The Fourth Faith’s Struggle for Existence
The Fourth Faith’s Struggle for Existence
Photo Credit: Bahairights.org
Despite seemingly victorious rulings, Baha’is in Egypt are still struggling for basic rights.
By: Ethar El-Katatney
Shehab Shady is just over two weeks old. With his downy skin and puckered mouth, he looks like any other baby boy. With one difference: he doesn’t exist.
There’s no doubt he’s flesh and blood, but like any Baha’i that lives in Egypt, he doesn’t officially exist. Because his parents refused to lie—which is prohibited by their faith—or illegally falsify his religious affiliation on his birth certificate—which is prohibited by Egyptian law—he couldn’t get one.
“It’s like we’re not humans,” said 33-year-old Shady Samir, a fourth-generation Baha’i and blogger. “I get death threats on my blog, and constant hate mail.”
Samir’s father, who died four years ago, is still considered alive by the government, since no death certificate could be issued.
The cases of both Shady and Samir are not unique. Four years ago, Ministerial Decree 49 came into play, stating that only one of three monotheistic religions could be written in the religious affiliation field of any identification document. Before the decree was passed, other religions were accepted or the field could be left blank.
“But after the decree,” said Dr. Basma Moussa, a leading Egyptian Baha’i blogger and Assistant Professor in oral surgery at Cairo University, “if you didn’t write Muslim, Christian or Jew, you could not be born, go to school, buy a car, open a bank account, apply for a job, get married, or even die.”
The small and now stateless Egyptian Baha’i community—estimated at around 2,000 members—protested. In January 2008, the Court of Administrative Justice ordered the Ministry of Interior’s Civil Status Department (CSD) in two separate cases to place a dash in the field for religious affiliation on identification documents of Baha’i citizens.
Unfortunately, the victory was a hollow one, and—almost one year later—the CSD has refused to implement the rulings though no appeals have been issued by the Ministry of Interior to challenge them.
“It’s all for show,” said 22-year-old Asmaa Winkelbach, an Egyptian Baha’i studying at the Higher Institute for Arabic Music. “The decisions take place for [international political shows] and are not applied.”
Some Baha’i were even more forceful in their criticism of the government.
“They want to shut us up,” added Dr. Moussa. “To tell us: see, we gave you what you wanted!”
The Baha’i religion was founded by Bahá’u’lláh in nineteenth-century Persia and is founded on a threefold unity: God is one, the prophets are one and humanity is one. There are an estimated five to six million Baha’is around the world in more than 200 countries. Bahai’s have lived in Egypt—the first Muslim country to recognize the Baha’i faith in 1924—for over 100 years. In the 1960s, however, President Nasser shut down the Baha’i national assembly, confisticated Baha’i properties and banned all Baha’i institutions.
Last week, on the birthday of Bahá’u’lláh’ (born November 12th 1817), the third ruling on the right of Baha’is to place a dash in the religious affiliation field was granted to Egyptian student Hady Hassan Ali. Ali faces expulsion from the Faculty of Agriculture in Alexandria since without an identification card he couldn’t defer his military conscription.
55-year-old American Baha’i Frank Bradley, an associate professor and theatre director at the American University in Cairo who has been living in Egypt for the past nine years, said that even if the ruling isn’t implemented, it’s a step in the right direction.
“Before the recent court cases came to public attention, very few people in Egypt knew about the Baha’i faith,” he said. “Now it’s much more widely known, and I consider this a good thing.”
But even a good thing can result in criticism. The 34-minute documentary film about Baha’is in Egypt (clip below) titled Identity Crisis: My Religion or my Country (which features both bloggers Samir and Moussa) showcases several negative Egyptians’ reactions towards Baha’is. In the film, which is produced by independent filmmaker Ahmed Ezzat, one man said they should endure “death or crucifixion or amputation of the limbs or exile” and another declared “death to the infidels.”
Baha’ism has its roots in the Babi religion, which emerged from Shi’i Islam in Iran in the mid nineteenth century. However, one of Baha’ism’s central tenets is that Islam is not the final revelation of God. Does the apparent distaste for the Baha’i religion stem from the fact that it is considered an aberration of Islam?
“Tension occurs because we are Egyptians and not because we are Baha’i,” said Samir, whose blog gets an average of 200 visitors a day, 60% from Egypt. “Egyptians are big on conformity—even Christians face difficulties. Though I think the similarities between the religions should increase familiarity.”
The situation, however, said Dr. Moussa—whose blog has had over 130,000 unique visitors—has changed since the documentary was filmed in late 2006.
“The first time I spoke in a conference in 2006 representing Baha’is, it was as if I’d just announced I was unknown species,” she said. “Now, awareness has increased greatly, and there are a lot of Egyptians and groups supporting our cause.”
Egyptians for Baha’i and Minority rights is a facebook group that emerged in support of minority rights. The online forum states that Egyptians “are morally obligated by being here at this point in time to stand united against the hate and terror inflicted on Egyptian Baha’i s and all religious minorities in Egypt.”
The group was founded by 27-year-old Cynthia Farahat, program officer at the Network of Arab Liberals. An Egyptian, she said she created the group with the aim of raising awareness of Baha’ism when she saw death threats on television made towards its followers.
“Egyptians are hostile [towards Baha’is] as a result of being indoctrinated by the state and Al Azhar that Baha’is are infidels that have no place in their own land,” she said. “People being dragged to medieval religious courts for their beliefs is not a sign of development but rather a disturbing alarm of falling into dark ages. [Egyptians] are victims of their media and intolerant religious clergy.”
The Muslim Network for Baha’i Rights is another group supporting Baha’is, and is made up of Arab and Iranian Muslim students and interfaith social activists. Launched in summer 2007, the website is continually updated and monitors the conditions of Egyptian and Iranian Baha’is in their struggle for civil rights.
“As practicing Muslims we don’t believe in the Baha’i faith,” wrote Esraa Al Shafei, founder of the website, in an online post. “But why should that stand in the way of granting them their full rights? Why should our religious differences justify decades of abuse, wrongful imprisonment, murder, denial of education, and other crimes?”
And that is where the crux of the matter lies: civil rights vs. religious rights. Samir said that most Egyptians actually have no problem saying that Baha’is should have civil rights, though accepting the religion as legitimate is still far-off.
“But we’re not asking that the religion be recognized,” said Dr. Moussa, “just that we be given our rights as citizens. Until then, our lives are on hold.”
Perhaps Egyptians need to take a leaf out of Bahá’u’lláh’s book, who said:
“Religion should be the cause of love and unity. You are all the branches of one tree and the leaves of one branch.”