Academic Year 2011-2012
Adam H. Becker is Associate Professor of Classics and Religious Studies at New York University. He received his PhD in Religion at Princeton in 2004, after completing his BA in Classics (Columbia 1994) and also earning MA degrees in Classics (NYU 1997) and Syriac Studies (Oxford 2001). His research interests include Christian martyrdom in the Sasanian Empire, Jewish-Christian relations in Late Antiquity, the social and intellectual history of the Syriac (Christian Aramaic) tradition, the missionary encounter in the nineteenth century, and the theoretical problems pertaining to the study of religion in pre-modernity. See here for a list of his publications.
Religion and National Awakening in the Modern Middle East: Mission, Orientalism, and the American Evangelical Roots of Assyrian Nationalism (1834-1906)
My current research examines the missionary background to the development of “Assyrian” nationalism in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. When the first American mission was established in Urmia, Iran in the 1830s the Church of the East was an ancient ecclesial community spread throughout what is now northwestern Iran, southeastern Turkey, and northern Iraq. The “Nestorians” (or “Syrians” as they more often called themselves) often lived intermingled with a number of other religious and linguistic groups and spoke primarily a variety of dialects of Neo-Aramaic. At the time of the arrival of the missionaries this ethno-religious community was loosely joined under several competing patriarchs and tribal affiliation or village of origin seem to have been the predominant basis of self-identification. However, by the turn of the twentieth century a national consciousness had developed whereby many “Assyrians” understood themselves to be descendants of an ancient near eastern race. From the 1920s onwards, after the disruptions of WWI and the genocide and expulsion of much of the population, many Assyrians longed for a homeland in what they deemed to be their ancestral country of Assyria in northern Iraq. This project will examine in particular the contribution Western missionaries, especially American Evangelicals, made to this social and communal transformation, while I will also try to understand the East Syrians’ autoethnographic response to nineteenth-century Orientalism and archeology.
My primary theoretical concern in this project is to address the relationship between religious reform and the origins of secular nationalism. The critical turn that has taken place in Religious Studies, most notably in the effect of the work of Talal Asad and in the recent burgeoning of literature on the secular, secularism, and secularization, has not been applied to the theoretical-historical project of the origins of nationalism, a scholarly field that at times seems to have not progressed much further than the primordialist/constructivist debate summarized already by Anthony Smith in the 1980s. Religion is an important part of Benedict Anderson’s and Smith’s arguments, but both of these influential scholars of nationalism (as well as many others) employed a static notion of religion in their work. I would like to try to understand how the historiography of the development of nationalism is affected when we treat religion itself as a product of discursive processes. The secular nationalist culture that came out of the missionary encounter serves as an example of how the impulse towards religious reform can create a secular, modern social and ideological world, an important part of which is the very act itself of defining religion. Furthermore, the missionary encounter is especially important because in it religion is repackaged and defined by the missionaries in order that it may be exported, or rather translated, across cultural boundaries. This project fits with my broader interest in developing what for lack of a better term we might call a “post-secular historiography,” many of the issues of which I address in a discussion of pre-Islamic Iran in my forthcoming “Political Theology and Religious Diversity in the Sasanian Empire,” in Between Contact and Contrast: Jews and Christians in Sasanian Mesopotamia, ed. Geoffrey Herman (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2011).