Angie Heo, The Political Lives of Saints: Christian-Muslim Mediation in Egypt (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018). 

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Angie Heo (AH): There are several impulses that drove this book, but I see the core one to be my desire to understand the relationship between sectarianism and nationalism through the lens of religion. Early on, I was confused by what I had perceived as contradictory declarations like “We are brothers in blood!” said in one moment, and “Muslims want to get rid of us!” in another. Around that time also, the Coptic community was still reeling from the horrific trauma of the Kosheh massacres that took place in early 2000. Hypotheses about the roles that religion play in such acts of violence proliferated in the Egyptian media, and with similar bipolar energy: “This happened because of religious fanaticism”, as well as “This is all politics and has nothing to do with religion.”

Nearly everyone agrees that the Coptic Church and the Egyptian state benefit from a political arrangement when managing Christian-Muslim affairs. There is much less agreement on how the field of religion is impacted by this specific sectarian-national arrangement. To be sure, the practice of Coptic Christianity, particularly in its public expression, is subject to discrimination and repression. For the most part, however, Coptic Christianity has flourished with the Coptic Church’s consolidation of communal authority, to the degree that this flourishing has even earned a name in scholarship, i.e. “the Coptic renaissance.” These two historical facts—the increasing repression of minoritarian religion and the increasing weight of religion among the growing middle class—present not a contradiction, but a paradox that has grabbed my attention for over a decade now.  Curiously enough, the paradox resonates with an institutional division of academic labor between those interested in religious traditions and their changing aesthetic, ideological or epistemological contents on the one hand, and those interested in the political dimensions of religious belonging, viewed through colonial/state law, intellectual history, or a sociological analysis of actors or institutions. In the broadest sense, I wanted to bridge this scholarly divide as best as I could.

My book thus pursues the interface between religion, in its popular forms and substantive contents, and the politics of church and state, in their dealings with marginalization and violence. It is systematically organized around problem-spaces that have long shaped the religious terms of Coptic belonging to Egypt: community, territory, security. More specifically, I focus on the cult of saints to specify the role that religion plays in the perplexing dynamics of national unity and sectarian enmity. By taking a somewhat counterintuitive angle, my work ultimately aims to expose some of the continuities between nationalism and sectarianism via holy imaginaries of Christian-Muslim difference.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

AH: I see my book to be convening bodies of literature that are not usually brought together. On one level, to deepen my grasp of Coptic Orthodoxy and Islam, my book draws on a burgeoning conversation on religion and media; after all, saints are vehicles of mediation, or intercession. Trained as an anthropologist, I further relied on social theories of imagination, semiotics and linguistic philosophy, and materiality and technology studies, in order to conceptualize the work that holy images do in representing and acting on behalf of saints. Writing as a scholar of religion, I am also indebted to generations of formidable research on various Eastern Orthodox traditions (Byzantine and Russian), Sufi orders, and Roman Catholicism (medieval and modern). Throughout my research for the book, I was especially enriched by histories of Greek and Roman antiquity that cover rites of martyrdom, dream incubation and medicinal cults before the historical rise of Christianity and Islam. I believe it is important to value Egypt’s civilizational heritage beyond its current territorial borders and recall its historical overlaps with different regions throughout Mediterranean Europe and North Africa.

On another level, to situate deep histories of religious mediation within the contemporary landscape of Christian-Muslim relations, I engaged with scholarship on minorities and sectarianism in the Arab Middle East. In each of my book’s chapters, I asked myself: what does this particular phenomenon do for the politics of Christian-Muslim coexistence? Since there is a robust body of work on sectarianism and nationalism in South Asia, I also found kindred questions asked among anthropologists and historians working on the politics of religion and Hindu-Muslim conflict in colonial and postcolonial contexts. These comparative-oriented conversations ultimately touch on ambitious debates around the nature of modernity and their associated literatures in secularism and empire. I hope my sustained focus on saints does justice to the complexity of religious forms as they intersect with the nation-state’s re-fashioning of communal and national identities.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

