With Friends Like These

Coptic Activism in the Diaspora

by Michael Wahid Hanna
published in MER267

In June 2010, amidst escalating controversy over the construction of a mosque and Islamic community center near the former site of the World Trade Center, two Egyptians found themselves on the receiving end of xenophobic abuse as a crowd accosted them with calls to “go home.” Unbeknownst to the angry mob, the two Arabic-speaking men, Joseph Nasralla Abdelmasih and Karam El Masry, had come all the way from California to join the protest against what was dubbed the “Ground Zero mosque.” In fact, Abdelmasih and El Masry, who were eventually escorted away for their own safety by police officers, were involved with “The Way,” a Christian satellite television program established in 2010 that broadcasts in English and Arabic. Here were two Copts, who rightly assail the curtailment of religious freedom in Egypt, particularly the ability to build or even repair churches, actively seeking to limit the religious practice of a minority faith and the construction of a place of worship in America.    

Perhaps not surprisingly, Abdelmasih would resurface in 2012 during the recriminations surrounding the infamous trailer, The Innocence of Muslims, for which his charity, Media for Christ, obtained filming permits. The involvement of extremist Copts, such as Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, with the movie project, coupled with the violent and absurd responses it precipitated, focused international attention both on the plight of Egypt’s Christians and the activities of their co-religionists in the diaspora. While not representative of Coptic activism in the West or in Egypt, the incident evoked the contradictions, excesses and ironies that have too often marred the work of diaspora activists. In Egypt, seven Coptic activists residing in the United States were provocatively sentenced to death in absentia for their alleged involvement in producing the film, and various Islamists exploited the occasion to air incendiary anti-Coptic sentiments and question the loyalty of Egypt’s Christian minority. In this telling, Egyptian Christians were a veritable fifth column -- and were often referred to as such.

The central villains in much Egyptian press coverage, however, were the diaspora Copts, aqbat al-mahgar, who have become a familiar rhetorical device, often used as a counterpoint to Islamist militants and as a means of creating a false equivalence of blame and extremism. The Egyptian government has long sought to tarnish Coptic diaspora activism as foreign and an attack on national sovereignty, dignity and unity. Accusations that diaspora activists are “traitors to Egypt” are regular in the Egyptian press. [1] By this tactic, the facts of pervasive discrimination and intermittent violence against Christians in Egypt are obscured or downplayed as the obsession of a handful of outsiders. The efforts of diaspora Copts have undoubtedly brought greater attention to violations of the rights of Christians in Egypt. It remains an open question, however, whether this advocacy has been a net positive -- whether it has functioned primarily to highlight discrimination or to sharpen animosity toward Copts.

In the years following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the American public and media devoted significant attention to Islamist militancy. In that atmosphere, extreme anti-Islam agitators in the United States sought to adopt the cause of Copts in Egypt. The most flamboyant figures, such as Nakoula and the virulently bigoted Morris Sadek of the National American Coptic Assembly, have received outsize attention, but even more mainstream Coptic advocacy organizations have not yet been able to professionalize their approach or provide an effective platform for transmitting the Copts’ legitimate grievances. Their work has also at times spawned disagreements with the hierarchy of the Coptic Orthodox Church, lay leadership and Egyptian Christian intellectuals.

Precise population figures for Copts inside and outside Egypt remain difficult to come by. It is generally accepted that Copts are approximately 10 percent of the Egyptian population, making up the largest single Christian minority in the Middle East. (Lebanon is home to several Christian communities that, together, and when including diaspora members, are larger.) It is much harder to speak with confidence as to the numbers abroad as subnational identities are not often tracked. In 2010, the International Organization for Migration estimated the number of Egyptians living in the United States, Canada, Australia and Great Britain to be 533,000, although other Egyptian organizations and Coptic groups claim higher numbers. [2] It is often assumed that material and social considerations have pushed a disproportionate number of Christians to emigrate from Egypt.

In keeping with trends in Egyptian society -- a decades-long Islamization of the public sphere, increased sectarian sentiment and a steady deterioration of communal bonds -- the Egyptian diaspora is highly segregated and often focused on religious organization as the primary source of community, with churches playing a central role for Copts. A survey of the Coptic diaspora undertaken by George Washington University concluded that the Coptic Church is instrumental in keeping the diaspora connected to Egypt. [3] Elizabeth Iskander has further noted that the Coptic diaspora self-identifies as Coptic and, while not to the exclusion of Egyptian identity, understands the full meaning of the community to be defined by its “Copticness.” [4] Samir Murqus, a prominent Christian intellectual who briefly served as an adviser to President Muhammad Mursi, before resigning in protest, has decried the narrowness of the diaspora experience: “We’ve imported this sense of tribalism from the oil-rich Gulf. People leave the country and gather in tiny circles of belonging; both Copts and Muslims do it. Then they come home and enforce a segregated lifestyle.”

