A tiny, misunderstood, and often-persecuted community is facing a serious crisis in Iraq. The Yezidi, who practice an ancient monotheistic religion, face genocide as militants of the “Islamic State” (IS) have overrun Sinjar, the main hub for this minority, and proceeded to slaughter and torment them, sending tens of thousands of them up into the mountains with no food or water.
When Mohamed Morsi was ousted last year, many celebrated it and often cited the Muslim Brotherhood’s conservative religious doctrine and its effects on the state as to why the group had to go. We were lectured about the dangers of radical Islam and how its presence threatens the existence of the country’s non-Sunni minorities. The Brotherhood did not help itself, often resorting to sectarian rhetoric and incitement.
So how are we doing now more than one year after Morsi?
Egypt, like Iraq, also has a tiny, misunderstood, and often-persecuted minority.
The Baha’i faith does not enjoy the “heavenly religion” status that Islam, Christianity, and Judaism do. Article 64, the constitution’s “freedom of belief” article, dictates that “practicing rituals and establishing places of worship for the followers of heavenly religions is organised by law”- an article that conveniently marginalises groups like the Baha’i. The constitution passed two years before, touted as an extremist document by critics of Morsi, took the same stand. In fact, the rights of the Baha’i as a religious community were erased in 1960 under Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose decree threatened imprisonment and fines.
Baha’i have also been victim to violence and incitement with impunity. On a number of occasions, including 2009 and 2011, Baha’is in Sohag were attacked and their homes were burned. Amid the first occasion, Gamal Abdel Rahim (who would become the editor-in-chief of state-owned Al-Gomhouriya newspaper) told a Baha’i activist on a television programme to “go build a country in Israel” and told her “You’re an infidel and should be killed.” He would later praise those who attacked Upper Egyptian Baha’i homes. The Muslim Brotherhood has also published a lot of fallacious material about the Baha’i faith. An article published on the group’s site in 2008 called it a “fabricated sect” that worships idols.
In an interview, a 26-year-old Baha’i talked about how he was stopped at a security checkpoint and hassled, berated, and intimidated by officers who saw the dash on the back of his national ID card, which indicates the cardholder’s religion (Baha’is fought in court to allow them to leave a blank space rather than putting Muslim or Christian). The state (and specifically the security apparatus), tasked with protecting citizens, feels entitled to degrade them instead based on religious identity.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) in June called on the authorities to intervene to stop trails, many that target religious minorities that “undermine citizenship and guarantees for religious freeedoms”. This came after a court in Luxor sentenced a Coptic teacher to six months for defamation of religion. Such trials have increased in frequency since 2011 with no signs of stopping.
Meanwhile the Ministry of Youth and Sports and the Ministry of Endowments announced a plan to combat atheism. The plan involves handing alleged atheists over to experts to give them “scientific and psychological help”. We may no longer have a Muslim Brotherhood president but that hasn’t stopped government agencies from taking on such issues and prioritising them at a time when things such as youth employment cause serious problems.
My intention isn’t to morally equivocate what happens to minorities in Egypt and what the IS does. There is no doubt that the latter practices the bloodiest and most barbaric brand of sectarianism and persecution of beliefs. It is clear that IS is willing commit as many genocides as it needs to fulfill its goals and that it sees non-Sunni Muslims as worse than third class citizens.
But don’t we want to be as little like IS as possible? Rather than only seeing people as followers of certain religions, don’t we want to see them as citizens first and foremost? A country that has a “religion” field on its identification card cannot boast attempting to do this, and failed sectarian policies like this and others not only marginalise a country’s citizens but make way to deeper sectarian problems that we see in countries like Iraq and Syria. Yes, Islamist movements tend to be more sectarian whether it’s hate speech against Christians in Egypt or even anti-Semitic references Hamas has made. But we all know sectarianism doesn’t begin and end there. It’s a product of pushing minorities to the fringes by both the society at large and the government, which pays lip service to equal citizenship and freedom of belief, things that are explicitly barred in the constitution.
When we see the death and destruction that comes with IS, we are shocked and express our unequivocal rejection of their practices. It’s comfortable to think of such atrocities as a product of radical Islam, especially for those of us who don’t subscribe to the ideology. But what we should also do is ask ourselves “how would we treat the Yazidi in Egypt or anyone whose belief system lies outside of the big three?” and “do we marginalise our minorities?” Part of our response needs to be speaking out against lesser offenses in our countries, because like it or not we are not as little like IS as we should be.
Basil El-Dabh is the Politics Editor at Daily News Egypt. You can email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @BasilDabh.