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Book Review: The Orphan Scandal – Beth Baron

In her book The Orphan ScandalChristian Missionaries and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, Beth Baron, Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the City College of New York, tells the thrilling story of Turkiyya Hasan, an Egyptian orphan girl that unintentionally influenced the course of modern Egyptian history. When Turkiyya refused to be baptized at the Swedish Salaam Mission in Port Said, she was physically abused by the missionaries. What began as a minor incident in 1933 soon transformed into a nationwide political controversy known as the orphan scandal. This scandal would have “unintended and unforeseen consequences” and would lead to two important changes (p. xii). First, the incident “marked the beginning of the end of foreign missions in Egypt” and secondly, it led to a “take-off of Islamist organizations” (p. ix).

According to Baron, the scandal allowed for civil organizations to take a more active role in Egypt’s political arena. The Muslim Brotherhood especially profited from the situation. Baron states that “the Port Said branch of the Brotherhood had been tracking local Muslim girls in the Swedish Salaam Schools for months, awaiting an opportunity to strike a blow at the Protestant mission. With the caning of Turkiyya, the Brotherhood found the perfect cause and stepped in at the critical moment to publicize the girl’s story” (p. 117). For them, the orphan scandal served as a tool to promote their anti-missionary viewpoints, recruit new members, and to gain more political power and influence. Therefore, they turned Turkiyya into “a symbol for the movement to fight missionaries”(p. 20).

After the scandal had happened, the Brotherhood asked for the immediate release of Muslim orphans from Christian missions. However, they soon recognized that it was not enough just to remove Muslim children from missionary institutions, but that they had to offer actual alternatives for these orphans. Consequently, the Brotherhood started to open similar welfare institutions as the missionaries such as schools, orphanages, and hospitals. In order to do so, the Brotherhood studied the missionaries’ methods, as they “provided an excellent model for organization and a template for action” (p. 132). According to Baron,  the missionaries therefore had “a clear imprint in shaping the activities and institutions of the early Muslim Brotherhood” (p. 128).

The Muslim Brotherhood’s fight against the missionaries was accompanied by other social movements. In particular, the League for the Defense of Islam and the Islamic Benevolent Society joined the Brotherhood’s call for the withdrawal of Christian missions from Egypt. Although fighting for the same cause, these organizations saw each other as rivals, as they had different ideas of Egypt as an independent and Muslim state. Therefore, Baron concludes, “the orphan scandal politicized Islam in new ways as formerly liberal-minded thinkers” (p. 150). It “fueled competition to lead the Muslim community and opened the doors to laymen to take initiative and interpreted Islamic ideas and practices.” (p. 150). The scandal became a “turning point of Islam in a new direction, with new foot soldiers and leaders, and new agendas” (p. 150).

Interestingly, the Egyptian officials did not side with the Islamic movements but saw them as the bigger threat to Egypt than the missionaries. The government therefore started to suppress their supporters and prohibited assemblies. Albeit all these efforts, once the scandal became a nationwide issue, the Egyptian officials could no longer ignore the growing resistance within the Muslim society and had to act. They agreed to renegotiate the relationship between foreign missionaries and their host country. As a consequence, the responsibility for social welfare shifted from the missionaries to the state. Within a short period of time, most orphans were removed from Christian missions and placed in a Muslim institution. Due to the shrinking number of children, many Christian orphanages eventually closed. Therefore, the author identifies the orphan scandal as the beginning of the end of Christian mission in Egypt.

I believe the title of the book is misleading. The book does little to describe how this incident turned the Brotherhood into a strong political force. Rather, it is a snapshot of how the Muslim Brotherhood used Turkiyya’s case for its own purposes. Although Baron emphasizes the Brotherhood’s important role in the story, it seems other actors such as the League for the Defense of Islam were the ones who brought political change. They were, in the end, the ones who “pressured the state, as the only entity large enough and with sufficient resources, to take greater control of social services” (p. 187).  

Baron’s book is an important supplement to the existing literature. In the preface, she mentions that scholars have only recently started to explore American and European forays in Egypt. While most of them focused on the evangelic involvement with the Christian Coptic community, Baron’s book explores the “missionaries’ interactions with the Muslim population and Islamist activists’ responses to foreign mission” (p. xi). This publication is therefore an important addition to the existing literature. By picking a specific case study and working with unstudied primary sources, Baron draws an extremely authentic and comprehensible picture of early twenty-century Egypt.What I personally enjoyed about Baron’s book is how she does not take sides, but instead describes the happenings from a neutral perspective. While illustrating the great suffering many orphans faced living in Christian institutions, the author does an excellent job in pointing out the opportunities the orphanages brought to a few of them. Girls usually received a better education than in their former homes and some even found spiritual comfort in conversion. For them, converting to Christianity meant a self-determined life. Furthermore, the author successfully illustrates that the struggle of decolonization was not only between the West and Muslim countries, but also an issue of controversy within the Muslim societies. Considering the fact that no background knowledge is needed to understand its topic, the book is a great reading for both pleasure and academic purposes.

Dina Wyler is a second year graduate student at the Pardee School of Global Studies in the International Relations and Religion program.