Interview with Candace Lukasik: Transnational Anxieties

How did you get started in your discipline? What drew you to your research topic?

I believe as scholars, we are drawn to questions that are built up over a lifetime. Such questions that move us are, in many ways, a genealogy of ourselves and our life experiences. I first visited Egypt in the summer of 2007 for Arabic language study through what is now the NSLI-Y, what was then the AFS-SLI. I didn’t necessarily set out with the vision for a life of research and study in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. After forging close friendships with Coptic and Muslim host families that summer, I wanted to learn more about Egypt and the region—its cultures and peoples. So, during the summers of my undergraduate degree, I returned to Egypt and such returns brought to the fore scholarly questions I would pursue in graduate school.

While I had built strong friendships with Egyptian Muslims during my first trip in 2007, I realized during my year abroad at the American University in Cairo (AUC) between 2009-2010 that most of my friends were Coptic Christian. To me, Egypt’s landscape was a patchwork of monasteries, churches, and saintly shrines. I explored Egypt, up to that point, with church groups on pilgrimages. The smell of bakhoor, taste of qurban. and the imagery of the saints shaped my sensorium and embodied experience. In a class at AUC, I remember looking at the nametag of a woman sitting next to me. Knowing that some of my Coptic friends from a church in masakin Sheraton had that particular name, I asked her if she was Coptic. She glanced at my notebooks, adorned with saintly stickers, and laughed, graciously replying she was not. Through her friendship and many others while at AUC, I began to realize the particularity of Coptic culture in respect to the rest of Egypt. I became intrigued by my own naivety, and began to think seriously about majority-minority dynamics, religious difference, and Middle Eastern Christian cultures.

For my master’s thesis in the Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS) Department at Columbia University, I conducted fieldwork in Cairo on the emergence of Coptic political movements after the revolution. I didn’t necessarily set out to do an ethnography, but was drawn to it through a set of questions that piqued my interest—how was this revolutionary moment different for Copts, as a religious minority community? How did the activism of Coptic youth challenge traditional networks of Church authority? How did protestors, like those in the Maspero Youth Union, articulate the reconciliation of their calls for secularism with their assertion of Coptic religious imagery in public protests?

When I first read Saba Mahmood’s, then, new material on the Copts, minority rights, and religious freedom, I was captivated by her reading of Coptic subjectivity through the lens of geopolitics and Western imperialism. I only applied to one anthropology program, not necessarily interested in the discipline intrinsically as such, but I knew I wanted to take such questions further, with Saba, at the University of California, Berkeley. During her mentorship, I relearned what it was that initially interested me about the Coptic community, and learned to step outside of it—to understand the larger stakes of my intellectual pursuits. Her absence after passing has been difficult because she was a mentor in every sense of the word—breaking down one’s assumptions of the world and forging a new thinker from the ashes. Under the care and guidance of both Saba Mahmood and Charles Hirschkind, I pursued a dissertation project that brought together my work in Egypt with personal experiences at parishes in the American diaspora. At such parishes, I observed a burgeoning population of new, working class immigrants from Egypt’s rural parts, unlike the upper middle-class Coptic folks I became close with in Masr al-Gedida.

What is your dissertation about? What is its broader significance?

In recent years, Middle Eastern Christians have increasingly become communities of concern for American politicians and religious leaders. This concern is contextualized within the continuing War on Terror and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Middle Eastern Christian communities have experienced various forms of discrimination, violence, as well as coexistence in the Middle East. As many such communities migrate to the United States, those experiences of violence and discrimination have been translated, differently. My dissertation analyzes how Copts have forged new understandings of communal identity in Egypt and now, as immigrants in the United States. To do this, I conducted 15 months of fieldwork between the village of Bahjura, Upper Egypt, and the New York-New Jersey area and focused on new waves of Coptic migration, by the Diversity Visa (or Green Card Lottery), asylum, and family reunification. My work contextualizes the current wave of Coptic immigration to the U.S. within the intensification of Christian activism, lobbying networks, and government support for Middle Eastern Christians and advocacy on their behalf, especially under the Trump administration. I ask: how has such attention reconfigured Coptic identity and forms of community?

