Immigration And The Reinvention of Identity. Notes From The Id


A previous post dealt with the rise of Coptic political activism early in immigrant communities, especially in the US. The early activism was marked by the success of Pope Shenouda in winning over its leaders and subsequently enlisting it as a component of his project of placing the clerical hierarchy as the central leadership of the Copts. The passing of Shenouda and the changing conditions in Egypt signal a change of circumstances. The failure of activism to affect the official policies of the Egyptian state is part and parcel of a larger failure of all outside forces to influence the ponderous state. As with all political movements, failure will result in either disappearing into irrelevance or an internal struggle to assess the means, methods and goals of the movement. This was amply demonstrated by one of the largest groups, Coptic Solidarity, around its recent conference in June 2017. The conference title “Egypt: Combating Terrorism Without Sacrificing Civil Rights” is laudable and sensible enough. The organization attempted to reach out beyond immigrant Copts, inviting various US political figures, academics, intellectuals and even a Shi’a Imam. Yet somehow, the entire proceeding was hijacked by the now notorious “Zogby affair”. James Zogby, a leader of the Arab American community and a political operative within the Democratic party, ostentatiously rescinded his acceptance to chair a panel over what he called individuals spreading …hurtful anti-Arab and anti-Muslim propaganda”. A spokesman for Coptic Solidarity further inflamed the issue by leveling a charge of “Dhimmitude” against Zogby. Although the author of the charge was unnamed, many in the know felt that it bore the mark of Magdi Khalil, one of Coptic Solidarity’s founder and a leading thinker and writer. This charge would be unknown to most Christians in the world, and indeed to many in the East, but is a uniquely familiar one to Egyptians*. This was the Coptic id lashing out at what it perceives to be collaborators in its oppression. Here was an American organization reverting to its Egyptian core when it views itself under attack. Any temptation to ignore the meaning of the Zogby affair would later be undercut by a little noted article. Tectonic shifts are seldom noticed until they break out in spectacular forms, while the attention is invariably focused on surface ripples.

Nine months after the 2017 conference, Magdi Khalil, published an article titled “The Copts as Lord Cromer saw them”. The article is in Arabic making it clear that its intended audience is in Egypt, even if its tone and lineage is American. The few in Egypt who do not choose to ignore it will read it as a plea, or a threat, or more ominously as a pink slip. To gaze upon the Copts from Cromer’s imperial eyes is by itself an unsettling statementCromer, the man who effectively ruled Egypt for a quarter century, was known for his dislike of the Copts. He denounced “their habits of servitude”, and resented their resistance to his administrative modernization, which lessened the Copts’ traditional control of the state’s administrative apparatus. Khalil uses Cromer as a pretext to level 17 questions to the Coptic church and community. None of these questions are really new, as most have been around for a while, but they were never considered suitable to be asked aloud in polite company. All the questions are backward looking and Egypt focused, but Khalil contends that answering them is essential for the future progress of the Copts, especially outside Egypt. In effect, Khalil expands the charge of “Dhimmitude” to include many Copts and the clerical hierarchy. It is strong and uncomfortable stuff, but it should not be ignored or dismissed lightly. Those who are not tapped into the Egyptian and Coptic history and psyche may find the entire set of questions odd, but that does not render them irrelevant. If others follow suit and ask the same questions then they may have the weight of theses nailed to a door.

