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I've been thinking lately about the circumstances under which Coptic Christians emerge on the Egyptian socio-political landscape. Those circumstances tend to be, in a word, ugly. Copts become a visible religious community when they are attacked. And then Westerners in particular wonder: “Who are the Copts?” (I should also point out, however, that although well aware of the existence of Copts, or al-aqbat in Arabic, most Egyptian Muslims are equally unfamiliar with Coptic religiosity.) This strange play between visibility and invisibility is the problematic that I take up here, arguing that what is desirable for Copts in a new Egypt is a visibility that takes seriously their religiosity. I do so by drawing on ethnographic fieldwork I have been doing among Copts and reflecting on recent events in Egypt.
For readers who might not be aware, Coptic Christians make up roughly ten percent (about 8 million people) of the predominantly Muslim Egyptian population, making Copts a sizable religious minority in Egypt, and the largest Christian community in the Middle East.
1 January 2011, 12:20am
A bomb rocks the Coptic Church of the Two Saints in the Sidi Bishr neighborhood of Alexandria, Egypt killing two dozen worshipers and injuring several dozen more just as those gathered had completed praying: “Holy, Holy Holy, Lord of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of your holy glory.” They were gathered not only to usher in the new year (the Coptic New Year, incidentally, is celebrated on 11 September), but to sing praises to the Virgin Mary during the Coptic advent month of Kiahk in anticipation of the birth of Christ celebrated on 7 January. The Egyptian State immediately proclaimed that the bombing was the doing of outside forces, implying the impossibility that Egyptians could have been involved. The State's response did not come as a shock to anyone. Typically the State offers one of two possibilities for these kinds of attacks on Copts: foreign intrusion or, if the perpetrator is undeniably Egyptian, then he must be mentally insane. The latter was the State's proclamation on 11 January of this year when an off-duty Muslim police officer open fired on a train in the Egyptian town of Samalut (an area not unaccustomed to inter-religious violence), killing one Copt and injuring five others. This repeated response by the Egyptian State and its utter disregard for the very real assaults on a religious minority population in Egypt do nothing more than to frustrate Copts who often feel that the State simply does not care to protect them from these kinds of violent outbreaks. An anxiety around where exactly Copts fit into the Egyptian nation ensues.
The blood of those Alexandria victims was not only spilled on the church where they were praying, but it also crossed the street and landed on the mosque opposite the church.
[Image Source: Ben Curtis/AP Photo]
Coptic blood marked Christian presence in a Muslim space, and in the least desirable of ways indexed the proximity of Christians and Muslims in Egypt. A gruesome kind of national unity. Blood also stained a picture of Christ, which has become the iconic image of the bombing and, for a spell, Coptic grievances in Egypt. In what echoes centuries of martyr stories, the Coptic Church was quick to frame those who died as Christians whose blood was spilled for the sake of Christ. The assumption, of course, was that these people were killed because of their Christianity, and not because they simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some Copts found evidence of this martyr narrative in a video of the funeral of the Alexandria victims where a luminescent figure in the right hand corner of the screen is purported to be the Virgin Mary in attendance. She would not have appeared if she did not both recognize the sacrifice of those killed and feel the pain of those mourning. This apparition, for those who take it as such, slightly shifted the mood of loss to one of victory, but not at the expense of a narrative of persecution to which many Copts are committed. (A detailed historical discussion of this narrative can be found here and a contemporary one here.)
Egyptians on the whole were appalled by the events of 1 January and many Muslim Egyptians vowed to attend and serve as human shields during Coptic Christmas eve services on 6 January. A moment of horror was turned into a moment of Egyptian solidarity. A recognition of the Coptic Other as an important, even an integral part of the Egyptian social fabric emerged.
