How did you get started in the discipline of Sociology? What drew you to your research topic?
In her book’s introduction, Laure Guirguis writes, “It took me years of running away to be drawn back to Egypt.” She continues to recount an exchange with a professor who suggested she focus her research on Copts, to which she responded: “No, anything but the Copts.” I recall cozying up with her book on my couch, completely enthralled by this mirror-image account of my own foray into the study of Copts. Early in my PhD program, my advisor, Joachim Savelsberg, suggested I research Copts given my interest in collective memories of violence. Much like Laure, I also wanted nothing to do with the subject matter. Having grown up embedded within Coptic communities between Egypt and Kuwait, and later becoming disillusioned with Orthodoxy, there was just simply too much baggage to unravel.
Despite all my attempts, my PhD allowed me to return to Copts, albeit more critically. Paradoxically, I turned to the social sciences in the first place to help me better understand my own experiences. My undergraduate education in Sociology and Psychology equipped me with the language to understand and articulate my own experiences of migration to the Gulf and later to the United States, of growing up in the shadows of the US invasion of Iraq, and of discrimination based on religion and nationality. Sociology specifically helped me situate my own experiences amongst broader social, national, and global dynamics—what C. Wright Mills calls the Sociological Imagination. In hindsight, the decision to focus on Copts is not at all surprising, but rather inevitable, considering how research is a deeply personal endeavor.
Growing up between Egypt and Kuwait, and later coming to political consciousness in the US, meant that I was exposed to a plethora of divergent narratives around the plight of Copts in Egypt. After each incident of violence against Copts, the Egyptian state espouses an empty rhetoric of national unity while the Church advances a theodicy of martyrdom that transforms death into a blessing. As one brutal incident of martyrdom occurred after another, however, I quickly became disenchanted with these narratives, seeking alternative avenues that centered justice and equality. Yet these competing approaches to Coptic belonging are not simply an intracommunal matter. Coptic martyrdom figures prominently in the imaginary of global Christian persecution, aligning the plight of Middle East Christians firmly within conservative religious freedom advocacy. Ultimately, my own quest to understand the complexity of Coptic collective memory, identity, and politics drives my research interests in understanding how these competing narratives are situated within broader geopolitical currents between democracy and security.
What is your dissertation about? What is its broader significance?
My research explores the transnational politics, meaning, and memory of violence and suffering. I am especially interested in how religion and rights shape interpretations of violence and chart trajectories for mobilization. My dissertation explores how the plight of Middle East Christians, and specifically Coptic Egyptian Christians, has become a contested category of political concern in US foreign policy advocacy. I argue that Middle East Christians have become a battleground upon which US politics and policies toward authoritarianism and terrorism, and relatedly human rights and religious freedom, are disputed. As such, there have been two polarized approaches to advocacy on behalf of Copts. One camp of advocates, predominantly conservative Christians, mobilize to save their co-religionists in the Middle East from terrorism under the framework of international religious freedom. The other camp, mostly progressive democracy activists, mobilize against entrenching authoritarianism. While one frames the issue as a matter of terrorism and religious identity the other is concerned with democracy and citizenship. These polarized advocacy fields have had a transformative impact on how diaspora Copts make-sense of violence and mobilize against it. My dissertation, therefore, explores how advocates jostle to influence the policymaking process, resulting in fragmented policy and advocacy towards Christians in the Middle East.
The contentious nature of advocacy on behalf of Christians in the Middle East is firmly rooted in contemporary anxieties about the role of religion and rights in America’s identity. Today, discussions of Christian persecution are intertwined in the domestic politics of Christian nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment, as well as foreign policy debates about authoritarianism and isolationism. Understanding how advocates harness “Middle East Christians” for their political interests sheds light on these broader domestic and geopolitical dynamics. There’s a lot at stake in how we define and subsequently act on the plight of Christians in the Middle East.
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?
