On a hot July day in summer 2022, I sat with an upper-middle class folk historian and local photographer in Luxor, Upper Egypt, over lunch. Over our meal, we spoke about Coptic heritage in the south and the conversation veered off onto the idea of the minority concept in Egypt today. Both the historian and photographer are Muslims. While the photographer remained mostly silent, the folk historian was vocal about his disagreement with describing Copts as a minority in Egypt. Instead of describing his disagreement through the lens of colonialism (that the term is a colonial construction) or even national unity (that Copts and Muslims coexist in Egypt), he argued that not only was the idea of minority a Western political construction used as a conduit to imperial politics, but more substantively, that discrimination and violence against Copts is part of a broader framework of conflict and political struggle that has little to do with their religious identity. He stated forthright: “Every incident can be circled back to a broader societal conflict, or power struggle. It has little to do with religion.” “But what about the recent murder of Father Arsanios Wadeed in Alexandria? Was that not religiously motivated?” I asked. The historian replied, “Tell me, did the murderer indicate he murdered him because this man was a Christian, a clergyman? I doubt it.”
Some Egyptian Muslim activists have argued in the political arena that Coptic Christians are not a minority community. They have argued against the term minority because of Copts’ integral character to the broader Egyptian national fabric. Still, others whisper in daily conversation that violence and discrimination against Copts is not systematic and is a matter politicized and manipulated by Western powers. While increases in Coptic representation from the Supreme Constitutional Court to the regime’s cabinet, among other minor appointments, offer solace to some Copts on the progress of Egyptian cultural recognition of their minor status, as citizens who encounter everyday forms of discrimination, reforming majority cultural discourses and dispositions has proven more difficult. Legal-political changes and representational gestures mean little if the culture of affective indifference by those within the Muslim majority to Copts’ minor feelings is not corrected and remedied.
Scholars have documented how Copts adjust in order to avoid suspicion and violence, in fear of backlash from Muslim counterparts as well as the Egyptian state. Most prominently, an Egyptian court in 2016 sentenced four Coptic Christian teenagers to prison for “insulting Islam.” The teenagers were accused of filming a 32-second video in which they mocked Muslims praying. The rise in blasphemy cases such as this is nothing new and speaks not only to the legal forms of discrimination in Egypt, but also the underlying majoritarian norms that constitute national culture. On talk shows and on social media for instance, Christian life in Egypt is mocked and ridiculed without reprimand in the same way as Islam.
Institutional proclamations of national unity and images of Copts and Muslims hand-in-hand limit the ways of seeing Christian life in contemporary Egypt. Moreover, everyday discourse from some Egyptian Muslims on their coexistence with Christian neighbors, schoolmates, and coworkers eludes more direct conversation and accounting to the different struggles Christians must face in Egyptian society. The social condition that many Egyptian Muslims comprise is one where Islam and Muslim-majority norms are the default of Egyptian cultural life. Scholars have addressed how most Muslims not only view Egyptian history as one of peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims, but also that regimes are the ultimate culprits of religious strife to divert attention from class conflict. While class difference lends itself to a different form of solidarity, eschewing the importance of religious difference in contemporary Egypt turns the spotlight away from daily microaggressions as well as forms of violence that Christians experience. Anthony Shenoda has relayed this as “psychological persecution,” whereby practices of discrimination and intimidation are embedded in Egyptian society. Much of these proclamations of national unity and coexistence rhetoric leave the interactions of violence, subjugation, and discrimination to the realm of the invisible.
Regardless of minimal legal reforms or institutional changes, the (im)possibility of Coptic equality in Egypt lies in the practices of everyday Copts and their accommodation of injury inflicted upon them by remaining silent or eschewing conflict when anti-Christian rhetoric and conflict erupts in daily interaction. Beyond violent attack and bombings of churches, visible in their religious symbolism, Copts are called infidels in simple conversation as well as media discourse, youth are ostracized from sports and other opportunities at school, and Coptic women (as well as Muslim women who do not wear hijab) must be mindful of their hair on public transport. These more minute forms of discrimination form the constellation of Coptic life in contemporary Egypt; an Egypt in which Copts must navigate carefully for fear of conflict, government targeting, and even death.