Then the uprising of 25 January happened. Once again we saw Copts and Muslims coming together in solidarity, this time in Tahrir Square where they would protect one another from potential State attack while each community prayed. (Note: What was being called a “Coptic mass” was a Protestant Christian prayer. Significant as this was, it is important to understand that it did not represent the Coptic Orthodox liturgy which the vast majority of church-going Christians in Egypt typically pray.)
On 11 February, Egyptians, and most observers the world over, were simultaneously elated and stunned to hear that Mubarak would abdicate the presidency after thirty long years. The hope was so thick and palpable that one could feel it thousands of miles away. Everyone knew that this was just the beginning. The hard work of making an Egypt in which Egyptians could happily live would soon have to commence. And not without its hardships. Among these hardships has been a continuation of tensions between Copts and Muslims.
On 4 March the Shahidayn Coptic Church (Church of the Two Martyrs, Mar Mina and Mar Girgis) in Atfeeh, Helwan (south of Cairo) was burnt down, allegedly because of families feuding over a romance between a Christian man and a Muslim woman (by now a familiar scenario on the Egyptian inter-religious landscape). The incident sparked Coptic protests in front of the Radio and Television Building in Maspero. Coptic protesting before the Radio and Television Building was, as historian Paul Sedra notes, “quite deliberate: The Coptic protesters want their distinctive lives and concerns publicly acknowledged by fellow Egyptians. This means inclusion, not separation.” In their protesting Copts chanted, among other things, two slogans directed at the Higher Council of the Armed Forces Field Marshal Muhammad Husayn Tantawi: يا مشير يا مشير احنا كمان من التحرير (Oh field marshal, Oh field marshal we too are of Tahrir) and يا طنطاوي اوعى تدسني اوعا تغلط غلطة حسني (Oh Tantawi, don't dare crush me, don't wrong [me with] the wrongs of Husni). The army, which has been serving as Egypt's interim government since the fall of Mubarak, began rebuilding the Shahidayn church. The pace of rebuilding, many Copts are complaining, is geologic.
In the meantime, Coptic protests led to more violent clashes on 8 March in the Manshayet Nasser neighborhood near Muqattam, the mountains on the eastern fringes of Cairo, where the majority of the residents are both Coptic and garbage collectors (zabbaleen). Muqattam is also the site of an important miracle for Copts. In the tenth century (CE), the story goes, the Coptic community was threatened by the khalifa (al-Mu'izz li-Din Allah) with annihilation if they did not fulfill the seemingly unthinkable assurance of Christ that faith as small as a mustard seed could move mountains (Mt. 17:20). In this case al-Mu'izz wanted the Copts to move the mountains to the east of Cairo. Through the simple faith a man called Sam'an al-Kharraz the Copts moved the mountain. This story is a constant source of inspiration and comfort for Copts today when faced with troubles of all sorts, including violent inter-religious clashes. It comes as no surprise, in the eyes of many Copts, that Muqattam has recently been the site of numerous tensions and clashes, including the culling of pigs used by the zabbaleen in the processing of Cairo's garbage in the midst of the H1N1 (aka “swine flu”) outbreak. This move was perceive by many Copts as a direct attack on them as Christians, and not the Egyptian government's attempt to prevent the spread of disease as it had claimed.
