What happens when God appears on Earth? What does it mean and to whom? Inevitably, there is no single answer to these questions, but each answer holds profound ramifications ranging from the popular and extraordinary to the individual and everyday. In The Political Lives of Saints: Christian-Muslim Mediation in Egypt, Angie Heo offers a rich and nuanced analysis of saintly intercession that challenges conventional assumptions of communal boundaries, sacred materiality, and the secular governance of religious publics. Grounded in thick ethnographic research of Coptic communities, Heo’s text never shirks away from the multivocal stickiness and intricate ambiguities that animate the lives of her interlocutors. Her examination of the circulation of religious media between Coptic, Muslim, and national frameworks is a powerful intervention in discussions of religious difference in Egypt and an innovative text in the anthropology of religion and secularism.
The study of Copts and Coptic Christianity is dangerously enveloped in Orientalist knowledge and marred by research that represents Copts as passive characters in a grand civilizational narrative. In the colonial imaginary, the long-suffering Copt is the foil to the violent Muslim, serving as an embodied legitimation of Euro-American “protective” violence, with both caricatures located in a time far before the promise and progress of modernity. Despite this narrative’s ignorance and toxicity, attempts to oppose it simply by obscuring the very real persecution of Coptic communities are equally dangerous. Even outside this discursive trap, both popular and academic studies suffer a poverty of research that recognizes the existent agency and meaningful lives of Copts and their communities.
By conjoining research on semiotic ideologies and secular governmentality, The Political Life of Saints offers an optic invested in the primacy of Coptic agency. As a conceptual framework, semiotic ideologies grew out of anthropologists employing linguistic theory of C. S. Peirce to study religious media and materiality. In order for the otherworldly sacred “to be recognizable as instances of something knowable,” it must take semiotic form, allowing for meaningful scholarly questions about “the kinds of things that things are, what things can stand for, and how, within an ordered and usually hierarchical system, things relate to one another.” (Keane 2008: S114, Engelke 2012: 218) These questions are particularly useful to ethnographers interested in examining the representational struggles in heterodox forms of reinterpretation, embodiment, adaptation, conversion, and hybridity. For Heo, this framework allows her to adopt a scope that examines the manifold ways religious difference is mediated in Egypt with particular attention to those both outside and unintelligible to the state.
Meanwhile, studies of secular governance stem from postcolonial anthropology’s denaturalization of secular epistemologies as neutral regimes of knowledge. Instead, secular hegemony translates other worlds into the taxonomies and institutions it authorizes by repressing their historical articulations and lived complexity. This insight offers a critical tool for deconstructing enduring “clash of religions” narratives, “by recognizing the contradictions and inequalities that political secularism itself generates” (Mahmood 2015: 22). By weaving together these two anthropological sub-discourses, semiotic ideology, and secular governmentality, Heo develops a unique eye to survey the migration of knowledge, experience, and actions across Coptic, Muslim, and national epistemologies while recognizing the validity and agency of those embedded in each. Her text serves as powerful evidence of the insufficiency of secular frames to understand Coptic society and a new critical method for the study of religious difference.
The text opens with the argument that Copts understand their community, territory, and security through their imaginings of sainthood. (7) This argument requires historical background to understand its claim. In Egypt, the recursive logic of sectarianism accompanied the postcolonial state-building project, subsuming Islamic and Christian identities under the sign of the nation-state. Realizing this arrangement involved creating new institutional coherence and hierarchy to render heterogeneous Muslim and Christian communities legible to state discipline. Simply, Nasser supported a project of placing national religious life under the authority of either Al-Azhar and the Grand Imam or the Holy Synod and the Pope.
