Egypt: A foretaste of secularism through the Baha’is?

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In March 2009, the Supreme Court in Egypt dismissed an appeal that sought to prevent implementation of a lower court ruling the year before allowing Baha’is to leave blank the religious classification field on official documents, including all-important identity cards and birth certificates. The back and forth case ended with a near-secular decree and a very religiously oriented statement from a member of the judiciary insisting on the solid Islamic nature of the Egyptian constitution.

All hell broke loose when, in 2004, a case involving an engineer who wanted to add the names of his three daughters to their mother’s passport hit Egyptian headlines. Upon presenting his daughters’ official documents to the passport office the employee, who was supposed to take photocopies of the documents and return the originals to the engineer, kept the originals and asked the father to come back the next day. When the father came back the next day the employee announced to a bewildered father that his daughters had become Muslim instead of Baha’i as the computer software of the passport office had been changed…


Eventually the case led to a 2009 Supreme Court ruling. But before then, very few Egyptians had heard about the monotheistic Bahá’í Faith. Founded by Bahá’u’lláh in 1844 in Persia, and emphasizing the spiritual unity of all humankind, the Bahá’í religion counts some six million followers around the world.

For the Bahá’ís, religion unfolded through a series of divine messengers, each of whom established a religion that was suited to the needs of the time and reality of the people. These messengers include Abraham, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad among others, and most recently the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh. According to them, Bahá’u’lláh’s life and teachings fulfilled the end-time promises of previous scriptures. Bahá’ís also understand that humanity is understood to be in a process of collective evolution.

Egypt registered its first Baha’i followers in 1864 by virtue of groups of nomadic people and Iranian (Persian) merchants who settled in the Northern African country. From the mid-nineteenth century till the beginning of the sixties of the twentieth century, the Baha’is were living at ease in Egypt, and were allowed to indicate their religious affiliation in the religious field provided in official documents.

Computer Era

However, they started facing the ire of the Egyptian authorities when in 1960 a decree (No263) ordered the closure of all Baha’i centers, or their temples, as it were. That same year, the Egyptian state began issuing identity cards to its nationals. During that time, the non-computerised registrations systems meant that identity cards were handwritten and not as strictly controlled as it is today with electronically regulated computer softwares, and Baha’is could either chose to have “Baha’i” or the word “Other” indicated on their Identity cards (ID). This system was applied till 1998 when a new system of computerized Identity cards was introduced.

Following the computerization of ID’s, only a handful of the Baha’is were able to have their new ID cards with the word “other” in the religion field. But that the lucky few faced new adversities when in 2004 an administrative decision declared that only three religions were allowed to appear on IDs: Muslim, Christian and Jewish. This meant that a Baha’i or a follower of any other religion was obliged to choose one of the three religions. Nevertheless, should a person choose Islam and later decide to declare that he or she is a Baha’i, that person could be accused of apostasy and punished with death, not to mention the threat of being charged with fraud.

Back To the Engineer

The engineer discovered at that moment that the 2004 administrative decision allowed only the three religions to appear on IDs, prompting him to go to court in 2004. The case ended in April 2006 with a decision which stipulated that the engineer had the right to retrieve his documents as he had delivered them to the employee, without any change. In his statement, the judge had mentioned that: “The land of Muslims is for Muslims and non-Muslims”. The court upheld the right of Baha’is to be explicitly identified on official documents.

Eight months later, the Supreme Administrative Court reversed that decision, leaving the Baha’is with no choice but to propose a compromise: To use a dash (–) or the word “other” on documents, instead of being forced to choose one of the three religions. On January 29, 2008, a lower court again ruled in their favor.

However, two Muslim lawyers filed an appeal to reverse the lower court decision using a case involving a set of 16-year-old twins, popularly known as the Raouf Hindi twins, who had been unable to attend school in Egypt for lack of proper documents. On March 16, 2009, the Supreme Administrative Court rejected the appeal, thus forcing the Ministry of Interior to issue a decree specifying that individuals could now obtain official documents without identifying themselves as belonging to a particular religion.

During the announcement of the court’s decision, Judge Ibrahim El-Saghir Head of the Supreme Administrative Court said that article 46 of the Egyptian constitution stipulates that the state guarantees the freedom of belief and the freedom to practice religious rites. Conversely, the court made it clear that its decision does not mean that it recognizes Bahà’i faith as a religion, and that it cannot be made part of the three accepted religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. He explained that the decision had been taken to simplify procedures and reduce confusion. Putting a dash or the word “other” in the space reserved for religion indicates that these people are not followers of one of the three religions.

Nevertheless, this decision does not mean that any Egyptian can put a dash or “other” in official documents in the space reserved for religion. The Egyptian constitution stipulates that Egypt is a Muslim country and that Sharia is the basis of its laws. So, if a Muslim puts a dash or uses the word other, he could not be treated as a Muslim and laws concerning marriage and succession, for example, would not be applicable in what concerns him. The same applies to Christians and Jews.

Egypt is not a secular country, yet. The decision of the Supreme Administrative court, it seems, cannot be considered as a huge step in this direction even if it can be hailed as a good measure to protect the Baha’is and followers of other non-official religions. What is remarkable in this case is that it reveals to many Egyptians the existence of many religious minorities in their country, a fact that they have to begin living with.

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