On 9 May inter-religious tensions flared again in the greater Cairo district of Imbaba (Giza). The result was the death of 12 people and the injury of 238, as the Mar Mina and Virgin Mary Coptic Churches, ten homes, and thirteen stores in the area were set alight. This time a love affair between those of different faiths was not behind the eruption. Instead, it was what has become a more recent trope behind Muslim verbal and physical attacks on Copts: A woman, believed to have converted to Islam from Christianity, was said to be held hostage in the Mar Mina Coptic Church in Imbaba (the story appears to be credible). One can easily trace this particular trope back to 27 November 2004 when Wafaa Constantine, the wife of a Coptic Orthodox priest from the village of Abu Matameer in the delta, was reported missing. Some five days later it was purported that Constantine had converted to Islam. For many Copts, who had long been accusing Muslims of kidnapping their women and forcing them to convert to Islam, this was, in a sense, the straw that broke the camel's back. This was no ordinary woman, but the wife of a priest, and therefore too close to the religious representation of the Coptic Church. Coptic protesting in Abu Matameer and Cairo erupted. Among the chants heard during these protests was: بيقولوا بيحبونا ويخطفوا مرأة ابونا (They [Muslims] say that they love us, then they kidnap the priest’s wife). Church-State negotiations began wherein the church finally gained custody of Constantine. While it is unclear exactly what has happened to Constantine, it is generally believed that she has since been held in the Anba Bishoy monastery in Wadi al-Natrun, after being shuttled around from one Church site to another. Many Egyptian Muslims are deeply troubled by this, since they see it as an infringement on Constantine's right to convert to Islam and live as a Muslim woman. Many Egyptians (including many Copts) also found frustrating the Coptic Church hierarchy's ability to contravene the rule of law in order to gain custody of a woman who in their view ought to be free to do as she pleases.
In July 2010 a similar scenario occurred when Kamilya Shehata, another priest's wife, disappeared from her home in Dayr Mawwas in the Minya province of Egypt. Again, Copts in Minya and in Cairo protested. And, again, the Church managed to get custody of Shehata. Muslims said she converted to Islam of her own accord and that the Church, once again, was overstepping its bounds. Most recently, on 7 May of this year, Shehata appeared on the Protestant Christian satellite channel al-Hayat with husband and child by her side proclaiming that she never converted to Islam and only left home because of a typical domestic dispute with her husband. Some believe that this appearance is what triggered the violence in Imbaba. Since July 2010 some Muslims have periodically taken to the streets of Egypt in protest while holding up, what to my eyes look like poorly photoshopped, photos of Shehata wearing the niqab and demanding that she be released by the Church.
Some believe that Salafists and state security have been behind the recent clashes in Cairo and its surrounding areas. The same army that promised to rebuild (even if slowly) the Shahidayn church in Helwan, to restore the charred Mar Mina church in Imbaba, and to crack down on those behind the violence perpetrated against Copts, allegedly opened fire on Christians in Muqattam. The well-known Egyptian political writer Mohamad Hassanein Heikal has suggested that, again, “a vexatious hidden foreign agenda [is likely] fanning the flames of confessional conflict.” And Galal Amin, a respected Egyptian economist and social critic, has recently stated that Copts resent having weak representation in government (two minor ministerial posts, for example), in the police forces, and public office in general, and fear a government run by the Muslim Brotherhood. This is all true, but it skirts around the heart of the “Coptic Problem” as it is often referred to in English or the “Coptic File” (al-mallaf al-qibti) as it is called in Arabic, not least by labeling it as something that can easily be whisked away into a rusty filing cabinet or as a specifically “Coptic” problem rather than an Egyptian social one.
Responses to inter-religious clashes as abetted by foreign agents or in a post-Mubarak Egypt as remnants of the National Democratic Party intent on tearing away at some otherwise perfectly pieced together social fabric, ultimately hide what has long been a problem that no one seems to want to address in Egypt: At best many Copts feel like foreigners and second-class citizens in their own country, at worst they feel invisible, as though they simply do not matter because they simply do not exist. They get filed away, until something too atrocious to be hidden from view happens, then the file is opened and quickly closed again. Coptic priests, whose long black tunics, beards, and crosses hung around their necks easily mark them as Christians in Egypt, frequently complain of being referred to as foreigners (khawaga)—something I have witnessed when out on the streets of Cairo with priests—and spat upon. Coptic women, who do not wear headscarfs, are also marked as Christian (although many Muslim women also do not cover their heads), and frequently complain of having their hair pulled or of being taunted in public. Appeals to Makram Ebeid's (secretary general of the Wafd party from 1936 to 1942 and Finance Minster of Egypt) now famous proclamation—“I am a Christian, it is true, by religion, but through my country I am a Muslim”—only serve to obscure what many Copts find at stake in their everyday experiences in Egypt and in the rhetoric of “national unity”: Their very Christianity. I will return to this and the question of (in)visibility momentarily.
