Announcement “Missionaries as experts: religious networks, knowledge of the field and public action in the Middle East (19th – 21 st century)”

Venue : Istanbul

Date : 26-27 October 2018

Format : Workshop

Object : Special issue (possible journals : Monde(s), A Contrario, Arsiv Orientalni, BJMES or Brill volume)

Coordinators : Philippe Bourmaud (U Lyon 3, IFEA), Armand Aupiais (IFEA), Aylin de Tapia (LABEX-MED)


The workshop aims to explore the figure of the missionary as a producer of expertise, in a Middle East where missionary activity was particularly intense, widespread, and capable of contributing in a significant fashion to the transformation of society far beyond the religious sphere. If expertise can be envisaged in an abstract manner as the capacity to give informed opinions, this normative definition is a black box of public action: the authority of the expert is a hypothetical element with contradictory dimensions. The notion is, however, an undeniable social fact, the expert providing an appearance of rationality in decision-making. It is therefore enlightening to ask who solicits the expertise, for what purpose, who is solicited and why; the call made upon the missionaries in a context of conflict such as that of the Middle East, is puzzling.

It seems somewhat hasty to consider the expert work carried out by the missionaries as a recycling of their experience in the field: that would imply that the missionaries only had an understanding of their own domain, which would mean ignoring the fact that their action was constructed by common religious aims and a superstructure that sent them to a mission territory. Why was the missionaries’ expertise solicited? What were their motivations in accepting these requests? What inherent means did the missions have for centralising expertise? What effect did the fact that the recommendations came from a missionary expert have on public action?


Studies of the missions show an increasing interest in the expert work performed by the missionaries (Taithe, 2012 ; Dujardin and Prudhomme, 2015). This research orientation can be explained in part by the interest created by the studies on expertise as an extension of the social studies of science. The missionaries were then considered as just another source of experts, sometimes notable for their lack of formal initial qualifications. From this point of view, we need to make a link between the expertise attributed to the missionaries and the process of academic and administrative certification of experts that was developing throughout our period, and thence to envisage the missionaries as an exception in this process, or to question the forms of certification within the missionary organisation.

The perspective changes, however, if we look at the phenomenon from the point of view of the history of missionary movements. The salient point is the secularization of the motivations of public action which, in the Middle East, took the form of an institutionalization of denominational communities and equality before the law, independent of religious affiliation. This legal framework strengthened the hostility towards the Christian missions, commonly seen as harbingers of colonization, pitting them against the strengthened community institutions. Was acting as experts a way for the missionaries to rid themselves of the image of conquerors or causers of conflict? Did the production of expertise represent an element of secularization of the modus operandi of the missionaries? In what context can missionaries also embody a second opinion?

From the point of view of the history of the Middle East, the interest in expertise is part of a broader questioning on the methods of mentoring and of penetration in middle-eastern societies, by state institutions and international organizations since the 19th century. Emphasis was put on the way public policies and whole administrative organisations were imposed on middle-eastern societies. Experts were then associated with the epistemological distinction between observer and object, with the neglecting of the context of projects, with excessive growth and a lack of participation by the inhabitants in the conception of big national and international projects (Mitchell, 2002). How can one situate the missionaries in relation to the extension of the state’s influence? If they were generally considered as instruments of European colonial penetration, the social purposes of their operations often turned out to be congruent to the motivations of the States, and even modelled on the latter as well as on those of international organisations. Both options tend to consider the missions as always fundamentally external to the mission territories, ignoring their respective evolutions throughout the 20th century. If the missionaries were solicited as experts, it was perhaps rather for their plurilingualism, their capacity to speak to the mission populations, to their own hierarchy, to the different levels of the administration and to international instances.

Internal expertise and the network of missionary organisation

We propose firstly to analyse the missionaries’ work as experts by examining the way the mission network functioned, the circulation of knowledge throughout it and the effects of this grid-like organisation on missionary methods. The missionaries were first solicited by their own supervising organizations to think about the techniques and perspectives for their initiatives, or to transmit information formatted for potential donors: missiology in this sense was the mother of expertise.

Like the latter, missiology was founded not only on the work of agents on the spot, but also on that of partners and informers. The knowledge that resulted was pre-formatted and “co-produced” by the appeal and the special intentions of these different agents (Jasanoff, 2004).  Knowing that missionary organisations theorise the relations of their agents with the missioned societies, what incidence did the missiological concepts such as inculturation have on the expertise produced internally? Did these concepts give a specificity to the expertise produced by the missionaries?

