A court ruling providing official recognition to Bahais has done little to ease the debate on this Israeli-based cult. Gihan Shahine reports on its followers and their beliefs
Public shock has given way to heated debate over an administrative court ruling sanctioning an Alexandrian family to designate itself as Bahais in their identity cards and passports. The court based its ruling, passed on 16 April, on the grounds that Islam accepts non-Muslims of different creeds. The Ministry of Interior, however, contested the ruling before the higher administrative court as contradictory to the principles of the constitution which regards Islam as Egypt's formal religion. The grand sheikh of Al-Azhar said that Islam recognises Christianity and Judaism as divine religions and defined Bahaism as a sacrilegious dogma followed by a deviant sect of atheists.
Bahais are a minor cult headquartered in Israel and is based on a belief that the will of one God is progressively revealed through the prophets of the great religion. The founder, Bahaaullah, established the belief in Iran in the 19th century and was expelled for claiming prophecy and later divinity. Today, the cult claims to have about five million followers worldwide, including an unofficial estimate of 2,000 Egyptian members. It is believed to have strong links with global Zionism in both theory and practice.
The Egyptian government had placed a ban on all Bahai worship and activities in the 1960s under late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser for security reasons. Nasser passed the ban following a religious edict by Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Academy (IRA), which ruled that Bahaism is not a religion (the same fatwa was re-issued in the 1980s).
In 1975, the Supreme Constitutional court banned Bahai activities on the grounds that the constitution defines Egypt as a Muslim country and that Islam recognises only Christianity and Judaism as divine religions. In 1985, the state clamped down on a 48-member Bahai group led by artist Hussein Bikar who admitted that he was tasked by the Israeli House of Justice to take charge of all Bahai places of worship.
Last month's bombshell ruling not only revealed that Bahaism still exists in Egypt but brought the issue back to the fore as a matter of minority rights and freedom of creed. Whereas Bahais celebrated the ruling as a human rights victory for minority groups, controversy erupted over the motives of the group whose leaders are based in Israel. Many people see Bahais as a threat to Islam -- as well as to Christianity and Judaism -- since it calls for a global government based in Israel that unifies the world into one Bahai faith and renounces basic Islamic tenets including jihad. Many jurists and intellectuals have expressed political concerns over the motives and timing of what has been called an "unconstitutional" verdict likely to pose a threat to national security. The very fact that Bahais have their sanctuaries in Israel -- and are obliged to give their alms to the House of Justice there -- have raised security concerns over the possibility of their involvement in espionage, a claim Bahais vigorously deny.
"This is a sneaky conspiracy against divine religions, not just Islam," said prominent columnist Ragab El-Banna. "Bahaism is headquartered in Israel and chose Misson, a Jewish- American, as its spiritual leader in 1950, after the state of Israel was declared."
MP Ahmed Shobeir used more or less the same argument to push for immediate action to overturn the administrative court ruling which he said made him feel that "danger is waiting round the corner".
"I was personally shocked to find satellite channels having a field day covering the rise of a new religion in Egypt and interviewing its followers without anyone intervening," the despondent MP told parliament. Shobeir called upon parliamentary members to stand up to the spread of "superstitious dogmas".
Sheikh Abdel-Moeti Bayoumi, a prominent IRA member, explained how Bahaism contradicts the basic tenets of Islam. Bahaism reduces the five daily prayers to three, does not agree with such basic principles in Islam like hajj and jihad, changes basic personal status laws, claims that Prophet Mohamed was not the last of the messengers and that Hussein Ali, named Bahaaullah, received divine revelation to ease Islamic jurisdiction. Bahais have their own holy book called Al-Aqdas. They consider Bahaaullah a holy figure and carry out their pilgrimage to Akka where Bahaaullah lies buried.
"This is all superstitious political dogma that attempts to shake social stability," Bayoumi said. "It is all the philosophical brainchild of an ordinary person, and his followers have been notoriously used by occupation powers."
Ahmed Seif El-Islam Hassan El-Banna, secretary-general of the Bar Association and a prominent leader in the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood (his father was the founder of the group) would rather blame the serious weakness of Arab and Muslim countries for having opened the door to the emergence of such globally unrecognised minority groups seeking empowerment and rights they cannot obtain elsewhere in the world.
"The Middle East is increasingly becoming the target of colonial plans which seek to create rifts in the social fabric," El-Banna told Al-Ahram Weekly.
El-Banna regretted that "some Western powers are constantly seeking to portray Islam as biased towards women and Copts" and that now "they are creating this new problem to further establish those misconceptions in the Western mind and justify future occupation plans." El-Banna referred to similar scenarios in Darfur, Iraq and Lebanon in support of his argument and cautioned that Bahais "were notorious for being instrumental in helping the British occupation of India."
A Bahai couple, however, insisted in an interview with the independent weekly Sawt Al-Umma that Bahais are not Israeli spies and that the state security would not have left them in peace had they been involved in such activity. The couple shrugged Al-Azhar's ruling as irrelevant and insisted they are not atheists but rather the believers of nine religions which aim at uniting the entire world.
"Whether we agree with their beliefs or not, Bahais have the right to official recognition as enshrined in global human rights laws," contended Hafez Abu Seada, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights (EOHR). The EOHR has long called for legislation allowing Bahais formal recognition. Abu Seada argues that Islam is tolerant of all creeds and that Bahais should not be denied their right to be officially recognised just because they are a minority or because Islam does not recognise except divine dogmas. "Everyone is free to believe in whatever he or she wants," Abu Seada said.
El-Banna countered that "any society is equally free not to acknowledge the belief of a minor sect as an established creed, otherwise it would be the right of devil worshippers, for instance, to get similar recognition."
"If it is an issue of human rights, then why are Muslims largely prohibited to practice many of their rituals freely in Western countries despite the fact that Islam is one of the three major religions in the world?" El-Banna asked.
Whereas El-Banna repeatedly argued that personal freedom should always remain within the boundaries of public order, Abu Seada insists that such boundaries should not extend to the basic right of recognition. "They would have to succumb to the rules of public order just as Muslims do in Western countries where they are not allowed, for instance, to take more than one wife despite the fact that Islam allows polygamy," Abu Seada explained.
Abu Seada says the best way to fight Islamophobia and win the rights of Muslim minorities in non-Muslim countries is to "reveal the true face of Islam, that it is tolerant to all creeds and respects the freedom of thinking." Otherwise, Abu Seada said, Muslims would face similar discrimination in Buddhist countries where they would be considered a mere minority.