The army's commitment to rebuilding the church in Helwan and restoring those in Imbaba, the recent meeting of Ahmad al-Tayyib the Shaykh of al-Azhar and Ali Gomaa the grand mufti of Egypt with Pope Shenouda III to express their condolences over the spate of violence, the meeting of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf with Coptic clergy and youth in Tahrir Square, as well as their subsequent meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Yehia al-Gamal are all steps in the right direction. But they are reactionary responses more so than attempts at confronting the real grievances that many Copts express: invisibility, or a visibility that can be so vexing that invisibility becomes desirable. And to make this point more poignant, the mobilization of protestors in Tahrir Square on Friday 13 May in response to all the recent assaults on Copts in Egypt was drowned out by anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian chants. Once again, Copts have been pushed aside and a focus on an external enemy is keeping too many Egyptians from looking at the very serious problems within their own country.
A typical list of Coptic grievances includes the perception that one has not been hired for a job or promoted in one because of one's Christian identity. University students complain that they are not chosen for teaching and research posts, even when they are brighter than their Muslim colleagues. Some point to the fact that Copts do not hold state positions that concern the security of the country, that a Copt might never become president, and that Copts are not university presidents, despite the fact that many Copts are educated and perfectly capable of holding such posts. (One wonders how these matters might change with the revolution, although the present moment—mid May 2011—does not look terribly promising.) Then there are the everyday kinds of annoyances: the Muslim call to prayer and the Friday khutba-s (“sermons”) that blare over hundreds of loudspeakers (which, incidentally, equally annoy many Muslims), and Christian discretion about eating and drinking in public during the holy month of Ramadan. It is an everyday life in an obviously Islamic public sphere that many of my Coptic interlocutors find troublesome. And one of the best articulations of this that I came across during fieldwork (2006-07) was from my friend Abuna (Father) Musa.
When I asked Abuna Musa if Copts are as persecuted as they claim, or if they exaggerate, he emphatically responded that the claims are not exaggerated. I asked about exaggeration because many stories that circulate among Copts with regard to alleged persecution often do sound conspiratorial. The most recent I've heard, which draws on a well established trope, is that Salafi Muslims had proclaimed that any woman not wearing a headscarf (the majority of whom are Christian) would be the target of acid thrown at her (the same rumor apparently circulates about Jordan). I've been hearing about Christian women suffering the threat of acid burns for years now. About a decade ago a similar story was circulating among Copts, but this one more nuanced and sophisticated in method. Muslims who wanted to target Copts were said to lace small paper icons of Christian saints with acid, and leave them strewn on the ground. These Muslims knew that no Copt, even of slight piety, would pass by a saint laying on the ground and not pick him up then place the image to her lips and kiss him. The acid would burn the hands and lips that touched the icon. It's doubtful that this ever happened, but that seems to me besides the point. Stories like this are a good indication that many Copts are worried about there place in a predominantly Muslim society.
Abuna Musa insisted that Copts were not exaggerating their persecution, even if he admitted that some stories smacked much more of rumor than of actually realized events. “There is a general thing that all Egyptians participate in: a weak economy, etc.,” Abuna told me. He continued:
But true persecution in Egypt, that which is not public, is the lack of accepting the Other. What does this mean? It means that you turn the television on, 24 hours a day, and you find all around you continuous programming with the host of a program saying “al-salamu ʿalaykum wa rahmat allah wa barakatu [Peace to you. And may the mercy and blessing of God be with you (an Islamic greeting that Copts typically do not use)].” They [Muslims] accept that Copts live in Egypt, but the rights of Copts in Egypt, they do not accept. Forget about those who say that Copts are not appointed as university presidents or governors. No. This is a lofty matter. When you say this they [Muslims/the State] will trick us and appoint a Christian minister, a Christian governor, a university president. So he [the Muslim/the State] has tricked you. The idea that there are no Christians in Egypt, or if they are present it is as if they are like the foreigners that come [to Egypt] on vacation for two or three weeks then go home is troubling. They say “the nation is made up of Muslims and Christians. We do not have any discrimination. We love everyone.” We love everyone?! This is the message in politics, in religion, everywhere.
