Mahmood, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report

Mahmood, Saba. 2016. Religious difference in a secular age: a minority report. Princeton, New Jersey : Princeton University Press. 

Publisher’s Description: The plight of religious minorities in the Middle East is often attributed to the failure of secularism to take root in the region. Religious Difference in a Secular Age challenges this assessment by examining four cornerstones of secularism—political and civil equality, minority rights, religious freedom, and the legal separation of private and public domains.

Drawing on her extensive fieldwork in Egypt with Coptic Orthodox Christians and Bahais—religious minorities in a predominantly Muslim country—Saba Mahmood shows how modern secular governance has exacerbated religious tensions and inequalities rather than reduced them. Tracing the historical career of secular legal concepts in the colonial and postcolonial Middle East, she explores how contradictions at the very heart of political secularism have aggravated and amplified existing forms of Islamic hierarchy, bringing minority relations in Egypt to a new historical impasse. Through a close examination of Egyptian court cases and constitutional debates about minority rights, conflicts around family law, and controversies over freedom of expression, Mahmood invites us to reflect on the entwined histories of secularism in the Middle East and Europe.

A provocative work of scholarship, Religious Difference in a Secular Age challenges us to rethink the promise and limits of the secular ideal of religious equality.

Heo, “The Divine Touchability of Dreams”

Heo, Angie. 2014. “The Divine Touchability of Dreams.” In Sensational Religion, edited by Salley M. Promey. Yale: Yale University Press.

Excerpt: “In Port Said, a city between Egypt’s Suez Canal and the Mediterranean, an icon of the Virgin Mary exudes holy oil …. [s]ince 1990, year after year the image had attracted thousands of Coptic Christian pilgrims to the Church of Saint Bishoi, where it is housed. Unlike other surrounding icons in the sanctuary, painted and consecrated by priestly hands, this one is an ‘autoconsecrating’ poster replica. It produces and reproduces holy oil by itself. This oil leaves behind worn paper traces in its liquid trail as it travels from the Virgin’s outstretched hands to the plastic canopy that captures the oil beneath her feet. From there, the priests of the church collect and distributes the oil as a form of remembrance …..

Devotees understand the origin of the icon’s miraculous activity to reside in the drama of one women’s dream. On the evening of February 20, 1990, the Virgin Mary (by way of saintly visitation) healed Samia Youssef Badilious of breast cancer. Samia dreamed that the Virgin, assisted by three other saints, preformed surgery on her. Within the space of the dream, Samia lay down on a white table as the saints held her hands. Then the Virgin touched the cancerous breast. Startled by a burning bolt of sensation that rushed through her body, Samia pulled her right hand away. The Virgin grabbed it back and held her hand. When Samia awoke, she discovered that she had been healed….”

Heo, “The Divine Touchability of Dreams”

Heo, Angie. 2014. “The Divine Touchability of Dreams.” In Sensational Religion, edited by Salley M. Promey. Yale: Yale University Press.

Excerpt: “In Port Said, a city between Egypt’s Suez Canal and the Mediterranean, an icon of the Virgin Mary exudes holy oil …. [s]ince 1990, year after year the image had attracted thousands of Coptic Christian pilgrims to the Church of Saint Bishoi, where it is housed. Unlike other surrounding icons in the sanctuary, painted and consecrated by priestly hands, this one is an ‘autoconsecrating’ poster replica. It produces and reproduces holy oil by itself. This oil leaves behind worn paper traces in its liquid trail as it travels from the Virgin’s outstretched hands to the plastic canopy that captures the oil beneath her feet. From there, the priests of the church collect and distributes the oil as a form of remembrance …..

Devotees understand the origin of the icon’s miraculous activity to reside in the drama of one women’s dream. On the evening of February 20, 1990, the Virgin Mary (by way of saintly visitation) healed Samia Youssef Badilious of breast cancer. Samia dreamed that the Virgin, assisted by three other saints, preformed surgery on her. Within the space of the dream, Samia lay down on a white table as the saints held her hands. Then the Virgin touched the cancerous breast. Startled by a burning bolt of sensation that rushed through her body, Samia pulled her right hand away. The Virgin grabbed it back and held her hand. When Samia awoke, she discovered that she had been healed….”

Heo, “Saints, Media, and Minority Culture”

Heo, Angie. 2013. Saints, Media, and Minority Culture: On Coptic Cults of Egyptian Revolution from Alexandria to Maspero. In Politics of Worship in the Contemporary Middle East: Sainthood in Fragile States, Edited by Andreas Bandak and Mikkel Bille, 53-73. Leiden: Brill.

Youseff, “From the Blood of St. Mina”

Youseff, Joseph. 2013. From the Blood of St. Mina to the Martyrs of Maspero: Commemoration, Identity, and Social Memory in the Coptic Orthodox Church. Journal of the Canadian Society for Coptic Studies 5(1): 61-73.

Abstract: This article will discuss the role of commemorating martyrs in the Coptic Orthodox Church and how commemoration is used by Copts as a mode for political and social agency. Furthermore, commemoration is a means by which Copts cope with the rise of sectarian violence in Egypt today. I will focus on two ways Coptic martyrs are commemorated. The first is through visiting the shrines of martyrs, whose relics are believed by Copts to possess a certain kind of blessing (baraka). The second and more recent kind of commemoration that has emerged in the last three years takes form in prayer meetings meant to honor victims of sectarian violence, namely, the Martyrs of Nag Hammadi (2010), Alexandria (2011), and Maspero (2011). In both these types of commemoration the narratives and hagiographies of martyrs are (re)articulated and juxtaposed in the present to emphasize the continuity of the Coptic Church as a “Church of Martyrs.” In this way, commemoration is more than an act of remembering; it is an active attempt to make and remake the past in the present.

