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Anthropology of Coptic Christianity Since 2012

July 9, 2018

anthropology(1)I was having dinner in Seoul recently with an old friend who taught in Egypt back around 2000. Living in East Asia for the past decade, he hasn’t really kept up on Egypt, and after a conversation about the revolution and its aftermath, he asked about Copts. There was always, he said, a tension between Muslims and Copts in his classes, and he said he’d never really understood it. We discussed it, and I sent him this post.

But it got me thinking about the fact that I had done a review of anthropological literature on Copts back in 2012, but never updated it.

So here’s an update:


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.


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Bibliography of the Egyptian Revolution Reaches 1000 Entries

June 4, 2018
Retro Class Reunion Facebook Event Cover PhotoYesterday I was asked to review a paper on the Egyptian uprisings for an academic journal. After I read the manuscript, I went through the references, as I always do, to see if the text referenced any articles I didn’t have in my continually updated on-line bibliography. There was one, so I dutifully copied it into my database.
And then I discovered something.
I now have over 1000 social science texts about the Egyptian uprisings and their aftermath on this web page.

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New Book Chapter On Mediated Experience Of The Uprisings

May 19, 2018

517YadAfv6L._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_This just in: I have a new book chapter out on the Egyptian uprisings.

The title is “Mediated Experience in the Egyptian Revolution” and it appears in Digital Middle East: State and Society in the Information Age, edited by Mohamed Zayani and published by Oxford University Press.

What I try to do in the chapter is reconcile large scale political and social change — the Egyptian uprisings of 2011 — with everyday lived experience by looking at the extent to which experiences of the revolution were mediated.

My starting point is that most people in Egypt were not protesting at Tahrir or in Alexandria or anywhere else. Their experience of the revolution involved traffic delays and excited conversations around the dinner table, text messages and television programs, radio broadcasts and e-mails.

This chapter offers my first effort at a conceptual framework that recognizes the intricacy of interaction between mediation and revolutionary social change by looking at the lived experience of Egyptians during the Egyptian uprisings and their aftermath.

My point is not just that the experience of collective events is mediated through information and communication technologies, though. I am also arguing that these mediated experiences are both collective, in that people are connected by media uses and practices and by common activities and spaces, and yet they are also deeply personal and individualized, in that specific sets of technologies, interpersonal relationships and embodied practices that comprise one person’s unfolding experience will be different from that of someone else.

By way of illustrating this, I offer three three very different case studies about media use and the ways it framed experiences of the revolution. Tamer , an unmarried middle-aged man caring for his mother and sisters, Gehan, a young female English professor who supported the regime, and Bishoy, a tourist guide in Luxur.

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Diaspora, Gender & Mediated Revolution

May 7, 2018

www.burgundy.comIn several relatively recent papers (2017, 2015a, 2015b) I’ve made the point that for tens of millions of Egyptians, the uprisings of 2011 weren’t something they physically experienced directly and participated in by joining into protests; they were a mediated revolution, something they encountered through the media of television, newspapers, social media, and stories told by friends and relatives, interpersonally and by phone.

Similarly Jessica Winegar (2012) has described women participating in the revolution in mediated fashion from their homes.

What happens when such gendered and mediated experiences takes place at a greater distance?

That’s the subject of a fascinating article in the journal Identities by Yomna Elsayed and Andrea Wenzel entitled The Egyptian Sisters Club: negotiating community and identity in a time of conflict, published in the journal Identities.

The takeaway, in a nutshell: If you are women, wearing the hijab, in an increasingly Islamophobic environment like the US, the need to build strong support networks and safe spaces for your children may lead you to de-emphasize the importance of Egyptianness in forming your community, when Egypt is in turmoil, and that turmoil leads to rifts within the diasporic group.

Based on a nine-month qualitative study of Egyptian women’s “subjective experiences juggling homeland politics and the realities of life in Southern California at a time when Islamophobic sentiments were at least perceived to be circulating,” it asks questions about how diasporic Egyptian audiences, in this case, mostly wives and mothers, manage the challenges of political uncertainty back in the homeland from which a central part of their identity derives, and with which they have webs of ties.

At the core, this is a very interesting discussion, rooted in participant observation, of how diasporic groups create and maintain group identity through commensalism, social media, interpersonal rituals, exchanges of favors, and talk. Group cohesion is affected by the fact that all the members of the group were women, and almost all hijabis and young mothers, which made them likely to share social support needs. Yet the authors recognize that the the “groupness” of diasporic communities cannot be taken for granted but must be performed by members through everyday practices.

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Guerilla Graffiti: Sabotaging Homeland

March 24, 2018

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Trickster’s Path

March 18, 2018

TawfikTrickster(1)If one tries to consider Tawfiq ‘Ukasha as a counterreactionary populist demagogue, (as do the few journalists and political scientists who mention him at all), the bizarre rises and falls of his career are hard to explain. Ultimately he falls foul of every social movement in Egypt, even the returning military regime he once advocated for.

But if one considers him a trickster, as Walter Armbrust suggests, his volatile rises and falls, about-faces and self-reinventions make more sense.