Anthony: So what’s your opinion about the Muslim woman that was present at the Coptic Patriarchate as part of the commemoration of Pope Shenouda III's 35th year as pope [14 Nov 2006]? Was this just a show of “national unity?” [This woman spoke fondly of the Pope and Copts and the oneness of all Egyptians no matter their religious affiliations.]
Abuna Musa: Look. Religious speech in Egypt is like medicine. You go to a doctor for treatment in Egypt. Someone, for example, has a problem with a kidney. [In the voice of an imaginary doctor, and mockingly]: “You’re in excellent health! (inta zayy al-full!). Perfect (kwayyis khalis).” But the man needs this and this and this treatment. In Egypt they put on airs like this every once in a while. “Here is Egypt. Here is the image of Egypt.” This is the image, but on the inside: calamity [balawi].
Invisibility of Copts is the real problem, argues Abuna Musa, and the rhetoric of national unity is a false salve for the wounds of invisibility. All sides, Church, State, and Muslim organizations proclaim that Egypt is in good health. But the wounds fester. The Church, too, is not innocent of producing Coptic invisibility. The most recent attempt at this was when Pope Sheounda III announced that Coptic protestors responding to the violence in Imbaba should go home. Protestors refused.
Proclamations of national unity and images (which stretch back at least to the 1919 revolution) of Copts and Muslims, priests and shaykhs hand-in-hand appear to me deceptive at best. They tend to maintain the portrayal of a healthy Egypt that Abuna Musa astutely recognized as false.
Sedra has recently remarked on the failings of national unity rhetoric. Indeed, what exactly constitutes the Egyptian nation is frequently unclear. What has often struck me about Egyptian proclamations and, especially, images of national unity turns precisely around the problematic of the (in)visible. Immediately visible is a priest and a shaykh, a crescent and a cross, a Bible and a Quran and the easy interpretation of those images as a coming together—after-all, they are in the same frame. Invisible are the differences that these symbols represent, rather than the samenesses. In other words, the visible here (cross and crescent, for example) is seen superficially. Invisible are the actual differences that these very symbols signify, be they social, theological, or otherwise.
The problem with the rhetoric of national unity is that it treats the nation as stable, as something that has some essential qualities to it (Egyptianness, as it were), rather than as something processual, constructed, and therefore in need of constant making, re-making, and renewal. National unity is a rhetoric that tends to tell a singular narrative about the Egyptian people, one that does not take into consideration the plurality of Egyptian society. The result is an alienation of those who do not see themselves as represented in particular narratives of the Egyptian nation.
It is important to recognize that the attacks on Copts we we are witnessing today are not particularly new. There are at least two reasons why so many of us are especially shocked about Egyptian inter-religious violence in the current moment. The first is that there has been more visibility of Copts in Egyptian and international media, so that what often went un- or under-reported is now receiving attention (although many inter-religious clashes continue to fall to the wayside of mainstream reporting). The other reason is that the revolution has raised everyone's hopes, Egyptians and observers of Egypt alike. But what I think we should be leery of is any attempt to suggest that Muslim-Christian tensions are merely aftershocks of the revolution. Revolutions are messy. They wouldn't be revolutions if they weren't. But violence against Copts and between Copts and Muslims in Egypt has deep roots that long precede not only the most recent Egyptian revolution, but all the previous ones as well. Some of my readers might find this proclamation troubling. It disrupts a once-upon-a-time-things-were-better narrative. That narrative is perhaps more mythical in the purifying role Roland Barthes gave myth—“a confusion, not so much of facts as the way one thinks about facts,” as Ilene O'Malley reads Barthes in her brilliant study of the Mexican Revolution—than with the social realities of Egypt—at least if one takes Coptic sources seriously.