Hein, “The Semiotics of Diaspora”

Hein, Emily Jane Carter. 2013. The Semiotics of Diaspora: Language Ideologies and Coptic Orthodox Christianity in Berlin, Germany. Doctoral Dissertation, Dept. of Anthropology. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan.

Abstract: The dissertation is based on field research in Coptic Orthodox Church congregations in Germany, where Copts are living after emigration from Egypt. The data for the study are drawn from participant-observation, interviews, and recordings in these communities and include analysis of texts collected during fieldwork. The focus is on Copts’ ideologies of language in the diaspora, where their linguistic repertoires – Coptic (sacred language of religious texts), Arabic (most community members’ first language, spoken within the home or with other Copts), and German (language of the new location) – are being reconfigured. The dissertation has these main arguments: (1) in the liturgy and in its textual representations, the three languages are being interpreted as in a temporal progression, in which Arabic – devalued for its association with Islam and Arabs– is to be replaced by German, although there are some tensions surrounding this as yet incomplete process; (2) Copts are making a rhetorical effort, and (in effect) sociological project, to be identified with whites, Europe, and Christendom (seen as overlapping categories), thus evading German anti-immigrant prejudice and becoming part of the majority. This identification entails a semiotics of temporality as well, in the assertion that Christ came “out of Egypt” (as, more recently, did the Copts) – thus Egypt is to be included as the root domain of Christianity, rather than excluded from it because of its Muslim majority. This narrated past is part of Copts’ claim to inclusion in the (future) ecumene of Christianity. The author contends that the temporal progression implicit in the language shift in progress (1) can be seen as part of this wider semiotics of temporality (2). The present work contributes to debates on diaspora and the narrative construction of time and space. Its central themes of language ideologies, code repertoires, and textuality and performance are important topics in linguistic anthropology, the anthropology of Christianity and the anthropology of the Middle East and Europe. Detailing how Copts in the diaspora bring to life a dead language, while enthusiastically shifting to German, the dissertation is an ethnography of language contact and language shift.

Shenoda, “The Politics of Faith: On Faith, Skepticism, and Miracles among Coptic Christians in Egypt”

Shenoda, Anthony. 2012. The Politics of Faith: On Faith, Skepticism, and Miracles among Coptic Christians in Egypt. Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology 77(4):477-495.

Abstract

The relationship of faith and skepticism has rarely been discussed by anthropologists. Drawing on ethnographic work among Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt, this article explores this relationship, particularly through the lens of the miraculous. By focusing on what might be at stake in Coptic miraculous tales that address Coptic Church-State relations as well as Muslim-Christian sectarian tensions, this article pushes for an analysis of faith and skepticism that sees them as products of social relationships. An emphasis is placed on skepticism not as opposing faith, but as potentially cultivating it, especially when that skepticism is of the Muslim Other. I conclude by suggesting that if socio-political miracles often say something about the narrator’s piety, they are also stories that highlight a commitment to persecution as central to Christian faith while simultaneously offering joy and empowerment to the Copts that recount and listen to them

Mahmood, Saba. (2012). “Religious Freedom, the Minority Question, and Geopolitics in the Middle East”

Mahmood, Saba. (2012). Religious Freedom, the Minority Question, and Geopolitics in the Middle East” Comparative Studies in Society and History 54(2):418-446.

First Paragraph

The right to religious freedom is widely regarded as a crowning achievement of secular-liberal democracies, one that guarantees the peaceful coexistence of religiously diverse populations. Enshrined in national constitutions and international laws and treaties, the right to religious liberty promises to ensure two stable goods: (1) the ability to choose one’s religion freely without coercion by the state, church, or other institutions; and (2) the creation of a polity in which one’s economic, civil, legal, or political status is unaffected by one’s religious beliefs. While all members of a polity are supposed to be protected by this right, modern wisdom has it that religious minorities are its greatest beneficiaries and their ability to practice their traditions without fear of discrimination is a critical marker of a tolerant and civilized polity. The right to religious freedom marks an important distinction between liberal secularism and the kind practiced in authoritarian states (such as China, Syria, or the former Soviet Union): while the latter abide by the separation of religion and state (a central principle of political secularism), they also regularly abrogate religious freedoms of their minority and majority populations. Despite claims to religious neutrality, liberal secular states frequently regulate religious affairs but they do so in accord with a strong concern for protecting the individual’s right to practice his or her religion freely, without coercion or state intervention.

Shenoda, “Public Christianity in a Revolutionary Egypt”

Shenoda, Anthony (2012) “Public Christianity in a Revolutionary Egypt” Hot Spots: Revolution and Counter-Revoltuion in Egypt. Cultural Anthropology. 4 February 2012.

first paragraph:

Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt make up roughly 10% of the Egyptian population. This brief essay concerns the ways in which they publicly confess their Christianity, the potential hazards of such confessions, and what I think such confessions communicate, and to whom. I focus on the Maspero Massacre, of October 9, 2011, when mostly Coptic protestors in front of the Maspero state television building in Cairo were mowed down by army Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) and bullets. Twenty-eight civilians were killed that day.