A Baha’i Litmus Test for Egypt
August 21, 2012
In 2006, Saad Eddin Ibrahim – the revered Egyptian human
rights advocate and former political prisoner – commented to the press on the
precarious situation of Baha’is in Egypt, who were forced, at the time, to use
the court system to obtain identity cards which the state had denied them.
Baha’i faith is an independent world religion whose adherents seek global peace
and unity for humankind through the promotion of central tenets, including the
full equality between women and men, the elimination of all forms of bigotry,
the abolishment of extremes of wealth and poverty, universal education, and the
establishment of a world federal system based on collective security. The
estimates vary widely for numbers of Baha’is in Egypt, from several hundred to
more than five thousand. There are approximately 170,000 in the United States,
more than 300,000 in Iran (the country’s largest non-Muslim religious
minority), at least two million in India (by far the largest concentration in
one country), and nearly six million worldwide. Today, Baha’i communities are
established globally and are recognized as an independent religious community
in most countries in the world, with the exception of a number of Arab and
predominantly Muslim countries, including Egypt, where varying forms of
Baha’is were persecuted most severely in the land of the faith’s birth, Iran,
where, in the mid 1800s, approximately 20,000 Baha’is were killed because they
were deemed by Muslim clerics as heretics from Islam. Since the Islamic revolution in Iran in the late 1970s, more
than 200 Baha’i leaders have been killed and thousands of others have been
arrested or imprisoned by authorities for no other reason than their identity
the contested status of Bahai’s in Egypt was as important as anything else
going on in the country and its outcome would demonstrate “where the government
is heading on the issue of freedom.”
Members of the community eventually won the right to have dashes (--) on
official ID cards but not their religious affiliation in the mandatory section
which permits only “Muslim, Christian, or Jew.” While an improvement from not having ID cards at all,
Baha’is still were being denied the rights of other Egyptian citizens.
more than 18 months removed from the January 25 revolution, as many Egyptians
still seek full freedom and equality, the plight of Egypt’s Baha’i community
remains a powerful litmus test for where things might be headed. A recent spate of public statements and
actions about the Baha’is by various entities in society provides a compelling
indicator of the trajectory.
religion dates back to the 1860s in Egypt. It formed a national governing body in 1924 and suffered
only periodic verbal attacks by extremist clerics until president Gamal Abdel
Nasser, allegedly under Islamist pressure, issued a decree in 1960 banning all
Baha’i activities. For decades
since, Baha’is have been harassed, vilified, discriminated against, and
imprisoned because of their beliefs.
Over the years, Egypt’s government-controlled media has
been a key propagator of false and inflammatory information about Baha’is. In a new Egypt, could things actually
be changing for the worse? The appointment
this month by the Shura Council of Gamal Abdel Rahim as chief editor of the
state-controlled newspaper, Al-Ghomhurryia,
bodes ill for Baha’is. Rahim was accused in 2009 of calling for the murder of a
Baha’i activist on live
television and inciting residents in Sohag to burn Baha’i
homes. Three days after the
program aired, arson destroyed several Baha’is houses in a Sohag village.
The denigration and repression of Baha’is in Egypt has
been fueled by bogus and inflammatory accusations that state media and
political and religious leaders have perpetuated for generations. They can be boiled down to three
Myth #1: Baha’is are
a Zionist entity and, therefore, not entitled to any rights. Last month, Mahmoud Ghozlan, a
spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, said
Baha’is are of “Zionist origin” and, thus, should not be protected under the
constitution to practice their faith publicly. What “origin” has to do with constitutional protections for any
of Egypt’s citizens is anyone’s guess.
Leaving this point aside, the particular accusation is baseless. It is leveled solely because the Baha’i
world headquarters is in Haifa, Israel.