Missions in Islam have for long been a special case within missionary structures, on account of the strong resistance to all attempts at conversion. The apologetics were therefore accompanied by social activities making it possible to approach societies differently, and led the missionaries to acquire a certain knowledge of these societies, often as a prelude to any operation, apologetic or social. What do the exchanges between the missionaries and their hierarchy and missiological literature teach us about the way that the gathering of information from the mission lands and the decision-making on the general orientations of the mission were articulated internally? Who were the “experts” making the link between these two phases for the Middle East? On what criteria – special training, bureaucratic functioning or something else – were they chosen? Were they dependent on privileged informers in mission lands? Did the orientation of missionary policy give rise on the contrary to conflicts of expertise between these different groups? What was the protocol presented by the missionaries to produce their expertise?

Knowledge of the field, certification and expertise

For what reason did people seek the missionaries’ help as experts, outside the sphere of the mission? It appears that it was firstly as men of the field, especially in the colonial period. They intervened in relations between the European powers and the missions, whether for purposes of information or to ensure, at a lower cost, both a presence and permanent operational links in the outlying regions, where it was more difficult to maintain a military presence or to attract civil servants and qualified personnel. Like for the military personnel, a mastery of the local language was the basis of the missionaries’ expertise. This tended therefore, at the same time, to give a special importance to the Christian communities and the congregations served by the missionaries, which made up the first circle of mediation in local social activity. Did the expertise of the missionaries lead the colonial powers to give increased importance to the constitution of communities in the colonised societies, or are the consideration of minorities and segmental theory the phenomenon most commonly shared between the colonisers and the missionaries? Did the missionaries, both European and local, walk hand in hand with the colonial powers, or was expertise a way for them to maintain their distance from the latter? How did the missionaries develop this knowledge of languages themselves? Did the missionary expertise affect language policies or debates on the constitution of the nation? Did the tendency to recruit middle-eastern missionaries, during the 20th century, affect their recruitment as experts by the colonial and post-colonial powers?

Faced with the image of the legitimate and professional expert that was spreading in the 20th century, the missionaries appear increasingly as a foil for others. Because of the conversion history of the missions and the opaque agendas attributed to them, they were considered too involved to be legitimate, whether in the eyes of the hostile nationalist powers, the experts in development immersed in scientism, or the secularised and critical humanitarian organisations such as the French doctors, or the anthropologists. On what base did the missionaries rely to assume the authority of experts, faced with this discourse?

To raise the question of the legitimacy of missionaries as experts, is also to raise the question of their relations with international institutions, which enhance recommendations of all sorts and international comparisons between public policies, but which also need someone on the spot to take over. Faced with the expansion of the international sphere, did missionary organisations turn towards the development of their expertise in the field, or did they change, faced with the requirements of personnel, of the definition of public policies and criteria for expertise within the arena of experts?  Cyrus Schayegh, at the American University in Beirut, observed at the time of the French Mandate, a premature evolution towards this second option, with the constitution of what he called a « complex university-foundation-development-missionary » (Schayegh, 2015). Can this evolution be generalized and if so, with what time sequence? To this complex should be added a humanitarian dimension, which supposes a reactivity founded not only on human and financial means, but on an intimate knowledge of the populations concerned; all of which the missionaries boasted. What role was played in the internationalised treatment of the great crises of the Middle East, beginning with the end of the First World War and then the war of 1948, in the evolution of the missionary organisations?

While professional environments of national experts and pools of expatriated all-round experts were being formed, how relevant was the missionary-expert in the field? Beyond the general principle of founding public action on the informed opinions of specialists, the notion of expertise also covered varying demands for both abstraction and a knowledge of the context, and in this “conflict”, the expert was often the person who was recognised as such. If the missionaries could be solicited because of their presence on the spot or because of the margin between the theoretical criteria for the recruitment of experts and the availability of personnel, it seems somewhat naïve to see in the appeal to missionaries a temporary last resort in a period of standardisation of the criteria of certification and the development of a university for all. Considering the reticular capacity of the missions and the fact that many of them also laid down conditions of qualification and diplomas for the recruitment of their agents, the appeal to missionaries as experts was also, for the missionary organisations, a question of placing themselves and thus of exercising political influence. To what end did this orientation of public action correspond after the secularisation of the justifications of the latter? Did the job of expert occupy a place in missiology? Beyond the missionary institutions as such, was this work done not by the missionaries themselves, but by milieux federated by missionary affinities, and what were these milieux?

