Human Rights and Persecution Economies
Earlier this year, I published a short piece with Anthropology News on Coptic Christian persecution in Egypt, American power, and racism in the United States. I then received a barrage of social media criticism claiming that I overemphasized racism against Copts in the US, and in so doing eschewed focus on persecution of Copts in Egypt. Samuel Tadros of the Hudson Institute wrote: “While some have experienced prejudice in America, [Copts] reject the attempt to create a moral equivalence between the persecution they faced in Egypt and whatever experiences they have in America…the Coptic experience in the United States has been extraordinarily successful, with Copts reaching heights they wouldn’t have dreamt of in Egypt.” Rather than noting the racialization of Copts alongside Muslims in America, by his account, I should draw attention to the relative success of American Copts and compare it to Muslim oppression of Copts in Egypt. In this modest response, I briefly elaborate on why American Coptic life must be taken on its own terms, and how the politicization of Coptic oppression in Egypt by American religio-political actors leads to real methodological issues.
As a minority Christian community in a majority Christian nation, American Copts are enmeshed in current debates on whiteness and American Christianity—whereby evangelical responses to racism have been theologically mired in individualism and consumed in culture wars, rather than the ways that broader social forces, institutions, and culture can constrain and shape social responses to societal ills. Earlier this summer, former attorney general Jeff Sessions, described to the New York Times how he considered his support of Trump from the standpoint of his faith as an evangelical Christian, and evoked the Copts as persecuted kin who turned to a strongman (Egyptian President al-Sisi) for protection: “And that’s basically what the Christians in the United States did [when they elected Trump]. They felt they were under attack, and the strong guy [like Sisi] promised to defend them. And he has.” Likewise, an older American Coptic man recently noted to me: “Trump is a Christian, and he’s trying to keep America a Christian nation. Under Obama, it was Happy Holidays! Now, we can say Merry Christmas again. We came to the US to escape discrimination in Egypt. We don’t want to be stripped of our rights as Christians here.” Although the diaspora offers opportunities to form new solidarities, the happy convergence of otherwise divergent persecution narratives has placed American Copts into vectors of political belonging with the Christian Right seeking to preserve a white, conservative Christian America. Sometimes at the expense of those very Copts.
If the Copts in Egypt are the subjects of human rights (those injured by Muslims, their claims in need of redress), what then of Copts in America? Where American Muslims have been racialized and securitized under the War on Terror—and Copts racialized alongside them? How are these social, political, and religious contexts (the Copts in Egypt, the Copts in America) even comparable? Such a comparison between the Coptic experience in Egypt and the US is ultimately mobilized to create a force of intervention (where Egypt becomes the site of historical oppression and America the site of freedom). How can we start to take American Copts seriously as communities in their own right—with their connections to Egypt, but also centering the struggles they face here, as immigrants, as racialized communities, as working-class people? To take these differences seriously is to disrupt this narrative of escaping Egyptian bondage to the American Dream, and to also understand that the Christianity of the Copts in America is socialized quite differently in everyday life than it is in Egypt.
Tadros concludes his piece by emphatically stating that Copts have experienced “1,400 years of dhimmitude in Egypt,” and their success in America should be measured in relation to that experience. This persecution narrative remains the primary way Copts are described within American institutions such as DC foreign policy think tanks and Christian advocacy organizations (as opposed to other Christian communities). Here, Egyptian Coptic narratives of persecution intersect with broader American Christian narratives of persecution. Western advocacy for the plight of persecuted Christians has been constructed as a moral imperative. Yet, in centering Coptic identity around trauma politics, broader institutional analyses of power, with vested financial and political interest in maintaining particular narratives, are effaced. When transnational Coptic identity is based on the chronopolitics of injury, alternative framings become threats to its maintenance.
Importantly, the focus of my analysis is not on the very real structural and societal oppression of Copts in Egyptian society. Rather, I am concerned with the particular investment of American religio-political networks in upholding this narrative and the structural policies that perpetuate it. As I have come to see, the geopolitical commitments of these US networks care less for the complex local situation of Copts in Egypt than they do for the maintenance of a particular narrative—of the Christian victim deprived of their human rights and the Muslim monster as the violator of human rights.
Human rights discourse has long been criticized for failing to attend to the systematic and modular relations between violence and redress. This means human rights is not a simple set of principles to uphold universally (in the US as in Egypt): one cannot simply stand for or against human rights, but one must critically attend to the field of violence that makes the discourse and need of human rights possible in the first place. In what ways has human rights discourse in Egypt effectively redressed Coptic injury, aside from finding a new “language to express  grievances”? The sometimes-violent Coptic-Muslim relations in Egypt are necessary to understanding the forms of Coptic life in the US and in Egypt. Yet, if this becomes the key to political analysis then it leaves out the structural factors shaping this violence—the specific role of the Egyptian state and its political and financial support from the United States.
Military action is not the only form of intervention by powerful states in the affairs of others. American economic imperialism, geopolitical interests, and international development organizations in Egypt, especially since the 1970s, have had effects that are more far–reaching than military action. But the devastation these pressures can cause to social life, and the punishments they deliver to individual citizens of an economically weakened state, are occluded from the scope of strictly human rights violations. Damage done to the economy of another country does not constitute a violation, even if it causes suffering and sparks societal conflict, because in such analysis the responsibility for the damage is borne only by the rulers of such a “failed state.” This example alone upsets the persecution narrative’s framing of the US as a champion of human rights and Egypt as the site of human rights abuses.
The limits of human rights discourse and its connection to the global Christian persecution narrative are revealed within imperial flows of capital and knowledge, within the games of power—who determines the problems and articulates the solutions. Human rights discourse, as coupled with the persecution narrative, is certainly not the only way to relieve human suffering. It may not even be the best way. Within the politics of injury, it is always important to ask who the audience is for such a politics and who has the material investment in centering injury.
Candace Lukasik is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis and a Religion, Spirituality, and Democratic Renewal Fellow at the Social Science Research Council.
This essay was supported by the author’s participation as Senior Fellow in the “Orthodoxy and Human Rights” project, sponsored by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center, and generously funded by the Henry Luce Foundation and Leadership 100.