This reorganization initiated a paradox for Coptic communities. On one hand, the incorporation ignited the proliferation of new forms of religious media, education, and pilgrimage, labeled the Coptic Renaissance (al-nahda al-Qibtiyya). Meanwhile, Coptic identity was reframed exclusively as a religious minority, both delegitimizing alternative forms of Coptic self-understanding and framing Muslim and national relationships with Copts through frames of control, competition, and, most importantly, strictly circumscribed difference. This sectarian arrangement both produces and relies upon antagonism between Coptic and Muslim communities, legitimating the state's authority through its ability to manage and secure Coptic livelihoods. Subsequently, anti-Coptic violence became viewed as either the state failing to protect the religious minority or disciplining their disobedience. (36)
While this paradigm of sectarian relations and governance permeates literature on Egypt’s authoritarian bargain, Heo’s research contributes overdue understandings of its life in Coptic experience. While represented to the national and international public through papal authority, popular Coptic self-representation hinges upon the ritual memory of martyrs and their holy deaths. Through their relics, commemorative visual media, and conferred narratives, martyrs serve as “communal acts of self-institution,” both generating authority for hierarchical capture and “offering a margin of autonomy from the Coptic Church’s more authoritarian impulses.” (38) The depth of Heo’s fieldwork shines in her research on Coptic martyrdom, which traverses interviews with the parents of the Libya Martyrs, the makers of hagiographic films, and an array of priests and parishioners.
Crucially, representations of saints never fit neatly within Egypt’s contemporary secular sectarian paradigm. Their bodies, apparitions, and miracles inevitably index the porousness of Christian-Muslim difference and times when community, territory, and security were understood differently. Perhaps no event demonstrates the polymorphous register of saintly presence more notoriously than the apparition of the Virgin Mary in Zaytun, Cairo over the spring of 1968. Observers and spokespeople contextualized her intercession as a return of the 1967 war and a product of the dispossession of Jerusalem as a pilgrimage site. As a national saint that transcended Christian/Muslim difference, the holy Virgin traveled to Cairo because Egyptians could not travel to her, marking her loyalty to the Egyptian nation over Israeli imperialism and designating the former as holy land. By excavating the religious origins of national “imagined communities,” Heo elucidates the inseparability of geopolitical and theopolitical epistemologies and grammars of visuality. The ethnographic eye she brings to histories of Egyptian nationalism challenges the enduring secularist myth of “religious” communities teleologically transitioning to “modern” nation-states.
Yet, Christian/Muslim difference does not require mediation through national symbol to transcend communal boundaries. Their respective traditions are, “at once distinct and ambivalently folded into one another.” (150) Through her description of the back of a Shubra cosmetics store where a “scientist” invokes the names of saints and angels to received divinely granted knowledge, the history of interreligious recourse to healers and authorities for exorcism and holy guidance, and the circulation of blessings (baraka) materially mediated through icons, oils, and holy water, she undermines depictions of tradition as static and inflexible, and shows how renewal and vitality are generated by crossovers and conversions, which circulate across confines of religious separation.
Egypt’s authoritarian regime is actively invested in preventing these free-flowing crossovers and conversions. In the narrative of sectarian conflict, the state’s legitimacy is predicated on its management of public order, the promise to simultaneously regulate and ensure the freedom of religious expression. Through this mandate, the state keeps religious publics divided, alleging the ability of these baraka to become balbala (disorder). In practice, this separation entails housing Coptic media behind church walls obscuring them from interreligious spaces with the potential to incite conflict. State, Muslim, and Coptic institutional regulation produces practices of secrecy and suspicion along the fault lines where sacred spectacle, presence, and knowledge are interrupted and censored. Here, Heo differs methodologically from other anthropologists of religion faced with studying social phenomena in the subjunctive mood. Instead of reproducing secular biases through trusting the state account of contentious happenings, the author investigates the miracles of Port Said through the reports of her pious informants who allege a state cover-up. The result is a powerful investigation into the social life of secular regulation and public order.
The text is not absent of tensions and missed opportunities. Most prominent is the absence of analysis of Coptic activism and Christian/Muslim difference in the Tahrir Square Uprising and the subsequent and ongoing grassroots challenges to the military regime. While concluding by drawing similarities between the memorialization of Maspero and Raba’a massacres, a more sustained interrogation would have been welcomed. This lacuna gestures to the fact that this text deserves a readership beyond those interested in religion. More broadly, Heo’s ethnography offers a rich toolkit for thinking through the tenuous relationship between religious difference and nationhood. In a case like Egypt’s, in which authoritarian rule relies on controlling the possible ways to imagine community, territory, and security this ethnography explores the already-existing, radical alternatives to the contemporary regime.