Sen's daily

September 23, 2013

Heated discussion on freedom of religion in Egypt

Editorial, September 23, 2013

(Ahram) On Monday, Mohamed Salmawy, the media spokesperson for the 50-member committee drafting Egypt’s new constitution said that the new constitution must allow followers of religions other than Islam, Christianity and Judaism to worship freely. The 2012 constitution, drafted by an Islamist-dominated constituent assembly, stated that “the right to exercise one’s religious rites and establish places of worship is guaranteed for the three heavenly religions only: Islam, Christianity and Judaism.” Salmawy argued that the wording must be changed because it violates international conventions on human rights. He also noted that a lot of Muslims live in countries where the official religion is not Islam or Christianity.

It is quite problematic to ask non-Muslim countries to give freedom to Muslims living on their land while Muslim countries refrain from doing the same to non-Muslims or people who do not believe in the world’s three heavenly religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

He said that the committee would look for a compromise that would raintain Islam as the official religion of the state but also ensure freedom for followers of all world religions. However an important subcommittee has decided to retain an article that states that “for Egyptian Christians and Jews, the principles of their religious law will be the main source in regulating their personal status laws, matters pertaining to their religion, and the selection of their spiritual leadership.” Mr. Salmawy’s proposal would require this to be enlarged to include all religious minorities who have ‘personal status’ laws (i.e., religious rules regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc. that apply within a religious community). Mr. Salmawy’s proposal would potentially allow the Bahais to regulate their own personal status matters, rather than falling under a shariah court. However a Bahai religious court would first have to be established. The Egyptian NSA prepared “The Bahá’í Laws affecting Matters of Personal Status,” in the 1940’s, and Shoghi Effendi made the establishment of a religious court in Egypt, “circumstances permitting” one of the goals of his message to the African Intercontinental Conference in 1953.

On Wednesday, Egypt Daily News reported opposition to these suggestions from the Grand Mufti, Shawky Allam, who said it would lead to a disruption of public order. Next day it reported that the Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya party rejected the proposal, which “allows those who belong to different religions to practice incest and homosexual marriage … It also allows atheists to have their own laws, which govern their personal affairs.” In fact, atheists were not included in Mr. Salmawy’s proposal. The reference to incest in the party’s statement points to the Bahais: there is a widespread belief in the Middle East that Bahais practice incest. Yasser Borhami, deputy leader of the Salafist Call, said that the proposed amendment would allow the proliferation of “non-Abrahamic religions,” such as Baha’i, Buddhism and Satan worship. Mr. Salmawy in response has denied that the committee is attempting to draft an anti-Islami constitution. He said that the constitution will preserve the freedom of practicing different religious rituals.

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  1. These considerations read like one reasonable person in discussion with a number of imbeciles. It reminds me of the Kipling (I think) story about two men with functioning eyes dropping into some isolated Himalayan village in which everyone is blind, a propos the saying “in the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king”. Of course none of the blind people believed that what the seeing men described to them was real, and one of them was killed — the other barely escaped with his life…

    Comment by petussing — September 23, 2013 @ 22:51 | Reply

    • It was HG Wells, “In the Country of the Blind.” I read it as a boy.

      Comment by Sen — September 23, 2013 @ 23:30 | Reply

  2. The silly thing is, if all the Salafists are worried about is people practicing incest etc, they could still propose that people be free to follow their religions with the exception of incest, but never mind trying to reason with people who have thrust their fingers into their ears.

    It is even sillier of course, to assume followers of other religions practice incest without any foundation or consultation with the followers of the religions in question.

    Comment by danieldemol — September 24, 2013 @ 00:45 | Reply

  3. If they are worried about incest, why not forbid incest instead of religions?

    Comment by danieldemol — September 24, 2013 @ 00:47 | Reply

    • Well if antisemites were really worried about Jewish finance, they could have worked to ban usury. It’s a complex pattern where slanders are generated to cover underlying irrational attitudes, but then the slanders promote othering which makes for irrational feelings of revulsion, etc..

      Comment by Sen — September 24, 2013 @ 02:40 | Reply

  4. I hope no one takes my comment above as casting aspersions on Egyptians. It has more to do with the problems with the political process in many places, including Egypt, the US, a number of European countries, Japan, etc. It is quite common that the ideas and opinions of leaders are more extreme (and less rational) than the majority of the congregation or the voters. Many political processes (and this decidedly includes the politics of the administration of many religious organizations) promote extremist leaders, as these are people who can mobilize the smallish percentage of the electorate who are willing to go to great lengths to elect someone who is charismatic, emotional — and extreme.

    Comment by petussing — September 24, 2013 @ 06:59 | Reply

  5. The reference to homosexual marriage also points to the Baha’i faith, as it is a very common belief among Arabic-speaking Muslims that both incest and homosexual acts are not prohibited in the Baha’i religion. The reason is that in the Kitab al-Aqdas, Baha’u’llah prohibits marriage to one’s father’s wives but does not explicitly specify which other relations one is forbidden to marry. Similarly, in the Arabic text of the Aqdas, Baha’u’llah prohibits pederasty (the “subject of boys”) but says nothing about homosexual acts in general (which in Islamic terminology would usually be referred to by the Arabic word “liwat”).

    You mention the possibility of Baha’i personal status laws being recognized in Egypt. It seems that Baha’i personal status laws are already recognized in Bangladesh (see:, which has a large Baha’i community numbering 13,000. Do you know whether Baha’i laws regarding marriage, divorce and inheritance have been codified for use by the Bangladeshi courts? You once wrote an important paper on Baha’i inheritance laws, and it would be interesting to know whether your insights in that paper have been taken on board by the Baha’i authorities.

    Comment by Reza — September 24, 2013 @ 11:26 | Reply

    • I was quite unaware of the situation in Bangladesh. It would be very useful to spread knowledge of this in the progressive media in Egypt, as it is evidence that the sky does not fall, if Bahais are given control over their personal status laws.

      Comment by Sen — September 24, 2013 @ 11:48 | Reply

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