Rami Malek and Contentions of Coptic Identity

by Candace Lukasik

On Sunday February 24, Rami Malek won the Best Actor Academy Award for his role as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. In his acceptance speech, Malek spoke of his Egyptian heritage and its representative power: “We made a film about a gay man, an immigrant, who lived his life just unapologetically himself. The fact that I’m celebrating him and this story with you tonight is proof that we’re longing for stories like this. I am the son of immigrants from Egypt. I’m a first generation American. My story is being written right now and I could not be more grateful to each and every one of you who believed in me, for this moment is something I will treasure for the rest of my life.” Social media was alight in comments of praise for Rami, with many news outlets noting that he was the first Arab-American to win an Oscar for Best Actor. The New York Times ran a headline, “An Oscar for the Arabs.” Despite excitement from members of the Arab-American community in the United States, Egyptians, and others throughout the Middle East, many Coptic Christians, particularly in the United States, took issue with labeling Rami “Arab” or “Arab-American.” Rami Malek’s family is Coptic Orthodox and, in interviews, he has described attending the Coptic Orthodox Church growing up.

Social media comments from Copts addressed their disagreement with misidentifying Rami as Arab. “Rami Malek is NOT an Arab or Arab-American. He’s a Copt, and Copts have zero Arab blood.” “1400 years ago Arabs stole Coptic land, 1400 years later Arabs steal Coptic accomplishments. When will the thievery ever end?” The Arab, or Islamic, Conquest of Egypt began in 639AD and gradually transformed its demographics, dominant language, and ruling structure. Prior to the Conquest, Coptic, Syriac, Jewish, and Greek communities were the majority of Roman Egypt. As many scholars (including Maged Mikhail, Arietta Papaconstantinou, and Kurt J. Werthmuller) note, the post-Conquest period does not have a linear history, and different periods offered different conditions for Egypt’s Coptic inhabitants and the Coptic Orthodox Church. In the US diaspora, Copts read the official Church history of this period through the hagiographies of the Synaxarium. Yet, by living in the United States, they also interpret such a history through the contemporary contexts of the War on Terror and the post-9/11 racialization and securitization of American Muslims, by which they have also been affected.

While only occasionally mentioning his Coptic heritage, Malek has been more publicly attentive to his position as an immigrant in the United States, noting: “We grew up surrounded by a Latin community, a Filipino community, African-Americans, everything, Asians. There was everything around me. And so I felt diversity, but then there was also this feeling of a world that I was estranged from in this Coptic community that my parents were very involved in; also went to Catholic school at one point. So I couldn’t quite wrap my head around everything that was happening so quickly to me in terms of the world I lived in and the faith I was—I don’t —won’t say imposed upon me but something that, you know.” Malek has described being confused about his identity growing up, trying to find a place to fit within American society. Yet, he has also strongly identified with his Egyptian roots, and being “gorgeously tied to the culture.” “These are my people,” he says. After playing a “terrorist” on the show 24, he called up his agents and refused to play any Arabs or Middle Easterners that would be portrayed in a negative light. This was not just a move for Malek as a Copt. In Malek’s refusal and in his continual emphasis on a shared immigrant experience, he has also drawn attention to the ways that new forms of community and solidarity can be explored.

Malek has praised Freddie Mercury for his courage, especially as an immigrant. “When somebody says, ‘There’s no way that can be done,’ I think, ‘Well, there is a way.’ Because a guy like Farrokh Bulsara was probably told that there’s no way it’s ever going to be done. And all he did was say, ‘You know what?…I’m going to do it.’” This is not praise of the “immigrant experience,” nor support for any “pulling oneself up by their bootstraps” model. How can we think of immigrant, or brown/black, experiences in conversation with one another on broader issues of discrimination, racism, and bigotry in American society? During my dissertation fieldwork in the New York-New Jersey area among Coptic communities, I spoke with Coptic migrants working at halal carts in Manhattan, who waved to their Arab, Muslim counterparts as they drove by. I sat at sheesha cafes owned by Egyptian-Muslims or Coptic Christians where Copts and Muslims were employees. During a home visit, one of the young Coptic girls in the family spoke of her best friend, Bushra, whose family is Muslim. Patrons of a variety of different ethnic and religious backgrounds frequent Coptic bodegas in Queens, Brooklyn, and Jersey City. There is a shared life, even between immigrant Copts and Egyptian Muslims in places like New York-New Jersey, because of their shared experiences of discrimination and economic struggle in the United States. If Rami is only a Copt for Copts, what other forms of solidarity beyond such fixed identities are closed off?

In carving out the boundaries of the Coptic community, or other Orthodox communities for that matter, being in opposition to an Other is part of what defines a community’s essence. “Copts are NOT Arab.” “Rami is NOT an Arab or Arab-American.” These oppositions configure a community, protecting it from threat of dilution or destruction. However, it is impossible to always distinguish different social and cultural worlds. We are bound to intersect and define ourselves through and with others often not a part of “our” community. In a post-9/11 America, Copts and others have been recognized as “terrorists,” whether by name, complexion, or a myriad of other matrices of (mis)recognition in the War on Terror. One Coptic interlocutor told me, “[After 9/11], you felt like you were a target and it wasn’t your fault.” Some Copts’ emphasis that they are not Arab is founded by scholars of Arab Christianity Yet, this emphasis, read through American geopolitical contexts, is also a move to distance from Arab/Muslim identification and all of the discrimination and bigotry that comes with that in American society. Instead of distinguishing—I’m not an Arab/Muslim, I’m a Christian, and therefore not a terrorist—what would happen if that very system of discrimination based on complexion and perception was questioned?

In recent years, and in various periods of history, Coptic communities in Egypt have experienced violence and bloodshed. In thinking about the ways these historical and contemporary events shape the lives of Coptic communities today, it is important both to acknowledge that these rhetorics are not invented, that they are based on historical fact and present fears. These events in Egypt shape diaspora life, as well, remolding their relations with other American Muslims. Their local interactions are read through Egyptian events. In the leveling of context between Egypt and the United States, reading Rami Malek as “Arab-American” becomes an existential threat in the minds of some Copts. To question this tension is also to question the imperative to collectively distance the community from being aesthetically, politically, or ethnically misrecognized as “the terrorist” in American society.

Candace Lukasik is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at UC Berkeley. Her dissertation project, “Transnational Anxieties: Shaping a Minority Community between Egypt and the United States,” explores the transnational circulation of political subjectivities and religious practices through the lens of Coptic Orthodox Christian emigration from Egypt to the United States since 2011.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.