reaction in the clergy and other religious community leaders.

Continued on page 2 of 5 pages