I might also be accused of too strong an emphasis on religion and not enough on other factors of Egyptian society that contribute to conflicts. My (brief) response is that religion in Egypt has long been a site for claiming cultural differences. It is, therefore, highly political. By political here I am following Hannah Arendt's insight that politics are about difference and therefore entail “others from whom one cannot escape and with whom one must share the world.” Inter-religious conflicts in contemporary Egypt often begin as problems linked to land ownership, marriage, or the application of the rule of law, but religion—as far as I can tell—is a deeply embedded part of this. Those who are wont to separate religion out from other spheres of socio-political life are, in my view, avoiding the manner in which religion is frequently a lens through which many Egyptians, Muslim and Christian, engage with and make sense of their world. In that regard, religion remains critically important for any investigation or analysis of social tensions in Egypt.
I am not suggesting that Copts are mere victims. They are active agents in creating their place in Egypt to the extent that they have the power to do so. But they are also a minority that suffers much of the same plight as minority communities the world over. They simply do not have the same kind of power that the majority does. Recall Abuna Musa's sagacity, that the majority of Egyptians might suffer the results of a weak economy and a State that does little to nothing for the population, but as a minority Copts in general suffer the extra problem of marginalization. Nevertheless, of late, Copts have taken to the streets, but combined with this, and stretching back for centuries, is a different kind of active political engagement: prayer and fasting. This type of political engagement—an engagement that might make those who subscribe to liberal democratic conceptions of citizenship cringe—is what anthropologist Kevin O'Neill has recently called “christian citizenship.” One recent example of this is how Copts have been encouraged since the New Year's Eve bombing in Alexandria to pray Psalm 90 (Septuagint; Psalm 91 in more common renditions). This is significant, not only because it is a psalm of hope, but because it is among the psalms that the Coptic Church has instituted as part of the daily sixth hour prayers. The sixth hour, coinciding roughly with noon, commemorates the crucifixion of Christ. A sense of persecution and hope mingle.
My ethnographic sense tells me that many Copts (especially those who are religiously committed) do not want to blend into a generic Egyptianness, which they perceive (perhaps rightly?) as always inflected by Islam. Instead, they want to be recognized as Christian Egyptians. One illustration of this might be the fact that recent demonstrations by Copts have included symbols, language, and hymns that are expressly Christian. Being a citizen in the legal sense is not enough, because that still renders Copts invisible. Instead, what is sought is a kind of citizenship as cultural identity—that is, what citizenship might look like rather than who is counted as a citizen. In the Egyptian context this means that Christian expressions of citizenship would have to be among the various possibilities. This is a question that needs, in my view, serious attention in Egypt. Religion and religious expressions will not magically disappear, and neither should they. Many Copts want to be seen as being an important part of the fabric of Egyptian history and society, and not simply as members of Egyptian society, but as Christian members of Egyptian society.
Just over a decade ago anthropologist Ana María Alonso cogently argued that the self-identity of nations often requires the making of internal Others. In the bluntest of terms, Copts do not want to be that internal Other for Egypt.
The post-Mubarak moment is precisely a moment for Egyptians to determine what it is their nation will be and what qualities will constitute it as such. Many religious Copts, both those who are publicly vocal about this, and the vast majority who are not, want a prominent place in that new nation qua Christians. They seek a visibility that finds valuable their religiosity without subordinating it to a meta-narrative of a national unity that pretends acceptance of Coptic religious difference while incessantly seeking to homogenize and incorporate it. That would just be more of the same.
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