This, however, was clearly not the preference of Baha’i leaders at the
time. The faith’s founder,
Baha’u’llah, was imprisoned and exiled throughout the region during Ottoman
rule in the 1800s: from Iran and Iraq to Turkey and Palestine. Baha’u’llah died while under house
arrest in 1892 in Acre, Palestine.
It was his family and followers who established the administrative
center of the faith there, more than a half century before 1948, the year the
state of Israel was born.
Moreover, based on the logic of his position, Ghozlan would be forced to
call every resident of Palestine or Israel a Zionist. Clearly, that’s not what he meant, but this demonstrates the
absurdity of his claim about the Baha’is.
Of the nearly six million Baha’is in the world today, fewer than 1,000
reside in what is now Israel. They
serve as temporary volunteers at the Baha’i World Center and eventually return
to their home countries after a short period.
Myth #2: Baha’is are
a threat to national security.
Like Myth #1, this dubious claim hinges on the location of the Baha’i
world headquarters in Israel. This
claim is made most frequently by conservative clerics such as Abdel Moneim al-Shahat, a prominent Salafi
leader who reportedly once said that Islam forbids playing or watching
soccer. In February, he stated
that Baha’is are a security threat, claimed that Baha’is deserve no rights in a
new constitution, and asserted that Baha’is should be tried for treason. Such
irresponsible statements promote the further demonization of Baha’is in society
and pour fuel on the fire of extremist attacks on Baha’is.
Myth #3: Baha’is are
apostates from Islam and, therefore, should be eliminated by the state. Al-Shahat, and others like him cite
declaring Baha’is as apostates.
This accusation is based on numerous fatwas
issued by the Islamic Research Academy at Al-Azhar University over the years,
most recently reiterated in 2003. The gist of the argument is a
theological one, that Baha’is claim divine revelation after the Prophet
Muhammad, which makes them apostates from Islam because, in their view,
Muhammad was the last of the Prophets from God.
However, religion experts explain that the Baha’i faith
emerged out of Islam similar to the way Christianity sprang from Judaism and is
separate and distinct. In fact, in
1925, Egypt became
the first predominantly Muslim state to recognize the Baha’i faith as an
independent religion after an Egyptian court ruled that the faith indeed was
separate from Islam, and consequently, Baha’is could not be deemed heretics or
apostates. This ruling led to
greater emancipation for the Egyptian Baha’is in the decades thereafter, and
they were legally recognized in the 1930s until the 1960 ban. Since then, conservative clerics and
political leaders alike have used Al-Azhar’s fatwas and Nasser’s ban to justify discrimination, vilification,
The Egyptian Baha’i community appears destined toward
experiencing another generation of marginalization and, perhaps, outright
persecution. To be sure, no one
expects the state-controlled press, Al-Azhar, the Muslim Brotherhood, or the
Salafists to agree with Baha’i views, or for that matter, cease from criticizing
its theology. However, the burden
rests on them to refrain from inciting violence and hatred, justifying
repression on the basis of their faith, and calling for restricting Baha’i
rights by insisting that only the “heavenly religions” (Islam, Christianity,
and Judaism) be protected by law.
If all these entities truly espouse the principles of the January 25
revolution, they would champion the rights of all Egyptian citizens, regardless
of religion or belief.
The burden is also on Egyptian human rights defenders and
independent media to debunk the myths about the peaceful, law-abiding Baha’is
and demand that they, along with their fellow Egyptians who are Muslims,
including Sunni, Shi’a, Sufi, and Quranist, Christians, Jews, atheists, and
other persuasions, be protected under the same laws that apply to all
citizens. There should be no
distinction when it comes to the inalienable right of religious freedom.
Judging by Saad Eddin Ibrahim’s sage words in 2006,
Egypt’s democratic transition appears to be headed in the wrong direction. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Bashir is the Deputy Director for Policy and Research at the U.S. Commission on
International Religious Freedom. The views expressed here
are his own, and may or may not reflect the views of the Commission. He can be followed on Twitter @DwightBashir.