A diaspora is generally defined as a group that “recognizes its separateness based on common ethnicity/nationality, lives in a host country and maintains some kind of attachment to the home country” or homeland. The concept has often been tied to the notion of victimization, [5] but the boundaries of such definitions have expanded along with the experiences of migration. While diasporic politics have received significant scholarly attention, much less has been given to minority-representative diasporas, such as the Coptic diaspora, which is both a subnational and a religiously identified group. [6] The Copts, however, fit comfortably into traditional diaspora politics, which often aim to shape the policies of home governments.

The trajectory of diaspora activism among Copts in the West is not dissimilar to that among other immigrant communities with transnational ties, such as Jews, Armenians and Cubans. Involvement in advocacy, particularly as part of pushing for policy change, is both an affirmation of inclusion and citizenship in the adopted country and continued ties to and emotional investment in the home country. The abundant freedom in the West to speak about sensitive issues has afforded diaspora Copts a platform that Copts in Egypt may not have. The experience of discrimination for some has also sharpened a sense of injustice and encouraged the growth of more strident representation than that present in Egypt. This gap is perhaps closing, with more vocal political participation of Copts in Egypt in the more mobilized post-Mubarak era, and with Islamists ascendant and sectarianism on the rise. For succeeding generations of diaspora Copts, advocacy has become a recognizable form of group identification amidst eroding bonds with Egypt and Egyptian society -- except through the Coptic Church. This attenuating connection with on-the-ground reality has had an impact on the accuracy and nuance of some advocacy efforts.

The establishment of diaspora activism followed the waves of migration that began in earnest during the 1960s and 1970s, when land reform policies, political exclusion, shrinking economic opportunities and sectarian discrimination pushed a disproportionate share of Egyptian Christians to seek their future abroad. Since its inception, the Coptic Church has been ambivalent about diaspora activism, appreciative of the increased exposure of discrimination and sectarianism but wary of its lack of control over diaspora activities and the potential blowback.

The American Coptic Association is often identified as the first communal effort to engage in activism in the United States on behalf of Copts in Egypt. The group was established by Shawky Karas in 1972, [7] a moment of marked increase in sectarian tensions in Egypt, when President Anwar al-Sadat encouraged Islamist trends as a tool to combat the residual influence of Nasserists and leftists. As Mariz Tadros notes of this period, the “Islamisation of state and society and increasing tolerance towards militant Islamist groups had its toll on national and social cohesion at a community level.” [8]

Mainline Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brothers, began to link their aversion to Western foreign policy, which was often depicted as a Christian crusade against Islam, with local Christian communities. The Islamists emphasized the difference of Christians from Egypt’s Muslim society with references to them as “Nazarenes” and “Crusaders.” [9] Christians retreated from public life and sought further refuge in the church, leading to a religious revival and an unfortunate strengthening of the central political role of the Church.

It is against this backdrop that diaspora activism grew in the West. The advocacy in the United States was aided by the growing power of evangelical Christians who took an interest in persecution of Christians abroad, and was boosted again by increased concern with Islamism following the September 11, 2001 attacks. Sectarian relations in Egypt were poor in the years preceding the 2011 uprising, and impunity typified the manner in which the authorities approached incidents of sectarian violence. Further, the Mubarak regime willfully manipulated Christian fears of Islamists to cultivate political quietism and support for the government. But the post-Mubarak period, under both the interim military leadership and the Muslim Brother-led government, has witnessed a further deterioration in sectarian relations, with a notable increase in objectionable anti-Christian rhetoric, often from Islamist political leaders, as well as attacks on Copts and their places of worship. With rising unease about the direction of the Arab uprisings, the electoral dominance of Islamist groups and the reemergence of violent jihadi activity, the situation of the Copts has again received heightened attention from Western media and governments.

Since the establishment of the American Coptic Association, which emphasized equal citizenship for Copts and organized the first vocal demonstrations against the Egyptian government, an array of other organizations has emerged, reflecting a larger and more diverse diaspora community and fragmented leadership. The list of organizations now includes the US Copts Association, the National American Coptic Assembly, the Coptic Assembly of America and Coptic Solidarity -- and these organizations have widely divergent models of activism. The smaller Coptic Assembly of America, which also focuses on the needs of the diaspora community, refuses engagement with the Egyptian government and only engages in advocacy in the United States. Although its initiatives have tapered off in recent years, the Coptic Assembly was generously financed by its founders and attempted in earlier unsuccessful efforts to professionalize its outreach. The larger US Copts Association, which claims to represent tens of thousands, has a higher profile but suffers from a lack of professionalism and capacity. Coptic Solidarity is perhaps the best organized of the groups, but similarly suffers in its objectivity and political reach. Other organizations, such as Coptic Orphans, founded in 1988, have focused on humanitarian and developmental assistance instead of political advocacy.

