Missionary Rhetoric: A Cry of Need from Lands of Darkness

When Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, a feminist dystopia set in a world run by a totalitarian theocracy, she said that she hadn’t “invented anything,” but taken her inspiration from fundamentalist Christianity in the United States, and the Islamic Revolution in Iran, among other things.

In the context of the war on Afghanistan, Mary Adams wrote in World Literature Today that there is a need to “reread The Handmaid’s Tale after the Taliban:”

For those of us who read The Handmaid Tale as pure science fiction, let’s read it again. Instead of visualizing Offred, a white woman whose face is obscured by blinders, let us imagine a Middle Eastern woman hidden by the burka. As Offred plays a secret game of Scrabble, let’s remember the women who risked their lives by teaching Afghan girls. When Gilead kills its rebels, let’s be reminded of the senseless cruelties in Afghanistan and beyond.

While the cruelties Adams pointed obviously exist and need to be combated, her missionary rhetoric presents itself as a wake-up call—an appeal to the reader to “imagine a Middle Eastern woman hidden by the burka” and do something about saving her. It urges the reader to take a moment to remember all the “senseless cruelties” in the dark worlds beyond “our world,” where senseless cruelties apparently don’t exist.

The whole notion is summed up by the phrase “Afghanistan and Beyond,” which sounds like the title of a travel book penned by an intrepid war journalist/adventurer/neo-Orientalist. In fact it is actually the title of a book, subtitled “Reflections on the Future of Warfare.”

Adams continues:

If we were not frightened by this book, if it remained “powerless to scare,” that is a fault of our own. We failed to think outside our comfortable borders. We failed to imagine a world unlike our own. We failed to recognize the hegemonic force of complacency. Atwood succeeded beyond our comprehension, and for that her novel deserves renewed interest.

In her article Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Lila Abu-Lughod pointed out the dangers of seeking to save others, “with the superiority it implies and the violence it would entail.”  Through confident assertions about worlds “unlike our own,” Adam’s words uncannily echo parts of Our Moslem Sisters, A Cry of Need from Lands of Darkness, a missionary book published 1906. Author Annie Van Sommer writes “an indictment and an appeal [...] to Christian womanhood to right these wrongs and enlighten this darkness by sacrifice and service [...] to seek and save the suffering sinful needy women of Islam.”

While Van Sommer pointed out “you cannot know how great the need unless you are told; you will never go and find them until you hear their cry,” Adams speaks about the danger of complacency, urging people to reread The Handmaid’s Tale again and imagine all the oppressed “Middle Eastern” women in burqas, living an actual dystopia.

Despite the current shifts in foreign policy, the Afghanistan and Beyond mentality remains entrenched. Increasingly, Iraq is presented in terms of the rebirth of the nation, as in this Newsweek article. “It may not be ‘mission accomplished’ – but it’s a start,” suggests the problem was never with the idea of Bush’s mission (spreading ”freedom” through war), but with the over-hasty declaration of its accomplishment.

The rhetoric may be quieter, but the mission of spreading salvation (in whatever form) abroad is still couched in terms of “saving.” There is still “a world unlike our own” out there.

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Book review: Jewels of Allah by Nina Ansary