Last May (2017), ‘Ukasha was fined EGP 5,000 and sentenced to one year in prison forging his PhD degree on official electoral documents. It turns out that the university he claimed to have gotten his degree from does not, in fact, exist.

Nobody would have noticed the discrepancy if ‘Ukasha, as an MP from Daqahlia, had not already drawn attention to himself by violating a longtime parliamentary boycott of Israel by inviting Israeli ambassador Haim Koren for a meal at his residence in Daqahlia. According to Egypt Independent:

Okasha said that he wanted to discuss various important issues with the Israeli diplomat, including the issue of Palestine and negotiations over Ethiopia’s controversial Renaissance Dam project.

Tricksters in myth are loutish, puffed up with boasts and lies, ravenous for foolery. They are at once gods and animals, defying structural order and social logic. If there are rules, ‘Ukasha has to challenge them, cross the boundaries, push the borders because that’s what tricksters do.

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Morsi Must Die

March 15, 2018

Morsi Must DieThere seems to be one thing that Egyptian dictator as-Sisi and ISIL agree on: Mohammed Morsi must die.

ISIS was the first to voice this position, in a May 2014 video by spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, who called the imprisoned former president “a tyrant apostate” because he ordered security forces to put down “monotheists” in the Sinai during his short-lived presidency. ISIS advocated retribution against him.

A year later in a Cairo courtroom, an Egyptian judge sentenced over one hundred Muslim Brother leaders, including Morsi, to death.

This is the starting place for a fascinating essay on the dilemmas facing the Muslim Brotherhood in post-revolutionary Egypt (as well as Islamists in other “Arab Spring” states) by Abdullah Al-Arian, assistant professor of history at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar.

Between Terror and Tyranny: Political Islam in the Shadow of the Arab Uprisings” was published on line December 30, 2015 and is available at this link:

So…Is There A Global Occusphere?

March 12, 2018

OCCUSPHEREThe Occusphere.

That’s the term given by Tod Moore of the University of Newcastle in Australia to the “totality of Occupy-inspired events” in his article “The transformation of the Occusphere” in Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture(23:6)

Moore dates his account of the Occusphere from the  Occupy Wall Street protest encampment in New York during September and November 2011. But that Occupy movement had predecessors, notably the occupation of Tahrir Square in January and February 2011.

So is the Occusphere limited to the American Occupy movement? Or is it reasonable to speak of a global Occusphere that would encompass Tahrir Square among others?

Or is this Occusphere just a smaller assemblage within a larger sphere of activity we might call, according to Ramon Feenstra of Jaume I University in Spain, “global civil society”?

Feenstra is the author of an essay in the Journal of Civil Society in which he bemoans the fact that many contemporary authors do not want to recognize the existence of an emergent global Civil Society, nor of the legitimacy of the concept.

And yet, he writes,

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Making the Enemy…Or Not

March 8, 2018

enemyAt the end of 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood had gone from being an organization whose members held the Presidency and the largest number of seats in Parliament to an illegal terrorist organization.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt’s patron in the region, also declared the MB a terrorist organization and sought to build a regional coalition in the Gulf to counter this newly-constructed threat.

But not everyone wanted to play ball. While the UAE followed the lead of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, and Bahrain were reluctant to redefine the MB as terrorists.

This is the fascinating story described and analyzed by May Darwich of Durham University in her article “Creating the enemy, constructing the threat: the diffusion of repression against the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East” published in Democratization.

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Speaking Of Jinn…

March 4, 2018


I recently participated in a podcast about jinn, material culture and modernity and globalization on the Archaeological Fantasies podcast.

Here’s their episode notes:





Magical Jinn and where to Find them with Mark Allen Peterson

Today we talk with Dr. Mark Allen Peterson about the magical Jinn. Dr. Peterson tells us more about the ancient concept of Jinn, how that affect modern Arabic uses of Jinn, and how the views on Jinn are affected by Movies and Western tampering.

Archaeological Fantasies is a podcast in which Serra Zander and co-hosts Dr. Ken Feder and Dr. Jeb Card discuss popular beliefs about material culture and the historical record against mainstream archaeological explanation. Often they bring in a guest expert (i.e. me). It’s pretty laid back and funny, and usually educational as well.

On the episode in which I was the guest, we discussed what a jinn is and how it is different from the Western orientalist fantasy of the genie. I had to do some work to explain how a jinn isn’t really a ghost, or a demon but has some resonance with each, as well as how it is and isn’t like a fairy (in the medieval sense of fairies, not the Tinkerbell type).

We also talked about jinn and material culture, including how sorcerers use everything from knotted strings to elaborate rings to bind and control jinn, and the fact that such rings are now available on line. Our conclusion: either they are outrageous frauds or it is a (literally) damnably dangerous thing to sell!

We also discussed legends about how the Pharaohs bound jinn to guard their tombs, and the necessity, therefore, to have a sorcerer with a jinn at his command to release or defeat the guardian jinn. This segment of our discussion drew on two academic papers:

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