More extreme, even fringe actors, such as Morris Sadek, have often overshadowed their activist colleagues with their inflammatory rhetoric. In light of potential associations, Michael Meunier, president of the US Copts Association, has distanced his organization from Sadek’s antics and accused him of self-aggrandizement. [10] Other activists have, however, engaged in similarly reckless talk, such as Monir Dawoud of the American Copts Association, who wrote a letter in 2011 to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, claiming that “the Muslim Brotherhood (MB’s) [sic] is deadly serious about waging what it calls ‘civilization jihad’ against the United States and other freedom-loving nations in order to secure their submission to the Islamic totalitarian political-military-legal doctrine called Sharia. The MB’s goal in this country is to replace our great Constitution with theirs, namely the Koran.” [11]

The most vocal support for Copts has generally been found within conservative circles. This unbalanced political backing of diaspora activism reflects the fact that these groups have not made significant and durable inroads beyond their traditional allies. While the Western human rights community has long pushed the issue of minority rights in the Arab world, Coptic activism in the United States has often, and unfortunately, veered into partisan politics.

It is also useful to question the track record of these groups. Undoubtedly, as the community develops deeper and broader ties to the United States, it will gain perspective and skill that will affect its ability to exert political influence. The shortcomings of the diaspora, however, cannot be blamed solely on organizational immaturity. While the diaspora has been an important source of information for the media and policymakers, its impact has been modest. Coptic activists were vociferous supporters of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, which made the promotion of religious freedom a stated goal of US foreign policy and resulted in the creation of the US Commission on Religious Freedom, but that legislation had such widespread backing that Coptic support was peripheral at best. During the Mubarak era, when US-Egyptian ties were strong, the work of diaspora Copts was a constant irritant to both governments, at times to useful effect, and Copts have allied with individual members of Congress, such as Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Sandra Adams (R-FL). Ultimately, however, their complaints have not affected the fundamental strategic relationship between Cairo and Washington or ameliorated materially the situation of Christians in Egypt. 

There is an important role to be filled by diaspora activists. Copts in Egypt face both de facto and de jure discrimination, and now a rising intolerance that will surely be exacerbated by the coming economic scarcity. They also confront a constitutional order that establishes second-class citizenship and walls off much of the country’s legal-institutional discourse from the input of Christian citizens. Despite official rhetoric to the contrary, the Muslim Brother-led Islamist political sphere is proceeding on the path toward establishing a system of relative rights. The diaspora could be a source of pressure upon Egyptian governments to uphold the civil and political rights of Copts and upon US governments to insist upon those rights.  Ideally, the work of the diaspora would also assist in developing the primacy of lay leaders in the political sphere. These groups must also broaden their networks and contacts to include other non-denominational Egyptian and Egyptian-American groups and cultivate allies within the Muslim community in the United States and Egypt. But to be credible agents of change, advocates must marry objectivity and accuracy with professionalism and sophistication, traits that have often been lacking thus far.

In the end, diaspora activism must be judged by how it affects the lives of those the activists claim to champion. Demagoguery might find an audience in the West, but will undoubtedly erode the credibility and position of Copts in Egypt. Diaspora activists must also come to grips with the internal divisions of the Coptic community and the variety of experiences for Christians in Egypt, who face differing treatment depending on a number of variables, including socio-economic status and geography. Egypt is the site of genuine sectarian discord, and it would be perverse if the efforts of Coptic diaspora activists were a further cause of strife and a rallying cry for Islamists who seek to implement a vision of religious supremacy.

Endnotes

[1] Elizabeth Iskander, Sectarian Conflict in Egypt: Coptic Media, Identity and Representation (London: Routledge, 2012), p. 34.
[2] Jennifer M. Brinkerhoff and Liesl Riddle, General Findings: Coptic Diaspora Survey, p. 5, February 23, 2012, available at http://www.gwu.edu/~imes/assets/docs/Coptic%20Diaspora%20Survey%20Genera....
[3] Ibid., p. 18.
[4] Iskander, p. 63.
[5] Robin Cohen, “Diasporas and the Nation-State: From Victims to Challengers,” International Affairs 72/3 (1996), pp. 507-520, 513.
[6] Coptic Diaspora Survey, p. 5.
[7] Paul Sedra, “Activism in the Coptic Diaspora,” Jadaliyya, September 13, 2012.
[8] Mariz Tadros, The Muslim Brotherhood in Contemporary Egypt: Democracy Redefined or Confined? (London: Routledge, 2012), p. 91.
[9] Ibid., p. 93.
[10] Religion News Service, September 14, 2012.
[11] Christian Post, November 10, 2011.

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