On Friday March 2nd, 2018 scholars of Modern Coptic Studies gathered at the University of Pennsylvania to discuss the state of the field and new directions in historical and ethnographic research around Copts in Egypt and its diasporas. Briefly, I would like to highlight some points that struck me as central to current discussions around Modern Coptic Studies and its future. These points are not exclusive to Modern Coptic Studies, but are also integral to larger debates around religious difference, secularism, and minorities.
One of the main conversation topics, and source of debate, was whether to understand Coptic Studies through a Church history and/or lay history(ies) approach. In her opening address, Professor Heather Sharkey suggested that we should consider the material histories of Coptic peoples and not just Church history. According to Sharkey, this supposes that people are starting from a position of faith, whereas most people do not follow religious constructs in their everyday decisions. Other papers in the workshop focused on what religion means to social relations. During our conversations, I observed a desire to engage those historical and ethnographic narratives that subvert the idea of the Copt as a religious subject—with the assumption that many Copts do not make daily decisions based on theological or spiritual precepts. Recent work from other scholars, such as Mina Ibrahim, has emphasized the “everyday lives” of Copts in “non-religious spaces”—such as sheesha lounges, bars, and prisons.
This work is important and enriches discussions of minority communities, identity, and resistance. Yet I am weary of how “social histories” tend to sideline spirituality as real and impactful in the lives of our interlocutors. This is to say the desire, for many scholars of the Middle East in particular, to elaborate upon the region and its diaspora populations beyond religious identity stems from both a critique of Orientalist tropes of the region (where life and conflict are centered around religion) and the valorization of secular modernity in the academy. In the Anthropology of Islam, recent debates around “everyday Islam” have outlined what makes such a concept both promising and problematic. I will highlight one main argument (from the cited volume) that is integral to thinking about Modern Coptic Studies as religious history versus social histories.
As a concept, the everyday has been used as a site of resistance, where religious subjects are seen to subvert norms—through practices like smoking sheesha or becoming intoxicated. However, this does not account for the ways in which adherence to norms also comes with complexity, divergence, and failure. Religious people fail sometimes—they don’t fast properly, pray regularly, or adhere to all of the guidelines of proper practice by religious authorities. Thus, even if Copts are in opposition to the Church, or do not attend liturgical or social services, to one degree or another, their forms of contestation to their religious tradition—through protest, subversive use of scripture, or political satire—are also forms of participation in debate around the tradition and its forms of collective life.
In tandem with conversations around the way Copts are constructed as community, one of the most important points of discussion came from Gaétan du Roy (Université Catholique de Louvain), whose paper focused on the portrayal of Copts and inter-religious relations in Egyptian soap operas. Du Roy explained that the vulnerability of Copts in contemporary Egypt lay in the terms of their inclusion into society, by reducing their difference from the Muslim majority and assimilating them into majoritarian norms and values. This understanding of minority community—to be “just like us”—is not exclusive to the Egyptian context. In the United States, American Muslims have been made to be “just like us” through various ads for Toyota, Coca Cola, and Amazon—that they buy and drink the same products “we” do. For the Coptic case, their inclusion into the Egyptian nation also means a process of erasure, where television narratives of inter-religious romance must always be constructed between a Muslim man and a Christian woman and thus ensuring, at least for the viewer, that their offspring will be raised Muslim, not Christian. Others in the workshop identified destruction and annihilation as part of the process of portraying inter-religious romance – difference from the majority can only be tolerated through its eventual transformation into sameness. In global and interdisciplinary perspectives, such conversations reflect the structural constraints of the modern nationalist project—where certain variations from the majority can be tolerated and others cannot.
A common trend I noticed throughout the symposium was a desire to challenge and rethink methodological conventions in the field. I was particularly excited to hear Hiroko Miyokawa’s presentation on the development of Coptic historiography through Yaqub Nakhla’s Tarikh al-Umma al-Qibtiyya (History of the Coptic Nation). Miyokawa’s work raises critical questions regarding the language and periodization that have traditionally been used to compartmentalize Coptic history as a discrete field. Reflective of broader conversations on Church versus lay histories, Miyokawa looks at Nakhla’s work as marking important shifts in how Coptic history has been written. Specifically, Miyokawa explores the use of the label “umma,” employment of the word “Copt” as a multifaceted historical marker, and transitions from a periodization rooted in patriarchs to one based on historical ruling polities in Egypt.
Other talks at the symposium likewise pushed Coptic studies beyond the borders of Egypt. The research presented by Michael Akladios and Candace Lukasik emphasized the importance of looking to migratory communities as the focus of study since these communities have continued to steadily grow throughout the 20th century. Crucially, the works presented by both Akladios and Lukasik did not simply look at migratory communities as alternative locations “where Copts are,” but considered the ways in which Coptic subjectivity has been reproduced in the transnational space of migration, a process that is rooted in contingencies local to migratory destinations.
Presentations by Akladios, Lukasik, and Gaétan du Roy all emphasized the importance of working with non-written sources, including oral histories and television programs. The variety of source bases used by attendees led to conversations on the different ways in which we have positioned ourselves as scholars: as “traditional” historians, historical anthropologists, “anthropologically-minded” historians, and scholars of oral history. Rather than hinder discussion, these distinctions allowed for important cross-disciplinary collaborations that broaden the methods employed for constructing histories, all rooted in a common language of Modern Coptic Studies. As a relatively “traditional” scholar of Coptic history—working primarily with Cairo-based written press sources—I was excited to see how my colleagues were able to find relevant meaning from my work on communal elections in the 1940s, as well as how research presented on soap operas and Coptic migration to Canada introduced crucial ideas for framing my own work. In particular, these works pushed me to consider the diverse ways in which the Church has operated as a space of social support and has been imagined as a symbolic space.
Recent years have witnessed increasing calls for a broadening of how the field of Coptic Studies approaches the community, in particular emphasizing the need to move beyond narratives of persecution to consider the diverse ways in which community has been historically experienced. While the Modern Coptic Studies Symposium was relatively small in scale, the research presented in it serves as an important engagement with such calls. Conducted largely by junior scholars with an interest in rethinking the temporal, spatial, and methodological bases through which communal histories are constructed, the works presented at the Symposium point to a promising future for the field of Coptic Studies, with a drive to move beyond conventional parameters to unlock rich studies of the community.
The CCHP is always looking for people to contribute to our digital initiatives. Please contact theCCHP@gmail.com if you would like to join or support the Project.
Candace Lukasik is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology, UC Berkeley. Her dissertation project is entitled “Transnational Anxieties: Shaping a Minority Community between Egypt and the United States.” She explores the transnational effects of the Arab Spring through the lens of Coptic emigration to the United States.
Weston Bland is a PhD student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania. His research focuses on modern Egypt and communal histories in the modern Middle East, with an emphasis on the development of institutions in the modern Coptic community.
 See Hirschkind. “Charles Hirschkind’s Commentary on Everyday Islam Curated Collection.” Curated Collections, Cultural Anthropology website, December 14, 2014.
 See 2015. Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 5 (2).
 See Hirschkind.
 Fadil and Fernando. 2015 Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 5 (2): 97–100.
 See Asad. 1986. “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam.”