How did you get started in your discipline? What drew you to your research topic?
About ten years ago, I quite literally stumbled into Coptic studies. I was living in Egypt in October 2011 and one day walked out of a metro station in downtown Cairo into a Coptic protest. Being very unfamiliar with contemporary Coptic political history, I was surprised at the sight of priests leading a demonstration and protestors carrying empty coffins. Because of both my general curiosity of something I knew very little about and the short-term urgency of needing to find an undergraduate thesis topic, I decided to spend the next year researching and writing on the political activity of Coptic Christians following Egypt’s 2011 uprising. The timing of this chance encounter ended up being momentous. Five days later, a protest on a similar route in Cairo was attacked by Egyptian security forces, leading to 28 deaths in what we now know as the Maspero Massacre. In the aftermath of this horrifying violence, Coptic Christians moved from a footnote in discussions of 2011 Egyptian politics to a central story in evaluating the possibilities of plurality in contemporary Egypt and the heavy hand of military rule.
The circumstances of these marches introduced two key themes that have set the tone for my subsequent research on Coptic history: the role of the Church, and other communal institutions, as political agents; and the centrality of violence in shaping Coptic visibility.
After finishing my undergraduate degree at Missouri State University, I continued researching modern Coptic studies while pursuing my master’s at the University of Texas at Austin. While in Austin, I started to shift my disciplinary focus toward history. With this disciplinary shift, I moved from focusing on contemporary Coptic history to that of Egypt’s “liberal era” from 1923-1952. One thing that struck me when digging into this history were the parallels I saw between Egyptian national politics and Coptic internal power relations. Historians often talk of the liberal era as a three-way struggle for power between the Wafd Party, the Egyptian monarchy, and the British occupation. I noticed the Coptic sphere was defined a similar struggle between the Coptic papacy, the Holy Synod, and the Communal Council (al-Majlis al-Milli). These multi-polar power arrangements are fertile grounds for controversy, shifting and surprising alliances, and novel ways for imagining politics. And that’s precisely what draws me to this period. It comes off as chaotic, but there’s something compelling about the possibilities that this chaos brings out. In these power struggles, I see a story of Egyptians in general and Copts in particular working to make claims about the nature of authority in Egypt and to define the relationship between individuals and their governing institutions.
What is your dissertation about? What is its broader significance?
My dissertation looks at Coptic conversations on institutional representation in Egypt from the 1920s to the 1960s. I’m interested in how the idea of popular will within the community grew as an argument for legitimizing the authority of communal institutions. I frame my study in the institutional history of the Coptic Communal Council which mobilized its unique elected nature from 1927 to 1961 to bolster its claims to communal authority on the grounds that it represented the voice of the Copts. The content of my dissertation follows the directions those arguments went in the community, from the supporters who elaborated on such claims, to the traditionalists who rejected popular will as a source of communal authority, to those who supported popular will but questioned the Council’s representative credentials, and to those who blended the traditional and the popular. These debates over institutional authority within the community prompted a multitude of interpretations of representation that in turn signaled how various factions among the Copts defined what exactly “community” meant to them.
An important part of my dissertation is engaging with what we mean when we use the term “liberalism” when talking about Egypt. It tends to be a fairly elusive concept in Egyptian scholarship—both in terms of the ambiguity with which the term is used as well as in its presentation as an idealized form of representative politics that always seems out of reach. My analysis considers both the promises and frustrations of these representative politics—in their liberatory ideals as well as in their tendency to preserve hierarchy in practice—while linking their experience in the Coptic community to a broader story of the internal tensions within liberalism. I look at the story of the Copts in the early 20th century as a rich case study for a minority community caught between the ideals of representative politics and their limitations in practice.
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?
I’m from the United States and come from an environment heavily influenced by Protestantism—not only in my own religious background, but also in coming from an academic context in which Protestant ideas of what constitutes “religion” have heavily shaped inquiry. As I write primarily about Middle Eastern religious communities outside of my own, the question of distance is a matter I always need to be aware of, especially in how it impacts my storytelling—both in terms of limitations and unfamiliarities as well as the possibilities for comfortable and open expression.
