CAIRO: Mother’s Day wasn’t the only festivity to be marked in Egypt on March 21.
Most Egyptians didn’t know that the date also marks the Bahai new year (the Nowruz feast) until an explosive Dream TV program broadcast on March 28 aired footage of the celebration in a talk show pitting two Egyptian Bahais against their archenemy, a journalist at a state-run newspaper. The ensuing violence was beyond all expectations.
Since its inception Wael Al-Ebrashy’s “Al Haqiqa (The Truth) talk show has always boldly and professionally tackled controversial social and political issues, captivating Egyptian audiences with its ethos of giving both sides of each debate equal opportunity to argue their case.
What happened on the Nowruz feast episode was definitely nothing Al-Ebrashy could have foreseen – neither would he have imagined that it would lead to the rampant aggression that took place in the Upper Egyptian village of Shoraneyya in Sohag.
During the show, journalist Gamal Abdel Rahim from the state-run Al-Gomhuria and who also sits on the board of the Journalists’ Syndicate, was invited to elaborate on an article he ran titled “Disaster in Heliopolis.
In it he attacked the fact that members of the barely 2000-strong Bahai community in Egypt publicly celebrated the 166th Bahai year and marked the end of their 19-day fast at the Merryland gardens.
Representing the Bahais were Basma Moussa and Shoraneyya villager Ahmed El-Sayyed. Moussa explained that this was an annual celebration that had nothing to do with the Bahais recent court victory allowing them to issue national identification cards while leaving the religion field blank.
On his part, Abdel Rahim openly accused the Bahais of being Zionists and criticized Egyptian state security for allowing “the apostates to celebrate publicly. He said that they should be “arrested and “charged with belonging to a secret and illegal organization as well as contempt for religion.
In the absence of a law criminalizing apostasy in Egypt, he said, they should at least receive the minimum five-year jail term penalty for these crimes because their public celebration could lead to sedition and “terrorism.
Abdel Rahim constantly referred to Bahaism as a “deviant faith. He was particularly incensed when Al-Sayyed implied the Bahai faith thrived in the whole of Upper Egypt, from Sohag to Beni Suef to Aswan.
In a xenophobic tirade, he fervently warned against the Bahai’s open festivities, saying that before long, they will have the audacity to demand that March 21 be declared a national holiday and that their inflammatory public celebration was a dangerous attempt at gaining official recognition.
Towards the end of the show, he repeatedly referred to Moussa as an apostate and said that “she should be killed; a statement that he subsequently denied on other TV interviews in a blatant lie.
On the night the show was aired, tens of villagers in Shoraneyya gathered outside Bahai families’ homes and began chanting, “Bahais are enemies of God before physically attacking the houses and trying to break into them.
Similar but smaller incidents occurred on the evenings of the following two days, but according to El-Sayyed, who was interviewed by this newspaper, events escalated on the third day when angry villagers threw Molotov Cocktails at the homes of five Bahai families, burning them down.
El-Sayyed said that this was the first attack of its kind on El-Shoraneyya’s Bahais, who have lived in the village all their lives, but have now been forced to flee.
Six human rights organizations have since called on the Prosecutor General to question Abdel Rahim about what they describe as his “incitement of violence against Bahais during his TV appearance and in his articles.
These are the legal steps that have been taken on behalf of the victims of, what I – as would any self-respecting journalist – unequivocally denounce as hate speech.
The question is: what is the position of the Journalists’ Syndicate which prides itself at being at the forefront of the fight against human rights infringements?
Now that a member of its own board is publicly calling on state security to take discriminatory action against a religious minority, as well as inciting violence and encouraging the murder of other Egyptian citizens, wouldn’t it be in order to immediately refer him to a disciplinary committee and at least revoke his syndicate membership?
So far the syndicate has made no statements regarding the case of Abdel Rahim.
The danger is if this silence is an indication of an internal conflict as to how to deal with him.
The case could be twisted into a religious issue and turned into a debate on whether or not Bahais are “apostates. This would lead to endless arguments about the punishment of apostasy in Islam, when the real issue is how to punish this so-called journalist’s violation of every conceivable code of ethics.
Rania Al Malkyis the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.