During my fieldwork, Coptic interlocutors described immigration to the United States as a possible solution to their local intercommunal predicaments. While in the United States, I observed how Copts have faced their own challenges of discrimination, mediated through War on Terror politics of Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism. For example, in the winter of 2017, George, a Coptic interlocutor from the New York-New Jersey area, recounted how he and a group of friends had stopped at a local 7/11 on the evening of September 11, 2001. While there, he began to be heckled by a group of what he described as “Hispanic” men who started to hurl insults at him. “We had the wrong complexion,” he recounted. “They said to us ‘You f’in terrorists. Look what you did. We’re going to get you!’…[After 9/11], you felt like you were a target and it wasn’t your fault.” While many of my Coptic interlocutors believe that their Christianity should help differentiate them from their Muslim counterparts, and thus avoid discriminatory practices in the United States, they do not seek to challenge such practices in and of themselves. Instead, Copts changed their appearances, their names, and their overall look—so as not to be seen as a “threat.” Another interlocutor told me that after 9/11, Pope Shenouda allowed priests to wear a wooden cross similar to Catholic clergy, and to trim their beards, in hopes they would not be the targets of backlash or hate crimes in the U.S.

In many ways, my project is about reading practices—how discourses are translated in given contexts. I was in Bahjura on May 26, 2017, the day a bus heading to the St. Samuel the Confessor Monastery was attacked by ISIS affiliates killing 28 people and injuring many others. The following evening, I was having a conversation with members of my host family on their rooftop. They all voiced their sadness, and discussed how this incident evidenced the ways Copts were caught in the middle of a political battle. “I think the problem is connected to the Pope and his support for the president [Sisi]. When he came out on July 3 with Sheikh Al-Azhar and Sisi, he was sending a message in support of the deposal of Morsi.” A fellow family member then spoke saying, “But I think he [the Pope] had to do so. The message of July 3rd was that Muslims and Christians are both supporting the deposal of Morsi.” Another interjected saying, “But this is why it is so dangerous because the Islamists use this as a reason to kill Copts.” The tragic incident was understood by this family to also be connected to broader politics in Egypt, whereby poor, powerless Copts have been caught in the middle, and have been the victims of this political game. Towards the end of the conversation, one of the family members noted, “We have been here 2017 years, and they have only been here 1400 years. Who are the true inhabitants of the country [meen asl al-balad]?”  This family member is referring to Muslims, and the wave of attacks on Copts, in their mind, is meant to wipe out the Christian presence in Egypt. How is this conversation and the St. Samuel the Confessor massacre read differently within American political contexts and among members of the American Coptic diaspora?

Copts in the United States protest against violent attacks in Egypt and hold up signs in English saying things like “Stop Christian Genocide in Egypt” and “Save Christians from Radical Islam,” while holding American flags. Who are the audiences that receive such messages? Today, violence against Copts in Egypt is understood through multiple layers—within the national context of Egypt itself, through Western political networks that lobby against Christian persecution in the region, and, most importantly, by Copts themselves between Egypt and the United States. Unpacking these layers is crucial to understanding how Coptic identity is transforming in an age of migration.

Broadly, my work seeks to understand more deeply the way religion has acquired an expanding political relevance within the context of the War on Terror. My research agenda intervenes in current debates on the political status of religious identities, and on the projects of power within which religions are differentially positioned and defined. In my reading, geopolitical order structures the conditions of religious practice and community. Therefore, in much of my work I investigate what kinds of community are made possible within these power structures that bind folks, like the Copts, to particular understandings of themselves and their people.

In thinking through your positionality, how do you define your relationship to the populations you study and what responsibility do you have in sharing their stories?

