Young Diaspora Copts and the Coptic Identity Struggle

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Andrew lives in regional Australia and grapples with the various identity issues faced by many young Copts especially those born outside Egypt.

One of the issues that I constantly struggle and grapple with is this: what does it mean to be a Copt? This issue particularly affects Copts who are fortunate to live in pluralistic Western societies because of their exposure to a different culture and mindset which may clash with the values and principles that Copts have inherited from their Egyptian culture. Needless to say, there are a myriad of sub-issues that lie beneath this overarching question of delineating Coptic identity.

The first issue stems from the fact that people view Egypt as an Arab and Muslim nation. The attempt of the Egyptian political apparatus to Arabize Egypt has had deleterious consequences for Copts. The term ‘Copt’ originally referred to ‘Egyptian’ and the definition has permutated into ‘Egyptian Christian’. History illustrates that Copts were never considered Arab. Notwithstanding, since the Egyptian revolution that overthrew the monarchy, there has been a systematic attempt by the Egyptian establishment to describe Egyptian as being synonymous with Arab or Muslim. This policy is perhaps most starkly portrayed in the Egyptian establishment’s refusal to teach Coptic as a language in the public education system even though other languages such as English and French are widely taught. Language is inextricable to establishing and fomenting identity and culture. The Egyptian establishment’s refusal to teach Coptic is an attempt to eviscerate the part of Egyptian history that preceded the Arab invasion. Indeed, the fact that the native language of Copts is Arabic is a crucial reason why people are often bewildered whenever a Copt says he or she is not Arab. Outside of Egypt, the policy of successive Egyptian governments has made it difficult for Copts to express their identity without engaging in a protracted discourse of history.

There is, unfortunately, not much we can do about the Egyptian government’s policy. What we can say categorically is that we are not Arab. If Copts are not Arab, are they African? This question is vexed because Africans are invariably categorized as ‘black’. The international community does not describe Egyptians as ‘black’. North Africa is segregated from sub-saharan Africa and the latter is commonly referred to as ‘black Africa’. Moreover, black Africans and Egyptians do not consider Egyptians ‘black’. The controversy surrounding whether Ancient Egyptians were ‘black’ and the summary dismissal of Afro-centrists that Copts are the direct descendants of Ancient Egyptians as incidental to their argument is telling in this regard.

That does not necessarily mean that Egyptians are not African. Copts are African even if they are not part of the Negroid race. The fact that there are different races inhabiting different continents around the world should be sufficient evidence for this proposition. Yet I know that Copts are reluctant to admit that they are Africans. One possible reason is that Egyptians have mixed with other races and cultures since the end of the Pharaonic era. Accordingly there are Copts who are of fair complexion or of Mediterranean appearance and who tend to distance themselves from their African heritage. Alternatively, persons of that appearance may feel that their attempts to define themselves as African will be cynically questioned or derided by others. There may be stereotypes often associated with African men or women, which Copts wish to dissociate themselves from and or that Copts cannot fulfil. Further, as alluded to above, other Africans may not consider Copts as Africans or non-Africans find it difficult to accept that Copts are African. Copts may also wish to ‘fit in’ with persons from Mediterranean or Middle Eastern backgrounds who they socialize or interact with regularly. With these issues in mind, it is no wonder that Copts find it difficult to identify themselves other than by reference to their faith, which is in my opinion regrettable.

Even so, there is a further complication behind our identity. This relates to the exposure to Western culture. I am fortunate to live in a Western nation. Australia provides a wealth of opportunities that Egyptians would never be exposed to in their ancestral homeland. In accordance with the biblical edict that you shall reap what you sow, Copts who have worked diligently have seen the fruits of their labour and there are many successful Copts in Australia. Importantly, Western culture, which is rooted in Judeo-Christian values, is superior to other cultures. It is founded on the principles of fundamental human rights; free enterprise; equality of sexes; the separation of church and state; the separation of powers; civilian and democratic institutions; and the rule of law. There is no other culture comparable in its respect for individual dignity and in its protection of individual liberty.

I do believe that we should integrate into Western society; it is our duty to do so. In saying so, what I have noticed is that Copts face a struggle between assimilating into Western culture while maintaining the values and principles that distinguish Copts. There are of course Western cultural practices which, while in conflict with Egyptian culture, may be accepted without compromising our Coptic identity. Nevertheless, there are other aspects of Western culture, which if Copts are exposed to (and they invariably are) and this exposure is not controlled, may have unforeseen and unfortunate consequences. How to reconcile Western culture with our inherited Egyptian culture is one of the pressing issues for the Coptic community in the diaspora.

I do not propose to have the resolution to this important issue. What I do know is that adherence to the Coptic faith is essential to maintaining Coptic identity. It is deeply saddening that many Copts who have fled their ancestral homeland because of perceived discrimination and a lack of opportunity lose their connection to their faith which is a necessary bulwark against the powerful forces of secularism, hedonism, materialism, and the overtly rampant sexual culture. As long as we maintain the core of our faith, it is possible to navigate the unchartered waters that we are facing and ensure that we reach our intended destination – the port of salvation. It will be a pity if we enjoy the fruits of a free society, but in doing so lose our eternal freedom.

I believe that the Church in the West needs to actively play a role in guiding people bearing in mind that Western society is a very different society to Egypt. I am not suggesting that the Church compromises the central tenets of its faith. Rather, I believe there is a lack of real guidance when it comes to how Copts are to maintain their faith when they are exposed to many external influences that have the potential to lead them down the wayside, or to adhere to aspects of our faith which are difficult to follow from a practical perspective. We need clergy that are not only cognizant of the religious tradition and texts, but also of the difficult challenges Copts face in the professional and social environment and attempt, with God’s help, to find practical solutions. The growth of community youth organisations in Sydney in association with the clergy is assisting. But I do know that there are Copts who are disillusioned and the status quo will not bring them back.

How to find these solutions will not happen unless there is open, honest and constructive dialogue where participants work together to achieve these outcomes. In doing so, we may find the delicate yet crucial balance between preserving our distinctive Coptic identity while integrating into Western society. We may also be able, through this dialogue, be comfortable in expressing what it means to be Coptic – that Copts are Egyptian and, arguably, African.

Andrew George


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