States of injury
Upper Egypt has been depicted as a bastion of sectarian tension and violence against Christians. Christian communities in the area navigate social boundaries as they maintain relationality with their Muslim neighbors. This relationality oscillates between a unique form of regional kinship and conflict around religious difference. In Upper Egypt in summer 2017, over post-lunch conversation with a working class Coptic family, the matriarch spoke of the then recent bus attack in al-Minya, in which 28 people were killed by ISIS-affiliates. “The terrorists came from Qena. They were not foreigners…When you go on the metro in Cairo, you take the women’s car, don’t you? But even [Muslim] women will harm you, even when there are no [visible] sectarian tensions. These terrorists are from this country itself. They live among us.” The lived affective reality—and anxiety—of minor feelings, like that of the matriarch, is often overlooked by scholars, politicians, and activists in conversations and debate on Coptic citizenship and equality in contemporary Egypt, usually focused on legal reform, the role of foreign influence on religious freedom advocacy, and representational politics. The struggle for Coptic equality through these structural means remains important, but limits the redress of injury to the state. It often focuses on Coptic difference, and remedy for the inequalities perpetuated by such difference. Yet, little commentary and most especially scholarship is usually focused on what everyday Muslims think and feel about Coptic difference in Egypt.
A constant focus on Coptic inequality and persecution, while vital to such conversations, takes the pressure off members of the Muslim majority who harbor inaccurate depictions and forms of discrimination against Coptic Christians. Instead, Copts have to learn to accommodate those sentiments, affects, and expectations. Oftentimes, instead, some Copts have separated themselves from majority Muslim society and have found cultural enclaves inside of the Coptic Orthodox Church (and there are certainly reasons for that, historically). This has had far-reaching political implications for Copts who have felt de-politicized by the Church’s authoritarian reach and representational capacity. Voicing injury and making political demands—in Egypt and abroad—is perceived by the Church and the state as a threat.
A right to (in)difference
As I have written elsewhere, Coptic political organizers have varyingly emphasized the demand to be recognized as Christian Egyptians. Being a citizen in the legal sense is not enough if it continues to render the particular injuries and socio-political asymmetries faced by Copts as invisible and suspect. Instead, many of Coptic interlocutors I have worked with involved in political organizing and others beyond the political arena, are seeking a right to indifference—a positionality that does not mandate homogenization, but rather integrates difference into a reimagined idea of Egyptian society. It pertains to the expansion of what being Egyptian can look like, rather than minority redress to majoritarian norms and values.
In other words, in the case of the Copts, to draw attention to forms of inequality, it becomes necessary to highlight difference and discrimination, ultimately requiring difference to be emphasized and thematized in the laws of the nation-state. The Church and state eschewing of minority difference (renouncing difference politically) sustains it socially where it continues to proliferate and cycle back to state institutional mechanisms. The state is not a disembodied entity, but is composed of the norms and values expressed by the Upper Egyptian folk historian that opened this piece. Then, in addition to focusing on the paradoxes of the minority concept and its historical deployment, a reevaluation of the majority and majoritarian norms and values in the nation-state might prove a productive place to imagine different configurations of social cohesion in Egypt.
In this way, differences can be reconceptualized not to a majoritarian standard, but rather to various other differences, such that non-dominant ways of life can flourish without being a threat to the stability of a majoritarian core. And Coptic activists have already articulated as such. During a conversation with a Coptic political activist in 2017, they noted the following: “We are all the original Egyptians, even if today we have religious differences, the essence of our belonging is present inside each of us. This [Coptic] formulation is the clearest form of Egyptian identity, in that it is flexible to the times.” This call to re-evaluate the center breaks down contemporary political binds of secular law and liberal redress by attending to the local specificity of a shared cultural heritage that channels through religious difference and demands social reparation that extends beyond the state’s sovereign power.
This call is not simply for a re-consideration of minor feelings in Egypt. Rather, policymakers and activists can better focus on minority advocacy by centering conversation and debate on shifting majoritarian norms and values in Egyptian society—of reimagining Egypt through the heterogeneous inclusion of Coptic difference.
This analysis is part of a project on Egypt’s religious minorities made possible thanks to the generous support of the European Commission and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation.
Candace Lukasik is an Assistant Professor of Religion and Anthropology at Mississippi State University, whose research focuses on the intersections of religion, race, migration, and empire.