In 2007, I was introduced to the Coptic Church by a host family in Egypt. By that time, I was a lapsed Catholic, attending mass infrequently and had become disenchanted with the faith. I attended an Orthodox liturgy for the first in Egypt, and became particularly captivated by the Coptic hymns—they transported me to a heavenly space, which the liturgy intends to do. When I returned to the States, I began attending a Coptic church in my hometown of Buffalo, New York. In December of 2012, during fieldwork for my master’s thesis, I was baptized into the Coptic Orthodox Church. I have a spiritual obligation to the Coptic community, as well as the larger Oriental Orthodox family of churches.

Beyond this faith commitment, which I find integral to the ways I hold myself accountable to the Coptic community, I know that my positionality as a white woman does not simply fade away because I am in communion with Coptic interlocutors and friends. As a white woman studying with a Middle Eastern community, I am keenly aware of my responsibility to the people I work with and loath the idea of engaging the Coptic community simply for scholarly exercise or gain. I also have a responsibility to not simply share stories, but to write as a way of rethinking traditional forms of sociality, and cultural and religious belonging. Copts are a community that have increasingly gained geopolitical significance as a persecuted Christian people. Stories of violence against Copts in Egypt or on the political alignments of Copts in the U.S. diaspora are mediated by Western power structures that seek to reproduce a particular narrative on the Middle East and intercommunal relations within it. I am dedicated to subverting such structures I view as detrimental to intercommunal relations back in Egypt and to Middle Eastern Christian-Muslim relations in the United States. Beyond this scholarly work, it’s important to promote alternative collectives and organizations pursuing politics and community differently. One powerful example is the ElMahaba Center of Nashville, a Coptic collective led by women, which brings together community outreach with a politics that positions the Coptic community within larger struggles in the United States against racist and sexist ideologies. Placing Copts in conversation with other communities of color, immigrant communities, and in dialogue with American Muslim communities is central to the ethos of the center and other emerging collectives and conversations among Copts and within areas of Coptic Studies scholarship.

As scholars, what sort of impact do you believe we should have in an increasingly xenophobic and nationalistic global climate? Do contemporary geo-political debates have a role to play in your discussion of Coptic populations?

Scholarship should not simply serve the particular disciplines we associate ourselves with, or be isolated at the university. The types of research pursued by emerging scholars of Coptic Studies seeks to challenge the canon of literature typically associated with Coptic subjectivity. Beyond constructing Copts as an “ancient” Christian community or through sectarian/minoritarian lenses of identity, Copts are a part of larger conversations on the politics of U.S. empire, War on Terror itineraries of securitization, and the racialization of “Muslim” bodies post-9/11. Let us not forget that one of the first hate crimes to take place after 9/11 was the murder of Adel Karas, a Coptic Christian shop owner in San Gabriel, California. While Copts figure prominently into geographies of the “Persecuted Church” as images, testimonies, and witnesses to a particular agenda, they dually experience the same kinds of xenophobia that Latinos/as, Muslims, South Asians, Africans (etc.) do, as othered bodies. While conducting fieldwork in the New York-New Jersey area, I remember one bishop, visiting from abroad, joking with a group of clergy following liturgy about his experiences in customs at JFK International Airport. For hours, they interrogated the bishop, asking about his beard, his black galabiyya, and his purpose in the United States. Yet, in conversation over the aghaby meal, he lauded President Trump for his policies on immigration and security measures against immigrants from the Middle East. At that parish, there are many recipients of the Green Card Lottery, many asylum seekers, and many recent immigrants to the United States. Such Copts are also the targets of these policies.

For scholars and community leaders to simply focus on advocacy for religious minorities in the Middle East by American and European political figures and violent attacks against Christian minorities without also addressing the geopolitics of such events and the effects that such networks have on Coptic immigrant bodies and intercommunal relations in the region fails to attend to the asymmetrical power dynamics involved. Has American advocacy for Middle Eastern Christians in recent years lessened the bloodshed and violence against minority communities? Thinking with the assault against Kurdish, Assyrian, and Armenian communities in Northeastern Syria by Turkey, how has the United States aided such minority communities? Or, put another way, how does the rhetoric of solidarity with religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East hold up against the strategic, financial, and political interests of U.S. empire? To radically rethink Coptic subjectivity in the academy and beyond is to also say that Copts hold a unique position within these conversations that both Coptic communities and scholars of the Copts should vigorously pursue.

