Post Constitutional Referendum and Egypt's Religious Minorities
Created by John Eipper on 12/14/12 4:19 AM
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Post Constitutional Referendum and Egypt's Religious Minorities (Vincent Littrell, USA, 12/14/12 4:19 am)

I've been following developments with the upcoming (15 December) constitutional referendum in Egypt with interest, especially looking at it through the lens of religious freedom. In the draft constitution, Article 8 deals explicitly with non-Muslim religion. It states, "freedom of religion is absolute and practices shall be conducted in accordance with public order. The state shall ensure freedom to establish places of worship for adherents of Abrahamic religions in accordance with the law."

This has ominous implications for religions other than Judaism and Christianity, especially Baha'is. One article I read talked about the Muslim Brotherhood's view (the Brotherhood was prominent in the drafting process) that though practice of one's religion in one's home won't be repressed, the building of edifices of worship, if not Jewish, Christian or Muslim, will not be allowed. There was some interesting debate on this, regarding how the West might react in light of similar issues regarding not allowing the building of Mosques and associated minarets (in Switzerland, for example). Specifically, religions not allowed to build places of worship in Egypt if this constitution goes through would be Hindus, Buddhists and Baha'is.

The Baha'is specifically are worried about Article 8 of the draft constitution, beyond just the building of places for worship, in light of the fact that Baha'is believe in post-Islamic revelation (they believe in revelation after the Prophet Muhammad). Egypt's Baha'is fear a regression in state attitudes towards their religion, following a legal victory in 2009 in which they were allowed to state their religion on Egyptian identification cards. Last month, according to an article in Egypt's Al-Sabah newspaper, the Egyptian minister Dr. Ibrahim Ghoniem, who is also a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, stated that he would not allow admission of Baha'i children into public schools.

He was asked, "what is the position of the Ministry regarding the 'sons' of Baha'is' right to admission to the Ministry's schools?" The Minister's response: "The law of the nation, based on the civil status laws, is that it does not recognize more than three religions; Baha'i is not one of them, therefore their sons have no right to admission to the Ministry's schools."

A blogger commented that only the sons of Baha'is were mentioned as not being allowed into the schools: "only using the word 'sons' and completely ignoring the 'daughters!' Don't they exist? Is this the new language to be expected of this esteemed educator who is charged with the education of Egypt's next generation? Where is gender equality? Or should we assume that 'daughters' are exempt from this exceptional and enlightened vision of the Minister, and they will be permitted admission to his prestigious schools?"

Here is a relevant October 2012 article on the Baha'is of Egypt in the Daily News (Egypt's only independent news publication in English):

This article provides a brief history of the Baha'is in Egypt, as well as anecdotes of persecution of Baha'is in a rural village. The report is based on University of Freiberg Professor of Islamic Studies Johanna Pink's research on arrests of Baha'is from the 1960s through 2001, as well as Egyptian public attitudes towards Baha'is. It also discusses President Nasser's 1960 decree dissolving formal Baha'i institutions and suspending all Baha'i practice outside the home. It comments on negative views of Muslim Brotherhood officials towards the Baha'is. Also discussed are Baha'is being prevented from progression in their professions, once their employers find learn of their religious faith. Here are some interesting quotes:

"After the 1960s, 'the tone of the press became much more negative and even polemical,' wrote Pink in a 2005 paper on freedom of belief. She added that by 2005, a connection between the Baha'i faith and Zionism was taken for granted in the media. In 2008, the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and anti-Violence Studies noted many national newspapers' reports 'implie[d] direct incitement to hatred against Baha'i.' Baha'is were also often seen as a security threat, and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, cites claims made most frequently by conservative clerics such as Abdel Moneim Al-Shahat, a prominent Salafi leader, that 'Baha'is deserve no rights in a new constitution and... should be tried for treason.' From 1910 to 2010, 15 fatwas (Islamic religious rulings) labelled Baha'is heretics, based on the fact that Baha'is believed in a prophet after Muhammad."

One of the fallacies propagated by Iranian anti-Baha'i propaganda (also put forward by Egyptian anti-Baha'i propagandists) is the accusations that Baha'is are linked to or allies of Zionism due to the fact that the Baha'i World Center and the Baha'i Faith's supreme governing body is located in Israel. I've talked about this before in this Forum.

"Mohsen Kamal, deputy director of the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies, suggests further implications. The 2009 ruling on ID cards could be nullified, he says. It could be even harder for Baha'is to go to the media and talk about their rights. 'If they are talking about their religion they could be accused of insulting Islam.' The article of the new constitution implementing 'the principles of Shari'a law,' could result in Baha'is being punished as apostates. 'In plain words,' wrote Baha'i blogger Bilo, 'and according to the current rhetoric, promulgated by Islamists and many of those participating in drafting Egypt's new constitution, if you are a Baha'i in Egypt, you are not recognized or protected under the constitution or any laws that enforce equal rights because only adherents of the three religions are entitled to such protections.'

"Mahmoud Ghozlan, spokesperson of the Muslim Brotherhood and a member of the new Egyptian National Council of Human Rights, defends the implementation of Article 8. 'Baha'ism is not a religion,' he asserts, before describing how the constitution will not negatively affect Baha'is. 'They will have the freedom to worship but they will not be recognised as a religion.'"

As someone who studies the dynamics of the Baha'i Faith, I am most interested in how the upcoming Egyptian constitutional referendum will turn out, and what it will mean for Baha'is and other non-Islamic religious minorities. Just because Jews and Christians are legally protected, as they are in Iran, there are many indications that legal protections may not mean much in the street.

JE comments: Tomorrow's vote in Egypt is hugely important.  Morsi's critics cannot agree on whether to abstain or vote "no" on the power-grab constitution.  Vincent Littrell is probably correct that if the referendum passes, it does not bode well for Egypt's religious minorities.

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