LSE alumna Heba Elsayed reviews Sectarian Conflict in Egypt: Coptic Media, Identity and Representation by LSE Visiting Fellow, Elizabeth Iskander.
Through its in-depth and thought-provoking analysis, this book provides an important contribution towards understanding the complex religious, political, historical and cultural nuances that shape the construction of identities outside a western context. In wake of the recent uprising that has shaken the Arab world to its core, Iskander brings forth a timely examination of Coptic Christian Egyptians; a religious group integral to the fabric of Egyptian national culture, yet largely neglected in academic research. The author usefully examines how Copts are not only a religious denomination or “minority” that currently inhabit Egypt, but they have a deep-rooted national and cultural heritage that long predates the Arab and Islamic invasion of Egypt in the seventh century.
By focusing on the relations of power between Egyptian citizens based on their Islamic and Christian faith, Iskander demonstrates the many complex interpretations of identity that navigate between elements of ethnicity, nationalism and religion. The author uses examples drawn from both qualitative and quantitative fieldwork to illustrate how issues of religious belonging (Copticness) and national unity (Egyptianness) are both intertwined and constructed particularly through the media. Through the use of a survey highlighting the most popular websites used by members of Egypt’s Christian community, and through a detailed content analysis of these sites, Iskander argues how Coptic cyberspace is rooted in an imagined recreation of a physical space as homeland (Egypt). Through the use of imagery and symbolism of Egyptianness – such as the Egyptian flag and the pyramids – these online sites act as powerful tools for the construction and remembrance of this homeland, thus reinforcing the notion that Coptic identity is strongly equated with an Egyptian national identity.
Qualitative interviews and observations illustrate how the Internet allows members of this Egyptian Coptic community − who feel marginalised and persecuted in their own homeland – to forge an alternative virtual presence that gives them the representation and belonging they consider missing in the context of physical national experience. Furthermore, the Internet often functions as the only media space where criticism of the church and the Pope’s political and religious policies can be voiced. Nevertheless, within the complex dynamics of Coptic community – church − state relations, Iskander brings to the fore how mediated representations of belonging and identity are highly imbued within established relations of power. Thus, she maintains an important balance, which guards against an overly celebratory tone that could exaggerate the potentials of new media for challenging the authority and control of religious establishments.
Iskander successfully draws our attention to how Coptic media in Egypt, controlled mainly by the church, are used as platforms to preserve the legitimacy and power of church leaders thus reproducing and normalising their ideologies. Through a range of engaging examples, Iskander argues that even though the media have provided spaces for dissent and opposition to the church, these have usually been very limited opportunities that have operated from within the established boundaries of religious authority, rather than overcoming them completely.
Although interview quotes are briefly used, perhaps what is missing from this account is more thorough contextual data about the participants who took part, which could further enrich the discussion. For a group who already feel marginalised and silenced, including more extensive quotes and biographical detail about the participants would certainly function to bring these Copts “to life”. This way they are not only participants in a study, but active members of a community who seek to mark their presence and make their voice heard. Nevertheless, Iskander has still managed to compose a detailed and thoroughly interesting book that objectively engages with this sensitive topic while avoiding the trap of “victimising’ the Coptic community. This book most definitely paves the way for further research exploring the position of Egyptian Christians in a post-revolutionary context, particularly in wake of the recent appointment of a president from the Muslim Brotherhood.