Considering the state of Middle East Studies more generally, and research on Egypt and Coptic communities more specifically, what topics and issues would you like to see addressed?

One of the difficulties that I’ve run into is the lack of attention to transnationalism (or globalization) in Middle Eastern Studies. There is scholarship in this field, but as area studies slowly opens up to different geographies of life, research increasingly needs to attend to the interlocking sites by which community, conflict, and practice are enmeshed. I worked in a relatively small village of Upper Egypt. Every single Coptic person I spoke with had some family member or close friend in the United States, Canada, Europe, or Australia. These kinship networks have exposed Copts in Egypt to new ideas of politics and religious identity that are vital to understanding notions of “Coptic identity” in the 21st century. This formulation is not specific to the Coptic community, but could be said for many other religious and ethnic communities in or from the region. The Copts are not an isolated minority, but rather a microcosm of transitions and transformations taking place in a global Middle East.

With that being said, there is one particular area of research I believe needs to be pursued more intensely. Literature on the racialization of Muslims in post-9/11 America would be strengthened with greater attention to the ways Copts and other Middle Eastern Christians, as communities of American geopolitical concern, have been affected by such discrimination and methods of securitization. In my work, I’m interested in how racialization works in the United States, and in relation to geopolitical contexts. This is the predicament Copts (and others) find themselves in. Beyond being subjected to racial bias, because they are “misrecognized” as “Muslim,” they are also subjected to a society that operates on the basis of race in a dense, pervasive way. I’m interested in the implications of that for the ways in which Copts position themselves within American society, and how their own indigenous lenses of identification—be they Pharaonic, Egyptian, Middle Eastern, or, even in some cases, Arab—are transformed in this tension between race and religion in the United States. Along with this, I’d be interested to see more work on the racial politics of evangelical support for Middle Eastern Christians, and how this is reframing racial configurations of such communities within American evangelicalism. Melani McAlister, Heather Curtis, and Hannah Waits have pursued related questions of race, mission work, and evangelical internationalism. Critical collaborations with such historians of American evangelicalism, and American religions generally, would be beneficial to new conceptualizations of Coptic Studies.

Are you planning to pursue a career in academia? What topics and themes do you hope to address in future work?

I’m currently on the job market, and as a scholar between religious studies, Middle Eastern studies, American studies, and anthropology, fitting transnational contexts into particular disciplinary boxes has proved challenging. Yet, questions of geopolitics and religion will continue to frame my research agenda. I’m already thinking about a second book project which will examine American political aid to post-ISIS reconstruction initiatives in the Nineveh Plain of Northern Iraq. I plan on conducting fieldwork between Mosul, Iraq, Washington, DC, and Detroit, Michigan to ask how a collective experience of war, dispossession, and forced migration alters the terrain of life for a transnational Middle Eastern Christian community. I will focus on Washington DC policy-making and reconstruction efforts for Iraqi Christian communities in Mosul to investigate the ways these policies and their implementation on the ground transform local communal relations, as well as transnational kinship networks between Mosul and Detroit.


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Candace Lukasik is a PhD Candidate in Sociocultural Anthropology at UC Berkeley. Her research sits at the intersection of migration, religion, and politics with a focus on American geopolitical interest in Middle Eastern Christians. She has ongoing interests in secularism and secularity, the transnational politics of Muslim-Christian relations, and global Christianity. Her first book project explores the transnational circulation of political subjectivities and religious practices through the lens of Coptic Orthodox Christian emigration from Egypt to the United States. For this work, she has received fellowships from the Social Science Research Council, the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University, the Louisville Institute for the Study of American Religion, and the Institute of International Studies and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley. She has written opinion pieces and short-form essays for Public Orthodoxy, the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, and the Coptic Canadian History Project (CCHP), and has published in the Alexandria School Journal and Middle East Critique. Since 2018, she has also been a curator for the Anthropology of Christianity Bibliography Blog.

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