AH: This is my first book and represents a significant journey in my development as a thinker and writer. Before entering graduate study, I had initially imagined that my doctoral work would focus on religious and theological discourse in the Egyptian public. While retaining my interests in linguistic anthropology and semiotics, I soon discovered that images, visuality and media theory gave me more empirical traction for analyzing political intersections of Christianity and Islam in everyday life.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AH: My main audience is readers who are interested in religion and the politics of religious difference. This includes people who are curious about similarities between Christianity and Islam, and the diversity of traditions from within their common history. Copts are a small group, but by virtue of their unique history, they have borrowed from and interacted with so many religious groups over the long course of different imperial rules. For students of the modern Middle East, the topic of Christian-Muslim relations alone conjures an extremely impressive list of recent publications that tackle the government of religious difference across various historical periods. These studies deftly deal with a range of shared concerns—from the social consequences of Evangelical mission under Ottoman, British, French empires, to the transnational politics of secularism and the legal foundations of sectarianism, as well as historical aspirations for alternative orders of coexistence in the Arab world. If my book, in its distinctive methodological approach to religion and religious difference, is taught alongside these established and forthcoming books in the field, I would be deeply honored.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AH: I am currently in the early stages of developing my second book on religion and capitalism in the Korean peninsula. This entails several different projects, but here I will mention one for those interested in transregional connections between the Middle East and East Asia. Last summer while I was conducting research in Seoul, I learned that over 500 Yemeni refugees had landed on Jeju Island, seeking asylum from the civil war. This sudden, small influx of Yemenis ignited a highly charged discussion around the status of migrants and refugees in South Korea. I am interested in exploirng historical comparisons between Yemen and Korea, their histories of civil war and refugee displacement (the divided Koreas is also a Cold War battleground and Jeju is the historical origin of many Korean refugees to Japan). Given that Evangelical Christians are active in both supporting and opposing the presence of Arab Muslims in South Korea, I anticipate that this work will also open new arenas for the study of Christian-Muslim relations.

J: Did you encounter any surprises during your research for this book?

AH: The biggest surprise were the Arab uprisings of 2011. Like anyone else, I had no expectation that Mubarak’s long rule would end so dramatically. This book is the first to account for Egypt’s Copts during the period leading up to the January 25 Revolution and following the post-revolutionary aftermath of Sisi’s military coup and ISIS’s rise in the Sinai. It is empirically anchored in fieldwork that spanned a decade, beginning in 2004 and ending in 2015. Within a couple years of filing my doctoral dissertation in 2008, I caught wind of several incidents of violence that spoke to cracks in the Coptic Church’s alliance with the Egyptian state—among them, the ʿUmraniya riots, the Kamilya Shahata affair, the Nag Hammadi shootings. In January 2011, I was in Cairo when the Alexandrian bombings occurred, at that time the worst attack on a Coptic Church to date. Freshly galvanized by another round of violence, Copts were losing their patience with the prospects of authoritarian rule. Only a few weeks later, I would watch televised coverage of Tahrir’s protests and Mubarak’s exit speech on a large projector screen from one of NYU’s large auditoriums. This event will always remain one of my most treasured memories that this book gave me.

As the euphoria of revolution subsided, I realized that I had fieldwork materials that spoke to how social and political institutions of religion activate national and sectarian orders of belonging. I also saw that I had more fieldwork to do. On reflection, I recognize that history’s surprises forced my book to grow in completely unforeseen directions. I am simply grateful that I had the personal stamina and the luxury of postdocs to pursue them.


Excerpt from the Book

From Chapter One: “Remembering Martyrs”

Alexandria of 2011:  Between The Passion and The Resurrection 

On January 1, 2011, a car bomb ripped through the Two Saints’ Church in the Sidi Bishr neighborhood of Alexandria. The blast left twenty-four dead and over two hundred injured, transforming the New Year’s Eve mass into a bloody midnight nightmare. In the following weeks, red and black posters of the cross with the crescent covered the Mediterranean promenade and permeated the urban squares of Cairo’s neighborhoods.  These posters of Christian and Muslim solidarity publicized sentiments loud and clear: “No to Terrorism, Yes to Egypt!” (Lā li-l-irhāb, naʿam li-Miṣr!)

For mourning Coptic Christians, however, the target of public reproach was neither terrorism from abroad nor sectarian conflicts at home. Their message of protest was rather directed at the failure of their political and spiritual leaders to protect them. On January 2, the funeral for the twenty-four new Alexandrian martyrs, or the “Two Saints’ Martyrs” (Shuhadaʾ al-Qiddisin),was held in St. Menas Monastery where an audience of thousands gathered with indignant rage. Seated in the front rows were the Church’s highest ranking bishops and Egypt’s state dignitaries, including Alexandria’s Governor ʿAdil Labib. Behind these leaders of church and state, the mood was stormier. Waving hand-held wooden crosses up and down in their hands, the crowds bellowed inside the cavernous cathedral: With our souls, with our blood, we will redeem you, O Cross! One martyr’s relative cried out in pain: Yā Samuʾil! (Samuel!) Others in the crowd demanded recognition from the Coptic Church’s top figure Pope Shenouda who was absent at the event: We want the Pope!

