Abusive Christian Missionaries Created the Muslim Brotherhood?

[A book review of Beth Baron’s The Orphan Scandal: Christian Missionaries and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Originally published by the Middle East Quarterly]

In 1933, Turkiya Hassan, an orphaned Egyptian, Muslim girl, was beaten by a matron at a Swedish missionary school. School authorities later contended that the “rude and aggressive” 15-year-old was ordered “into a room for private chastisement” at which time the girl “showed fight and seized the cane” from the matron who soon “regained mastery of the situation and … considerably roused, hit the girl with the stick where she could.” The girl, however, claimed that she was beaten for refusing to convert to Christianity—a story sensationalized by a nascent Muslim Brotherhood in order to foment anger and distrust for missionaries in Egypt while aggrandizing itself as a substitute.

Baron of City College of New York takes this minor incident and magnifies it in such a way as to portray the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood as a complete byproduct of aggressive missionary schools in Egypt. The problem is that the evidence she marshals for this claim is flimsy at best.

The book suffers from three main flaws. The first is myopia: If the incident is such a cause célèbre for the rise of the Ikhwan, why do modern Islamists, who habitually claim historic grievances against the West, never mention it? (Though they likely will now with the publication of this book.) One searches the Arabic-language Internet in vain for “Turkiya Hassan.”

Second, Baron is guilty of indulging in anachronistic moralizing. Emotive language proliferates about the whipping of the “rude and aggressive” teenage girl—in a nation and in an era where such disciplining was the norm—as a traumatizing event for Egypt. Yet Hassan’s story received attention not because she was beaten but because she claimed to have defied forced conversion.

The final defect is blatant bias on the part of the historian. While Baron presents some of the Christian mission’s arguments, it is clear whose narrative she follows: The book is dedicated to “all the Turkiyas.” She shows no reservations for the motives of Islamists and nationalists who sensationalized this incident, but she is cynical and mistrusting of the Western women who dedicated their lives to caring for Muslim orphans. Thus, we are told, “When the [Egyptian] locals did not turn out in large numbers to hear their message, [Western] evangelicals started building schools, hospitals, and later orphanages to guarantee a captive audience.” Further, Baron ignores Islam’s role in creating so many destitute orphans in Egypt in the first place: Adoption is forbidden according to many interpretations of Shari’a.

Not only does Baron exaggerate the significance of this incident, portraying it as the greatest catalyst for the rise of Islamism in Egypt, she also appears ignorant of the true nature of the Brotherhood as seen in her own time. For all of her claims that the Ikhwan defended Muslims from Christian “predators,” the true nature of the group is easily ascertained by looking at its current status in Egypt: banned by fellow Muslims—not Christians or Westerners—for its treachery and terrorism.