Moments of Crisis: Thinking about Nation, Religion, and Loss in Québec and Egypt

Posted: Wednesday, June 10, 2020


Written by Dr. Ian A. Morrison, Associate Professor of Sociology, The American University in Cairo

In May 2013, having just finished my first year as an Assistant Professor at the American University in Cairo, I received a grant to spend the summer months exploring archives in Montréal and Québec City as part of the research that would eventually turn into the book Moments of Crisis: Religion and National Identity in Québec. Very shortly after arriving in Montréal two events took place – the announcement of what would come to be known as the Charter of Québec Values, and the overthrow of the Egyptian government. While the former became a central focus of the book, the latter would continue and continues to resonate in the background of my writing and shapes many aspects of my daily life in Egypt.

Moments of Crisis Cover

Very shortly after arriving in Montréal, the governing Parti Québécois announced its proposal for what would come to be known as the Charter of Values. While heated debates concerning reasonable accommodation of religious and cultural practices were nothing new in Québec, having held a prominent place in public discourse since at least the early 1990s, there was something new in both the Charter and the disputes it provoked. The Charter was and attempt to explicitly codify the values deemed fundamental to the Québec nation. This was understood by many as an attempt to define once-and-for-all what it meant to be Québécois. While, for the most part, proponents of the Charter understood it as necessary to guide and delimit the nature of pluralism in Québec, and to protect what they held to be fundamental aspects of national identity, opponents of the Charter feared that its introduction would amount to ossifying national identity, and a reversal of the struggle to move from a vision of the nation grounded in ethnicity to one understood in terms of citizenship.

With the exception of some cynical political operatives, for both sides, at stake in the outcome of the debate was vision of Québec society and national identity that each understood as the outcome of struggle and sacrifice. Many supporters of the Charter invoked the need to safeguard the outcome of historic struggles to free Québec, and particularly women in Québec, from the dominance of religious authority. Accommodating religious difference, including practices that seemed to infringe, or potentially infringe, on democracy, women’s rights, the rights of sexual minorities, appeared as a reversal of these historic struggles, and thus, a transformation of sacrifice into loss. Similarly, opponents of the Charter feared that the institution of the Charter would amount to a reversal of the struggle to move from a closed, ethnic nation, to a pluralist, open nation. For them too, the outcome of the debate was one of potential loss – as historical sacrifice transformed into loss. 

While following these debates and engaging in my research, I was experiencing building anxiety about events occurring in Egypt. By late spring, Tamarod (Rebel), an entity presenting itself as a grassroots movement opposing the Muslim Brotherhood and the government of Mohamed Morsi, was gaining increasing prominence. As the summer and the movement against Morsi progressed, the rumble of anxiety I was feeling about events occurring in Egypt, compounded by the images of unrest in news reports, was slowly growing in intensity. Not only was the nature of Tamarod unclear, not only to me as a relative newcomer to Egypt but even to many Egyptians engaged in politics and activism, but staking out one’s own position vis-à-vis a struggle that was increasingly being portrayed and structured as one between two options – with the military and secularism on one side, and religion and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other – was increasingly fraught. With the massive protests against the Morsi government in June, the 30 June overthrown of the government, and the subsequent street battles and massacres, debates about the ongoing events were increasingly presented as being limited to either supporting military authoritarianism or Islamist theocracy. These debates tore apart families, friendship, political parties and activist networks seeking to understand how best to protect the legacy of the 25 January Revolution or Islamist projects in Egypt.

As the summer progressed, my days consisted largely of waking up groggy from yet another night of limited, intermittent sleep, with trepidation checking the news and opening my social media to see what was happening in Egypt, spending the remainder of the day attempting to focus on conducting archival research, and my evening watching the international media’s reports from Cairo, before attempting, often unsuccessfully, to get a few hours of sleep before repeating the process.

My experience of these events cannot, of course, be equated in anyway with those of the Egyptians who lived and continue to live through them. Not only was I, watching from Québec, geographically removed, but as someone who was new to Egypt, with passports and citizenships that allowed me geographic mobility, and, crucially, as someone who had not sacrificed anything for Egypt, any Egyptian political project, the 25 January revolution, or Egyptian democracy, any loss that I could have experienced was incomparable to that of any Egyptian and especially to those who had sacrificed, through the death of comrades, friends or family in members, imprisonment, torture, maiming, financial hardship, the tearing apart of friends and families, exile, and many other traumatic experiences. For all of these people, one of the stakes of the events of the summer of 2013 was that these experiences would be transformed from sacrifices into losses.

Just as when asked to comment on the events in Egypt (which I generally decline to do), in writing about religion and national identity in Québec, particularly from an anti-nationalist perspective, I find it crucial to keep in mind the centrality of real and potential loss in the outcome of these events and debates. For those who have sacrificed for a cause or an entity, or are linked genealogically or through narrative association to others who have sacrificed, an assessment of the value, history or future direction of the cause or entity is never a merely theoretical proposition. While we are quick to acknowledge this in its most obvious and immediate form, in the case of those who have lost people close to them, their livelihoods, their youth, their mental or physical well-being or their homes, we often underplay how this is the case even if that which is lost, or is under threat of being lost, can be – as in the case of the nation or the political cause – described as imagined, constructed, fantastical, inherently contradictory, and so on.

The affective experience of loss and fear of loss is real and should not be taken lightly. Not only is the fear of loss something that one must be sensitive to in terms of understanding the outcomes of defeats, the anxieties at play in attachments to causes and objects, and the strong reactions when these causes and objects appear to be threatened, but also in terms of understanding the fantasies that may be deployed in the cause of denying or staving off the experience of loss. Repressing the loss of that which has already been or was always lost, or of that which can never be realized, as in the fantasies of the golden age, those of a pure, unified nation, or those of a political system that can remove the threat of religion, denies the possibility of mourning and of severing attachments that take the form of cruel attachments.

Posted by Megan M.
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