Rami Malek: Coptic-Egyptian? Arab? White?

Rami Malek recently won an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a drama series for his role in Mr. Robot, designating him as the first “non-white” actor to win this award in 18 years. Malek was born in the US to Coptic Christian-Egyptian parents, meaning that his win is widely celebrated amongst Arab, Egyptian, Coptic, and American communities. This win highlights the fluidity and complexity of identity, and particularly sheds light on debates about Copts as Egyptians, Copts as Arabs, and Middle Easterners and North Africans as non-white.

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Rami Malek                                             Image from the BBC & Jordan Strauss

In Egypt, the state and some civilians have adopted a nationalist rhetoric of unity between Copts and Muslims as a way to overlook sectarian violence targeted against Copts. Recent incidents of religious strife–mainly occurring in upper Egypt–have included the stripping and dragging of an elderly Coptic women in the streets under allegations that her son was in a relationship with a Muslim woman, other incidents have involved the burning down of churches and attacks against Christian homes. President Sisi has continuously and publicly affirmed that all Egyptians are equal, which is also supported by Coptic Pope Tawadros II. The Church promotes this narrative as a way to ensure that a Coptic identity is recognized as being central to an Egyptian identity, while also pushing for Egypt to protect Copts under the law.

As the debate surrounding Copts being integral to Egypt is tied to contemporary politics, there is also a different ongoing debate about whether or not Copts are Arab. In my research, opinions varied greatly. On the one hand, there were those who refused to identify as Arab, referring to Arabs as invaders who destroyed Coptic culture and language. Instead, claims of being the modern sons of pharaohs and the indigenous people of Egypt are a great source of pride and honor. On the other hand, others believe that because they communicate in the Arabic language and live in the Middle East they are Arab.

In the US, as of 1944, people of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) descent are officially recognized as racially white. Before 1944, during the immigration process, MENA people would claim whiteness as a result of anti-black citizenship laws that lasted until 1952. Despite being officially considered to be white, MENA people do not reap all the benefits of white privilege and are exposed to heightened surveillance and increases in hate crimes, especially post 9/11. As a result of consistent lobbying and advocacy, the Census Bureau is exploring the possibility of adding a MENA box in the 2020 census, which will allow for more accurate data and therefore ensure better and more particular services for the MENA community.

Identity is fluid and shifts throughout time and space. It is also political, and in these cases closely tied to histories of violence and how conflict shapes group identification. Ultimately, however, as Khaled Beydoun writes, “Now whether Malek made “Arab-American” or “Egyptian-American” history ultimately hinges on how the Emmy winner identifies himself: picking one side of the Arab and Coptic divide, or choosing to embrace both. Whatever he chooses, everybody wins.”

Miray is a Ph.D. graduate student in Sociology with a focus on violence, collective memory, and the Middle East and North Africa. Miray’s current research is focused on how Copts in Kuwait, Egypt and the US make sense of their present-day experiences and historical memory. She is also the 2016-17 Badzin Fellow. 

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