Because my fieldwork is concerned with matters as high-stakes as international relations, I am committed to understanding the cultural, political, and structural processes behind policymaking. While trying to intimately understand our interlocutor’s worldviews is the bread and butter of any ethnographer’s task, this was an emotional and ethical challenge, especially in contexts where my fieldwork exposed me to beliefs and practices that I fundamentally disagreed with. I once attended a high-profile dinner where Trump was the keynote speaker and a woman seated at my table cheered for an additional eight years of his presidency. Listening to Trump’s remarks and discussing them with my dinner companions illustrated how far proclamations of Christian kinship are marginal in the face of fears about border security and desires to bring troops home. My fieldwork exposed me to a wide range of interlocutors, from right-wing Trump supporters to revolutionary leftists, from ordinary Copts in Egypt to political activists and policymakers in Washington, DC. My positionality in the field was hardly static because I was constantly interacting with people of very different backgrounds. Taking seriously my interlocutor’s fears, desires, and aspirations—beyond caricatures and stereotypes—allows me to have a better grasp on how their worldviews shape US foreign policy. I fundamentally believe that rigorous scholarship on elites and their processes—especially those that we disagree with—can help us imagine a more just world for those whose lives are impacted by such policymaking. Ultimately, my commitment is towards justice for minoritized communities in Egypt, and my dissertation’s goal is to inform and intervene in the geopolitical currents that define the plight of Copts.
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?
Copts, and Christians in the Middle East more broadly, are at the heart of geopolitical debates about religion, authoritarianism, and terrorism. Christians in the Middle East are instrumentalized by authoritarian regimes who use religious freedom as a counter-terrorism mechanism in order to suppress human rights. They are also instrumentalized by the religious right who point to global Christian persecution in order to claim that Christians are also persecuted in the West. These narratives unfold within a global crisis post 9/11 that has pitted security against democracy.
The co-optation of religious minority concerns by anti-democratic currents has a dangerous backlash effect where many people, usually liberals, sometimes deny, downplay, or ignore the realities that minorities experience in the Middle East. For example, a Canadian school disinvited Yazidi activist Nadia Murad, claiming that her book about surviving genocide by ISIS might foster Islamophobia. Rather than raising legitimate critiques against state-sponsored anti-Muslim policies, disinviting Murad merely served as a distraction that prevented students from learning about one of the most brutal genocides of the 21st century.
We are in desperate need of new ways to talk about justice for Copts, and religious minorities in general. If our frameworks continue to be merely reactive to the contemporary climate, then their volatile nature are too weak to demand holistic justice. Instead, we need to be proactive in conceiving of Coptic liberation as one tied up in notions of global justice, to paraphrase aboriginal activist Lilla Watson. This means that the liberation of Copts is bound up in an Egypt where all of its citizens have rights and freedoms, and bound up in a world where all minoritized communities live free from violence and discrimination. The plight of Copts specifically and Christians at large can no longer be used as a prop for broader geopolitical interests.
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?
I will start off by saying that I am really in awe of the proliferation of people working on Coptic issues. Ongoing research is disrupting and transforming previous taken-for-granted assumptions, which is great because we need more empirical and theoretical research that pushes our understandings of the structures that shape all aspects of Coptic life. In Coptic studies narrowly, for example, I would like to see research that goes back to some basics: What even constitutes Coptic identity? Specifically, I am curious about the development of indigeneity claims among Copts transnationally. Interestingly, indigeneity claims are espoused by both ardent identitarians in Egypt who promote genetic purity to claim that Copts are descendants of Pharaohs and therefore distinguished from Muslims, as well as progressive Copts in Australia, Canada, and the United States who are influenced by the domestic politics of genocide, indigeneity, and race when claiming that Copts are indigenous to Egypt and Africa more broadly. Attention to the development of indigeneity claims has broader implications for trying to understand what is cultural and ethnic about Coptic identity, beyond its religious component. I am eager for someone to take up this research because the existing paradigms that we rely on to introduce Copts to our readers are deeply unsatisfying.
More broadly, and this is not particularly profound but remains underdeveloped, is that I would like to see Copts centered in research on broader national, regional, and global dynamics. Too often Copts are referred to as a homogenous people with static politics, or the Church hierarchy’s position is conflated with that of the populous, or mere references to Coptic-specific events are made without nuanced engagement. For example, the nascent literature on Egyptian diaspora mobilization, especially in the aftermath of 2013’s exodus of dissidents, has altogether ignored the long history of Coptic political activism. The contemporary interest in transnational repression, for example, overlooks how Coptic political activists in the diaspora have long suffered from transnational threats and orchestrated attempts at infiltrating Coptic organizations to fragment them. My own research tries to make an indent in the scholarship by placing Copts firmly within Egyptian diaspora mobilization against authoritarianism. Still, more research is needed that takes seriously Coptic issues and Coptic actors in national and global histories.
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Miray Philips is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Minnesota and a Visiting Scholar at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. Her research explores the transnational politics, meaning, and memory of violence and suffering at the intersection of religion and rights. You can find her research published in Egypt Migrations, the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, and forthcoming in the American Journal of Cultural Sociology. Miray also sits on the board of directors at Egypt Migrations.