A barometer of the lack of freedom and equality


published in commentator 4 Sept 2012

By Wahied Wahdat-Hagh

The persecution of minorities in an Islamic society is truly a barometer of the lack of freedom and equality that prevails there.

An Egyptian man walks through a burning Baha'i village

An Egyptian man walks through a burning Baha’i village

Can the discrimination and persecution of the Baha’is serve as a barometer for freedom in an Islamic society such as Egypt? This answer is yes.

At the beginning of August 2012, the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the human rights abuses committed against religious minorities in Egypt, remarks that were promptly rejected by Mahmoud Ghozlan, spokesman for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. He accused Clinton of lying and claimed that “non-Muslims in Egypt have the same rights as Muslims”.

However, Mahmoud Ghozlan has clearly stated that the Egyptian Baha’is are forbidden from practicing their religion freely according to the Egyptian English-language newspaper, Daily News. Ghozlan erroneously assumes that theBaha’i faith “stems from Zionism”. The Baha’i faith sees itself more as a religion in favour of equality of the sexes and of all people. In addition, Baha’is support universal human rights, something that is a thorn in the side for some fundamentalist Muslims.

Persecution of the Baha’is in Egypt

There are about 2,000 members of the Baha’i faith in Egypt. This is not a large number compared to an estimated 170,000 Baha’is in the United States, 300,000 in Iran and more than two million in India. Yet the treatment of this minority is significant in gauging the freedom of other minorities in an Islamic country like Egypt.In fact, for theBaha’is the Arab Spring has turned into a cold winter – particularly in Egypt.

 

It is worthwhile taking a brief look at the history of the persecution of Egyptian Baha’is. Already in 1960, as a result of the so-called Presidential Decree number 263, all Baha’i institutions were dissolved and the property of the Baha’iwas confiscated. Under the decree Baha’i public activities were prosecuted and this was strictly enforced. In the sixties, dozens of Egyptian Baha’is were arrested, solely because of their religious affiliation, according to NaseemKourosh in the journal of International Law News (Volume 41, 2012).

As in the “Islamic Republic of Iran”, in Egypt not even Baha’i marriages were recognised, with tragic consequences for many families. In 1975, another law was passed that banned Baha’is from practicing their faith, even in private.

In 2003, the scientific centre of Al-Azhar University (the most important theological school of Sunni Islam) issued a fatwa against the Baha’i faith, which constituted an additional basis for discrimination and persecution of the Baha’is. It stated that the Baha’i religion was a “deadly spiritual epidemic”, which must be destroyed by the state. Even in the face of this, the Baha’is advocate peace between religions on the grounds that all religions have the same divine origin.

Egyptian identity card

In the journal of International Law News, Nasseem Kourosh highlights the fact that Baha’is do not deny their religious identity. This made it especially problematic when they had to declare a religious affiliation.

A person’s religion must be specified on Egyptian identity cards, but there are only three categories: Jew, Christian and Muslim. Those who do not want to put themselves in any of these categories are, from the point of view of the state, theoretically non-existent and must deal with myriad consequences.

Since the Presidential Decree of 1960, the Egyptian state has decreed that the Baha’is are not allowed to register as Baha’i. Therefore, if Baha’is got identity cards, they were involuntarily registered as Christians, Jews or Muslims, and sometimes atheists.

Only in 1983 did the Baha’is have permission from the Egyptian government to identify themselves either as Baha’i or “other” on their passports. However, problems remained. For example, Baha’is are considered apostates and as apostates they are not allowed to study.

In 2004 the Egyptian state withdrew permission for the Baha’is to state their faith on their identity cards. Now, when an Egyptian applies for a new identity card, he or she can only belong to one of the three recognised religions. The Baha’is were also not allowed to identify their religion as “other” or simply leave the field blank.

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The problems of the Egyptian Baha’is are growing

As the Baha’is refused to deny their religion, they were no longer entitled to an identity card. This had tragic consequences. Baha’i children had no birth certificates and therefore could not attend school. They were even denied vaccinations.

Baha’i youth and adults also did not have identity cards, which meant that they could not work, could not study and could seek care in public hospitals. They also could not apply for a driving license. They were even not entitled to a death certificate if a family member passed away.

Because of this, they lost their right to inheritances. The possession of Baha’i money, goods and property thus passed into state ownership. The persecution of the Baha’is was certainly a comfortable situation for those in power.

In April 2006 Egyptian Baha’is were given the right to a religious identity, which could be officially registered in state documents. However, as the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Azhar University protested against the government decision, it was reversed in December 2006.

In 2007, several human rights organisations denounced the situation in Egypt, as well as the U.S. government in an annual report on religious freedom. So far this has had little actual effect. It’s not only the Baha’is who are negatively affected by religious prejudice, but also Copts and newly converted Christians.

It was only in August 2009 that the Baha’is were granted the right leave blank the box for religious affiliation on their identity cards. This was a step forward as they could now apply for passports, even if their religion was not registered and was only denoted with a hyphen.

With the “Arab Spring”, the situation of the Baha’is has not improved. In fact, the opposite is true. The “Arab Spring” that began in Tunisia and toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak does not seem to be bringing democracy and human rights to the region. Especially considering the bloody chaos and violence in Libya, Bahrain, Syria, and also Egypt, it can be surmised that positive developments in the Arab world are unlikely in the medium-term.

The situation of members of the Baha’i religion in Egypt is indeed a litmus test for the overall development of an Islamic society such as Egypt’s.

As Nassim Kourosh notes, the positive steps forward in 2009 regarding the treatment of Baha’is are currently being rolled back. In the “Arab Spring” that is rapidly turning into a winter, the Baha’is are still not being treated equally alongside members of the other three religions. As far as the “Arab Spring” is concerned, civil rights are non-existent.

Attacks and arson

If the State acts as an ideological arsonist, one need not wonder whether the citizens of such a state will become arsonists themselves. In Egypt, an increase in attacks on the Baha’is has been recorded and in some villages, their houses have been attacked and set on fire.

The Muslim Brotherhood, who got the most votes in the general election, will not take it upon themselves to improve the situation of the Baha’is. Neither the Brotherhood nor the Salafists have any inclination to change Article 2 of the Egyptian constitution, according to which Islam is the state religion and Islamic law is to the fore.

The Salafist Abdel Moneim al-Shahat demonises the Baha’is and describes them as a “threat to national security”. This Salafist even referred to a fatwa issued by Al-Azhar University, according to which the Baha’i should be prosecuted for “high treason”.

It is very likely that the situation will deteriorate for the Egyptian Baha’is. The persecution of minorities in an Islamic society is truly a barometer of the lack of freedom and equality that prevails there.

Wahied Wahdat-Hagh is a Senior Fellow with the European Foundation for Democracy in Brussels.

Translation: Niall Judge

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