Cameras for Aghapy TV, the Coptic Church’s satellite television channel, broadcast the funeral live for Coptic viewers all over the world. At the center of the broadcast were the wooden coffins carrying the victims’ bodies. The television footage alternated between the speakers and the people in the pews. Bishops Yuʾannis and Bakhumius presided over the rituals of remembering the martyrs, speaking above the crowd’s cries.  Bishop Yuʾannis invited the audience to re-envision the bodily fragments of martyrdom in Alexandria:

Dearly beloved, the event was terrifying (rahīb). So terrifying that fleshly parts of our beloved reached the sixth floor of the church!

And so, our church was anointed with the blood of the martyrs!

The congregation erupted into applause and cheers, chanting its refrain: With our souls, With our blood, We sacrifice for you, O Cross! Bishop Yuʾannis continued on:

As dreadful as the scene of martyrdom (al-mashhad) was, how much more gloriously ascendant was the welcoming of their souls in heaven!

And we remember what God said to Cain: ‘The blood of your brother screams to me from the ground!’ And God listens carefully to the blood of martyrs!

Again, the crowds overwhelmed the bishop’s voice with roaring cheers. The collective memory of violence stirred up the biblical scene of God holding Cain to account for Abel’s death, building on fraternal tropes of Christian-Muslim unity in the shared blood of Egyptian nationhood.  When the cathedral finally quieted down, Bishop Yuʾannis began to carry out the Coptic Church’s more administrative formalities:

We would like to thank our distinguished head of the Republic –

The crowds interrupted in protest, with many men and women standing and waving their hands furiously:

No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No!

Bishop Yuʾannis signaled for silence. When an acceptable level of quiet was reached, he continued with the names of esteemed guests, re-opening fresh wounds:

We would like to thank Alexandria’s security forces –

Once again, his ceremonial efforts roused deafening chants of rebuke:

No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No!

Bishop Bakhumius quickly took over presiding duties. Apologizing for Pope Shenouda’s absence, he comforted the crowds and spoke about the martyrs in their last moments:

These are the ones who served the Lord in the last night of their lives with praises which reached the rooftops. Where God is, they are there because God loves them.

A new chant began gaining voluminous momentum throughout the pews and balconies. Slowly, the people directed their anger towards the defined target who was present at the funeral, Alexandria’s Governor ʿAdil Labib:

Remove the Governor! Remove the Governor! Remove the Governor! (Shīl al-Muḥāfiẓ!)

As Aghapy TV’s cameras zoomed in on him, Governor ʿAdil Labib’s steely profile showed his refusal to wilt before the crowds around him. Bishop Bakhumius hurriedly moved to closing the liturgy, pressing ahead:

Where God is, they are there also because they died for his sake! And so, we are comforted that they left us as new martyrs who will intercede on our behalf!!

Amid cheers and ululating trills, the coffins were hoisted and carried out of the monastery cathedral to the mausoleum outside. Crowds of angry Copts followed the martyrs’ bodies, their cries voicing their collective indictment of the Coptic Church’s failure to demand justice from Egyptian state officials for their communal loss.

Most Copts in Egypt and abroad did not make it to St. Menas Monastery, but watched Aghapy TV’s live coverage of the martyrs’ funeral instead. On January 2, 2011, I was tuned into Aghapy TV with several Copts inside the waiting room of a church in Heliopolis, an affluent suburb in northeast Cairo. We watched the flat-screen monitor together in silence for the most part, with the exception of a few quiet chuckles of satisfication during the crowds’ protests against the governor.

Aghapy TV’s coverage closed with additional frames that interspersed visual images from the Two Saints’ Church in Alexandria with select shots from The Passion of the Christ (2004), Mel Gibson’s Hollywood blockbuster that depicted the final twelve hours of Jesus’s life. The first frame presented the charred carcass of the bombed car on the streets of Sidi Bishr. The second frame was the bloody scourge of American actor James Caviezel’s body. The third frame displayed the black body bags carrying the martyrs’ bodies and the blood-splattered mural of Christ on the church’s wall. The fourth frame was Caviezel’s trembling wrist roped to the cross. The fifth frame featured the wounded bodies of Alexandria’s victims in the hospital – bandaged, plaster-cast, scarred, singed and bedridden.

In the final frames, the television screen turned pitch-black for a brief moment. Then, the luminous Caviezel as Christ reappeared, fully reconstituted into a resurrected whole. Gazing ahead with shining eyes, he appeared to look forward at a triumphant future.