Missionaries Today

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

Part 6 of the author's Interrogating Missionary Essentialism: The Muslim and "Evangelical" Nonsense

Now, in many Islamic countries missionary activity is restricted and suppressed by authorities. This is a lamentable state of affairs and a violation of the rights of a good number of open-minded, ecumenical and liberationist Christians who seem to be clear about the meaning of religious communication. Mallouhi rightly insists that in Morocco the police discourage contact between missionaries and lower-class Moroccans. In the absence of genuine democracy the police continue to oppress their own citizens. Mallouhi is right to protest that freedom to share one's faith openly with Muslims is far from being ideal. The police's tactics of intimidation and abuse, in most cases, aim at ensuring their own control over people and over information. Yet, the situation is not as simple as Mallouhi would like us to believe. Looking at Cairo Declaration on Human Rights for Islamic states, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights (1990) is considered an authoritative document reflecting the Islamic view on international human rights. Article 10 of the Cairo Declaration prohibits "any form of compulsion on man to exploit his poverty or ignorance (my emphasis) in order to convert him to another religion or to atheism." Article 22 allows freedom of expression in a manner "as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shari'ah." To suggest that missionaries may abuse their position is both possible and plausible. As I argued above, there is no evidence that missionaries questioned the morality of colonialism, or thought that 'the natives' could save themselves and were worthy of independence. Indeed, a good number of them even today, as Mallouhi herself admits, are still locked up in their 'Western/colonial' Holier than Though Attitude. So, what is the alternative?

Muslims and Christians have the right to be protected if there is evidence that they are physically or intellectually vulnerable. The Muslim world today is still run by autocrats who silence their own citizens. There are always clashes between different human rights. The right to proselytise related to freedom of expression might potentially interfere with other rights equally important. The rights proclaimed in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Articles 1 and 6 of the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief may be violated by coercion or through types of preaching that denigrate other religious feelings. The provisions of Article 19(1) of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, concerning the right to hold views without interference, are certainly applicable for religious views, which are usually pregnant with deep emotions.

To 'proselytise' people, who have no access to all the information is to abuse one's position and violate somebody else's right. Ignorance is an elusive term, it does not necessarily mean illiteracy as shown in Article 10. In Morocco, for example, over 50% of people are illiterate most of them women. Lower class Moroccans are caught up in a catch 22 situation. On the one hand, Moroccan authorities deprive them from access to a great degree of information through bureaucratic measures: security control of meetings, conferences, school and university curriculum, TV programmes etc (i.e., one exception, rich, middle class and elite nationals are allowed access to all types of information through the Internet, books, travelling and so on). And on the other hand, the vast majority of missionaries (particularly those with strong evangelical convictions and motives) deprive ordinary Moroccans from religious information by presenting them only with their particular evangelical views. A Bible in one's language, and other commentaries or correspondence courses may help inquirers to understand many aspects of Christian faith, but don't help them make an informed decision. Most evangelical missionaries are reluctant to advocate or circulate material (if they ever knew about it themselves) presenting non- evangelical views and interpretations of Christianity. The right to privacy, proclaimed in Article 12 of the Universal Declaration and Article 17 of the Covenant, may be infringed by some methods of proselytism and indoctrination. The need to reconcile the conflicting rights- - to disseminate religious teaching, on the one hand, and to protect a religious group's privacy, intimacy, isolation, poverty, lack of education, access and opportunity, or its strong desire to defend its religious identity against any intrusion, on the other- - is therefore an important consideration when dealing with evangelisation.

In the absence of all the information that allows people to make an informed decision, it is possible to be misled by a 'well-intentioned' missionary. Mallouhi herself uses the concept 'sharing' but only to dictate that her religious ideology is final (as though 'conversion' is a matter of vitrification). 'Sharing' does not mean to divulge one's experience of faith in order to win others for that faith. It is share and share alike, a two-way system, equal and negotiable. The word 'share' has a material signification, it means "part proprietorship of property or business held by joined (and equal) owners where the capital is divided equally entitling both partners equal profit" (Oxford Dictionary). Metaphorically, the word 'share' should imply that those who hold diverse views, beliefs and religious convictions should talk to each other on the basis of equality. There are no superior or inferior 'salvationist' messages. Muslims are able to judge the ambivalent propagandist nature of evangelical thinking when they read and examine other Christian non-evangelical views. The one alternative mentality is deeply exclusionist and clearly a violation of somebody else's right for complete information.

Poorly educated or illiterate Muslims have the right not to be exploited when there is enough evidence to suggest that many of them can not engage critically with the information imparted to them. I believe that those who are educated should be open to missionaries, their ideas, aspirations and work together, even agonistically if necessary, to attempt to mediate between cultures and religions on the basis of respect, fruitful debate, critical consciousness and genuine equality. A missionary ceases to exercise 'sharing' when he/she is not willing to recognise the possibility of other versions of 'salvation', and the humility to desire to learn from them. The same applies to arrogant Muslims who dismiss the benefits of Christianity's various and, at times paradoxical, perceptions of 'salvation'. I am not saying that all religions are more less the same, but I am saying that no religion can claim (or disguise) spiritual or theological superiority over another. The problem that many missionaries (not all of them) have to face today is their moral and spiritual arrogance. If Muslims are not included in their 'salvation' (without having to step outside Islamic faith and tradition(s)) then they are exclusionist and one has to question their motives, even if they themselves don't seem to notice this huge 'log in their eyes'.


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: [email protected]

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Last modified: 13 May 2001