A barometer for freedom and equality in Egypt

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
Wahied Wahdat-Hagh
On 4 September 2012 11:12

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 the Baha'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 the Baha'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'i was 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 Naseem Kourosh 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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