Khalil’s first question relates to what he perceives to be the Copts’s original sin. “How could we have allowed a few thousand Bedouins to occupy and rule our country [in 641 C.E.]?”. From that question the remaining sixteen cascade along similar lines. “Why did we not connect with Nubia and Ethiopia?”, in effect asking why there was no project of Reconquista similar to Spain. Why has the church resisted Byzantium far more vigorously than the Muslim rulers, Khalil asks. He also takes the clerical hierarchy to task for becoming willing collaborators in the oppression of the Copts under Muslim rule for centuries. The clerics are weak, he asserts, because they lent no support to the rebels of the Pashmuric revolts of the 9th century C.E. or the current activists in immigration. He widens his scope to accuse the community at large of being slavish to priests, subservient to Muslims in general, while ferocious toward each other in their internecine fights. Finally he indicts the entire community for becoming “prisoners” of the church walls and the monks who man them, and refusing to have fruitful interactions with Western Christianity. He strikes at the core of the old Coptic identity by accusing the Church of developing a theology of submission, humiliation and martyrdom, rather than of liberation, justice and revolution. Khalil’s hammer spares no pillar of traditional Coptic thought. It is tempting to think that Khalil’s arguments will have few listeners, but it would be wrong. It is also tempting to think that the historic longevity, as well as the institutional strength of the church and its leaders will render them immune to his criticism. But the leaders of the church should make no such assumption,at least not without a careful listening to many outside Egypt. On a personal level, this blogger can attest to the resonance of Khalil’s questions among many young Copts born and bred in the US, and who grew up without acculturation to the “habits of servitude”. The new Copt does not look like the old Copt. It remains to be seen whether that new Copt will look on the old with understanding, or cast a gimlet eye on the deficiencies. That said, we can  level a modest charge of historic inexactitude, even revisionism, against Khalil. As with many nationalist retelling, history is sanctified by a division of its actors to patriots and traitors. But the reality is less neat. Khalil is a smart observer and has demonstrated a keen grasp of Egyptian and Coptic history. His questions can only arise from a polemical plan rather than simple historic ignorance. They fit neatly, although far more discordantly, in a line of thought that threads through recent Egyptian and Coptic history. Why are the people such willing slaves to their rulers? Many an Egyptian intellectual has asked in despair about the persistence of authoritarianism and clientism in the country’s governance. Passionate young men of the Society of Coptic Nationalists would kidnap a Pope in 1954 in equal despair over the communal inability to rid itself of a weak and unqualified man at the top of the clerical hierarchy. One of these men would thunder to this author, a quarter century after the events, that the Copts are “weak, weak, and therefore undeserving of respect”, while pounding his fist on the table in a dingy basement restaurant near Dupont circle in Washington DC, to the point where he was nearly ejected. Magdi Khalil’s words tap into an existing but largely hidden vein, but to what end?

Many nationalist narratives have a familiar arc. First there is a statement of the “fall”, the once proud people who have fallen into a disgraceful state, unable to unite or improve their lot. The fall must be followed by redemption, where proper leadership and individual sacrifices will lead to a greater collective good. This is the narrative of Egyptian nationalism, and also the narrative of the Copts. Once they were able to meld their story and that of Egypt into a single thread, but that is becoming increasingly more difficult. Too many Copts are not Egyptian, and too much of Egypt has drifted into Islamism. While the Egyptian church and the few lay Coptic leaders in Egypt extol the benefits of a unified nation, many Copts outside Egypt see the entire narrative as a farce. In some ways, the current situation among immigrant Copts bears a striking resemblance to that of European Armenians at the end of the 19th century who increasingly saw the promise of citizenship within the Ottoman Empire as unrealistic, if only because others, including Turks, had also come to the same conclusion. Khalil challenges the notion that what made Copts survive for 1400 years will enable them to do so in the future, and more radically, he challenges the notion that a similar survival is even worth the effort. The Egyptian church, and also the lay community, are busy with the difficulties and travails of life in Egypt and have little time to engage in such thoughts. They would likely see Khalil’s ideas as disruptive, even dangerous. They simply want their old Egypt back. But whether today, or at some future date, a reckoning is bound to happen between these two divergent lines of thought. Once again, as they did in the 1970s and early 1980s, the numerically smaller Copts in immigration are leveraging their more fortunate position for a louder voice within the community. In immigration their christian identity is not sufficient to distinguish them from the larger community around them. Neither their orthodoxy, nor their non-Chalcedonian theology which few truly understand, are sufficient for a distinctive identity. Agitating for the good of Egyptian Copts is however their unique burden and identity. The real question is whether newer generations will take up the burden with equal vigor or abandon it as quixotic. Either way, the Egyptian church can not long remain Janus faced, able to satisfy two very divergent groups of faithful follower. There are passionate arguments that insist that the only future for the Copts is out of Egypt, while other, equally passionate arguments, insist that the only hope for Egypt is to be a country where the Copts can remain an integral part of its fabric. Nothing at the moment seems to favor either view.

When Bishop Bishoy, a senior conservative leader of the Egyptian church, remarked in 2010 that Islam is a “guest in Egypt”, he created a firestorm. By his very same reasoning Christianity is also a “guest in Egypt’, having arrived a mere 600 years earlier. Such views are bound to seem odd to Copts born in places such as the US or Canada or Australia, where any one can become a full-fledged citizen within a few years. These countries have no “guests”, or more accurately, have nothing but guests. From that vantage, Magdi Khalil’s questions are paradoxes; on one hand they imply that Copts have a special responsibility toward Egypt, while insisting that they need to consider their communal health first and foremost. But these are the paradoxes of an identity in formation. For what it is worth, the church in Egypt, and indeed the wider world, needs to listen carefully to the discourse of immigrant Copts. As Buffalo Springfield would have it; something is happening here, but what it is ain’t exactly clear.

— Maged Atiya

* The notion of “Dhimmitude” was introduced into common Western lexicon by Gisele Littman, writing under the name of Bat Ye’or. She was born in Egypt and left it at age 23 under the difficult circumstances of 1956.

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