IDF Fellow’s Research Illuminates Identity, Representation, and Narratives in the Coptic Diaspora

Miray Philips, PhD candidate in Sociology, aims to understand how religious freedom and Coptic diaspora advocates explain the “Coptic Question,” and is currently organizing the 4th Annual Coptic Canadian History Project Conference at the UofM
Miray Philips poses for a photo

Miray Philips, PhD candidate in Sociology, is a 2019-20 Interdisciplinary Doctoral (IDF) Fellow affiliated with the Human Rights Program and the Institute for Global Studies. We recently touched base with Miray to ask how her IDF year is progressing and to learn more about the Coptic Canadian History Project Conference she is organizing at the U of M for later this spring.


Where did your dissertation research on US representations of Copts begin?

My research is not just an intellectual endeavor, but a very personal one. Growing up Coptic-Christian-Egyptian meant that persecution and martyrdom were part of the Coptic collective identity, and this identity has become heightened in the past few years with the rise of particularly brutal and broadcasted incidents of bombings, beheadings and killings of Copts. I write here about my personal and complicated trajectory grappling with what it means to belong to a Church of Martyrs. These incidents are not just significant for Copts alone, but are also part of a dominant narrative in the West about the global persecution of Christians. For example, when ISIS beheaded twenty Copts and a Ghanaian on a beach in Libya, the images of the martyrs became a driving force in the US behind advancing international religious freedom and protecting Middle East Christians. My dissertation attempts to critically understand how religious freedom advocates along with diaspora Coptic advocates, working within US foreign policy, have come to identify, represent and narrate the “Coptic Question.”

There is, indeed, a lot of variety and divergence in narratives on Copts, rooted in significantly different ideologies and interests. Western Christians articulate a relationship with Middle Eastern Christians as part of the global body of Christ. Rhetorically, this inclusive categorization allows the conservative amongst them to draw on the suffering of Christians in the Middle East to then make claims about the marginalization of Christianity in the US. Human rights workers focus primarily on legal discrimination and the securitization of Copts, which fits within the institutionalized human rights logic of the state as the grantor of rights and protector of minority citizens. This framework primarily focuses on the state as the primary perpetrator and responsible actor, but usually leaves out discussions about individual and communal responsibilities. Within the Coptic diaspora, there is a generational divergence, where younger second- and third-generation Copts are still grappling with aspects of their identity, and whether Egypt should remain central to it. This identity crisis potentially means that the “Coptic Question” is not necessarily a reference to the needs of Copts in Egypt, but rather the needs of immigrant Copts in the US. These articulations occur miles away from the reality of Copts in Egypt, and are mediated by geopolitical concerns, political and religious interests, institutional logics, and migration. Importantly, Copts and other Middle East Christians are often instrumentalized to advance domestic and international politics on the war on terror, refugee resettlement, humanitarian aid, Muslim-American rights, and evangelical populism.

How do you envision your research contributing to current conversations regarding human rights?

The policy and advocacy fields of human rights and religious freedom approach the question of rights very differently. Many advocates within the field of international religious freedom deploy the language of human rights to say that religious freedom is a foundational American right, and conditions other rights (“You can’t have human rights, if you don’t have religious freedom”). These claims create a hierarchy of rights, which is a divergence from those who work on all human rights as equal rights. I hope that my dissertation research will illuminate how these divergences are becoming more sedimented institutionally, what kinds of narratives and politics they make possible, and how this divergence shapes diaspora politicization and claims-making.

What opportunities and challenges arise in taking an interdisciplinary approach to your research question?

I am a sociologist in training. Yet, the American discipline of sociology is underdeveloped theoretically and empirically when it comes to the Middle East and its diasporas. This became especially evident to me while writing a section in my preliminary exam on sectarianism, an empirical reality and theoretical concept that sociologists have not paid much attention to. However, the study of groupism, identity, boundaries, ethnicity, race and racialization is thriving within sociology. Reading that literature, which mostly drew on contexts beyond the Middle East, enriched my understanding of sectarianism in the Middle East. For example, literature on identity formation and group boundaries helped me understand how sectarian identities are fluid and shaped by everchanging geopolitical contexts. The expansive literature on race, racism and racialization allowed me to realize that literature on sectarianism has a long way to go in understanding sects, sectarian identity and sectarianization as they manifest individually, communally, institutionally and regionally. Though sociology’s contributions to sectarianism in the Middle East is marginal, it is actually very well equipped to study sectarianism because of its disciplinary strength to locate socio-political processes within historical and geographical contexts, while also speaking to phenomena comparatively.

All that to say, for some research questions, interdisciplinarity is a necessity and it is unquestionably generative. In my work, I draw on theological and religious studies because my interlocutors are often people of faith, I draw on policy and political science to help me understand political processes in Washington DC, and I draw on Coptic studies and Middle East studies for their historicization of Copts and other ethno-religious migrants transnationally.

Regarding "Victim, Symbol, or Actor? Middle Eastern Migrants in Transnational Perspectives", the 4th Annual Coptic Canadian History Project Conference you are organizing, what are your goals, and what excites you about hosting it at the University of Minnesota on April 24, 2020?

Migration within and out of the Middle East is an urgent reality. Political and media representations of migrants and ethno-religious minorities often reduce them to a victim status and instrumentalize them as symbols for political gain. Scholarly literature has frequently pushed back against these designations, viewing migrants as actors in their own right. While the conference has usually centered on Copts, we want to expand our scope and think more broadly about migration within and out of the Middle East. In an increasingly transnational world, we recognize that the desires, lived experiences, hopes, and politics of ethno-religious migrants is shaped by their geographical movements and by their interactions with other ethno-religious migrants. This undertaking allows us to explore how subjectivities of communities transform transnationally and relationally. The University of Minnesota is a particularly stimulating home for the conference because we have a strong interdisciplinary focus on human rights, mass violence, religion, and migration.

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