Connections between institutions and secularised public action

The solicitations of the missionaries as experts coming from institutions outside the mission correspond however to a context that can be situated from the setting-up of constitutional governments, a context in which public action, now justified by the general interest, became secularised, as did humanitarian actions. These processes had repercussions, with a chronology to be defined, on the missionary modus operandi.

The fact that the missionaries were solicited as experts was counter-intuitive, considering the hostility manifested by the missioned societies towards the missions. Thus the Ottoman Empire sometimes had recourse to the services of the missionaries to compensate for their own scarce services, but the internal correspondence of the administrations generally assimilated them with foreign agents whom it was impossible to trust. The nationalist powers in the Middle-East often demonized the missionaries denouncing the proselytising ulterior motives behind missionary action. The end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries however witnessed a reorientation of the forms of action of the most important missionary organisations, towards a development of social actions and the transmission of values to the detriment of conversion as sole aim. Were the missionaries solicited despite the persistent mistrust of the old missiology which aimed at conversion, or were such solicitations a reflection of an awareness of the changes in methods and finalities of the missionary action among public agents? A first approach makes it appear that familiarity with the missionaries was a determining factor, and that in order to answer the question we need to identify those who solicited the missionaries within the institutions of civil society, and ask ourselves whether they were not already familiar with the missionaries.

In the modern and contemporary Middle East, the solicitation of the missionaries as experts came first from the colonial powers, international organisations, large foundations and certain NGOs. The solicitations from the independent States are less well known and were probably less frequent. To explain the call on the missionaries’ expertise, we need to invoke the fact that they were present in the field, even if that is not enough: they were only one of the possible relays, alongside the civil servants, soldiers, and doctors, among others. We are forced to fall back on the existence of previous links and the functioning of the network of missionary organisations: was it then the links created individually by missionaries that qualified them as experts, or rather the interaction between institutions? Did the importance of missionary educational institutions in the formation of the local political classes encourage the soliciting of the missionaries after independence, at a time when the political and administrative structures often had but the form and the name of a state?

To answer these various questions, we will, among other aspects, approach the careers of experts in missionary circles, the qualification of the people concerned, the nature of the expertise claimed by the missionaries and their methods of observation. We should also ask ourselves about the agendas of the missionary institutions and their translation into forms of expertise. Did the latter occupy an important place in missiological debates, and if so from what perspective? Missionary work and internationalised expertise had in common problems of method, of relations with otherness: how could otherness and distancing oneself, or on the contrary the inculturation and indigenisation of expertise, be envisaged in missionary circles? Moreover, it would be useful to pinpoint and chart the networks which were woven around the missionaries to communicate their expertise. We need also to ask ourselves about the re-appropriation of the missionaries’ approach concerning the missioned societies, in particular the part of missionary movements which were emerging within other religions (missions and proselytizing, Moslems, Bahaï, Buddhists, Jews, etc) : did they borrow a certain savoir faire from the Christian missions, or did they build their knowledge of the societies where they operated differently, on the basis of different relations ?

The proposals (250-300 words)  are to be sent to , accompanied by five key-words and a short biography including academic affiliation.


Carine DUJARDIN & Claude PRUDHOMME, Science & Mission: Missiology revisited / Missiologie revisitée 1850-1940, Louvain, Leuven University Press, 2015.

Sheila JASANOFF, States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and the Social Order, London, Routledge, 2004.

Timothy MITCHELL, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2002.

Cyrus SCHAYEGH, « The Interwar Germination of Development and Modernization Theory and Practice : Politics, Institution Building, and Knowledge, Production between the Rockefeller Foundation and the American University of Beirut », Geschichte und Gesellschaft, 41 (2015), pp. 649–684.

Bertrand TAITHE, « Pyrrhic Victories? French Catholic Missionaries, Modern Expertise and Secularizing Technologies », in: Michael Barnett & Janice Gross Stein (eds), Sacred Aid. Faith and humanitarianism, Oxford, 2012, pp. 166-182.

Citer ce billet
Norig Neveu (2018, 1 février). Announcement “Missionaries as experts: religious networks, knowledge of the field and public action in the Middle East (19th – 21 st century)” MisSMO. Consulté le 28 mai 2024, à l’adresse

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