By Salama A Salama
When a mob assaulted citizens believed to belong to the Bahaai faith in the village of Al-Shuraniya near Sohag, police didn't move to stop the assaults or protect the victims. Homes were torched and innocent people were hunted down in the streets, and the government pretended not to notice.
It is sad when lawmen fail to uphold the law and when the government doesn't hear the screams of wronged citizens. It is just as sad when, following in Lebanon's footsteps, we allow Muslims to turn against Christians, Sunnis against Shias, and everyone against the Bahaais, the Druze, and what have you. A Lebanon-like situation is developing right here, complete with poverty and despair, perhaps even the threat of foreign intervention.
The whole affair started when the database for national identity cards was being updated. A dispute emerged over whether the Bahaais can be allowed to register their faith in their cards. Interior Ministry officials denied this right, insisting that citizens are only allowed to mention their religion as being either Muslim or Christian.
This didn't make sense to many that believe in religious freedom, and who proposed that people who don't want to state their faith could leave the entry blank. This was a compromise designed to avoid sectarian strife and discrimination. But some people, including government officials, didn't want this to happen. There is many a fanatic in our midst, and not only in the distant villages of Upper Egypt. There are people in this country ready to rouse the rabble, work themselves up into a frenzy, and generally do what it takes to keep us all in a mediaeval-style darkness.
It is easy to blame the ignorant and the ruffian, but there are people in the universities and in the media whose appetite for sectarian incitement is insatiable.
Government officials, clerics, students in Sohag University are all to blame. I watched a television programme called Al-Haqiqah, or "The Truth", and saw a journalist defending the thugs who bullied the Bahaais, while offering the view that the latter were apostates that deserved rough justice. If anything, this is a sign that religious freedom should not be left in the hands of the thugs and the semi-educated to decide. We have to have laws banning the media from sectarian incitement, and there are such laws in other countries.
As for the government, it has to wake up from its slumber and redeem itself through bringing someone into account. For starters, the governor of Sohag and his security chief must be held accountable. This is an incident that calls for immediate legal action, and I would like to see the attorney-general questioning people, issuing subpoenas and serving arrest warrants.
It is not a crime to be a Bahaai. It is not a crime to be a Buddhist. What is a crime is to bring back the inquisition in this age and time.
Back in the early 20th century the great scholar Sheikh Mohamed Abdu said that there is not theocracy in Islam, a religion that gives no cleric a power over his fellow man. His words still ring true today in the mist of ignorance and intolerance that is shrouding the Arab world and sending us back to times of darkness.
Recognising our sad state of affairs, NATO recently appointed a man who insulted Islam -- in connection to offensive cartoons -- as its chief. This is the kind of man the West believes can best deal with the rest of the world, including Muslims and Arabs. It is a small reminder to us all that intolerance is a two-way street.