This is something I try to be extremely conscious about when writing about violence. The possibility of violence is very distant from my daily life. On the one hand, this distance grants me the privilege of being able to write safely and freely on the dimensions of violence. On the other hand, this means that violence remains largely an abstraction rather than an experience for me. It requires a delicate balancing act between critically dissecting how violence against others serves agents of power while avoiding the negation of the horrific suffering of those who are subject to violence. I think it’s important that when writing about violence that we draw attention to its painful lived realities in order to emphasize that violence is a human experience, not merely a rhetorical device of institutions of power.
As scholars, what sort of impact do you believe we should have in an increasingly xenophobic and nationalistic global climate?
As someone working in the field of modern Coptic studies, I think it’s beyond a question of “should.” The story of Copts in the 20th century constitutes a history saturated with commentary on fundamental questions of nationalism, communal identity, public religion, and the status of minorities. Realistically, I think it’s difficult to avoid producing scholarship in this field naturally that engages with currents of identity and politics that define the contemporary global climate. I think the greater risk comes in an urge to sanitize our works from being “too political” for the commentary it might offer on contemporary affairs.
I have a great deal of respect for scholars who have been able to operate as activist scholars. I’m still trying a comfortable voice in that style of writing. But I think that one exciting prospect of our basic work as historians is to illuminate different ways that life, politics, and ideas can exist. That’s really what I’m trying to say in my dissertation on Coptic communal institutions—that these individuals were pursuing novel ways of thinking about their political reality. The idea that we can imagine other possibilities, rooted in the historical record, is a crucial contribution that scholars can make in confronting the current political moment.
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?
Specifically, within Coptic studies, I’m really excited about works that challenge some of the basic concepts and categories that define how we study the community. Even that basic term I use, “community”—I would love to see more work that address the foundations of what that means. How do we quantify community as a social unit? How does it differ or overlap with the idea of the nation? What does the internal terminology for community tell us about how it’s imagined? To that end, I’ve found works by social scientists like Saba Mahmood and Angie Heo inspiring in questioning the basic connective bonds that generate community for Copts. Beyond that, I think of several defining categories that I am interested in seeing complicated: the binaries that shaped Coptic studies (laity versus clergy; modern versus tradition); the use of the “millet system” as an analytical paradigm; the nature of religious authority as a decision-making mechanism. I think we’re at a stage where there’s an excellent empirical base for the field. Now is the time to start rethinking through some of our commonplace paradigms.
Beyond that, I think it’s important to expand the languages through which we access modern Coptic history. The bulk of the works that I engage with in my own research are typically rooted in Arabic, English, and French sources. I’m curious where Coptic history exists in languages like Amharic, Armenian, Hebrew, Ottoman, and Spanish. Obviously, this is a daunting task; in my own experience attempting to learn Amharic, it felt like the language was actively competing for space in my mind with the Arabic and Turkish that I’d previously studied. However, I think expanding the linguistic space of how Coptic history is typically studied is essential for fully reckoning how Copts exist as a global community.
Are you planning to pursue a career in academia? What topics and themes do you hope to address in future work?
I would ideally like to pursue a career in academia. I’m five years into my PhD program and still love the opportunities I’ve had for storytelling through my studies. Above all, I see myself as a scholar of the idea of community—the grounds upon which it’s conceived, how it’s constructed, how it “works”—with a particular emphasis on its relationship with political representation and violence. I would like to continue building on this set of themes. In the future, I want to work more on studies that are dislodged from the immediate nation-state geographic context, such as migratory and transnational communities. The rupture and estrangement from systems of patronage that often attend these communities make them fruitful grounds for considering what community can mean.
Are you working on a new project? What topics and themes do you hope to address in your future work?
Right now, I’m fairly tied up in writing my dissertation. Even that however, has led me down several tangents for future possibilities. From a chapter I recently wrote on Coptic memorials in the 1950s, I’ve become very interested in the field of death studies and in the nature of death as a phenomenon that shapes narrative. Beyond that, I’ve been curating a number of smaller projects related to missionary knowledge production in the Middle East and East Africa. These projects have been useful for digging through my own positionality relative to dominant modes of Western knowledge production.
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Weston Bland is a PhD Candidate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania. Weston’s fields of academic specialty are the history of modern Egypt and Christianity in the modern Middle East, with a particular focus on 20th century Coptic history. He is particularly interested in Christian communal organization, the role that violence plays in constructing Middle Eastern Christians as historical subjects, and the resonance of missionary encounters in the modern Middle East.