CAIRO: Tucked away in Labib Iskandar s pocket is a neatly folded slip of paper with fraying edges that tells the story of a community fighting for recognition.
It s a receipt Iskandar got when he applied for the computer-based identification card Egypt had just then begun issuing, more than five years ago.
Iskandar is a Bahai, a member of a religious community that regards a19th century Persian nobleman, Baha u llah, as its prophet; a challenge to the Muslim belief that Mohammed is the last prophet. Given the pivotal role of Islam in Egyptian life, the government will not issue an ID card to a Bahai, but only to members of the major monotheistic faiths: Islam, Christianity or Judaism.
The issue broke into the news in April when a court ruled members of Egypt s little-known Bahai community had the right to have their faith listed on official documents, sparking an outcry. The Interior Ministry quickly filed an appeal, and last month another court froze the case.
It s still a controversy, however. Some Muslim clerics openly declare the Bahai faith is a heresy, and civil rights advocates complain this heavy-handed approach threatens to set off clashes like those that erupted recently between Muslims and minority Christians in the northern city of Alexandria.
While the dispute directly affects only the country s Bahais, perhaps 2,000 of the 72 million Egyptians, it provides a glimpse into how a once cosmopolitan society has sunk into a culture where fanaticism outweighs theoretical protections of religious freedom.
Before, everything was simpler and everyone knew I was a Bahai and had no problem with that, says Iskandar, a 59-year-old engineering professor. There were no biases. Fanaticism started to surface only now.
The family, whose suit led to the court ruling on the Bahai faith, has refused to speak with reporters. But the Bahais experience in Egypt can be seen through Iskandar and his family.
His birth certificate and original government ID card list him as a Bahai. His sons have similar birth certificates. But when his oldest son, Ragi, 24, applied for his ID card, officials would only agree to draw a line, to indicate a blank, in the religion section.
Later, when 19-year-old Hady applied for an ID, he was told he must identify himself as a follower of one of the three officially recognized religions and never got his papers, Iskandar said.
We worry sick about them when they stay out late, especially the youngest son, since he has no ID, which could land him in trouble, says Iskandar. Because they re young, they get upset and may say let s leave Egypt. This is an option the elder Iskandar rejects.
I am an Egyptian. I was born in Egypt … and I won t leave Egypt, he said.
The elder Iskandar was allowed to apply for the new computerized ID but never got one. His two sons applications for the new documents were not even accepted. At the end of the year, Egypt will not recognize the old, paper IDs, replacing them with the computerized ones.
Iskandar recalled attending Bahai activities until a 1960 presidential decree dissolved Bahai assemblies. Last October, he said, his sister died and the family couldn t obtain a death certificate because of her faith.
They don t want to recognize the Bahai faith. Fine, no problem, but as an Egyptian citizen: is it my right or not to have a birth certificate and an ID card? he says.
Why do you want me to change my religion? Why do you want me to be a hypocrite? I refuse to lie.
Abdel Moeti Bayoumi, a Muslim scholar, said the Bahais’ demand for recognition on official documents would cement a sectarian system that could fracture the country.
Believe in whatever you want to believe in, you and your children, as long as you do so at home behind closed doors, he says. Do not undermine the public order. Bayoumi is a member of the Al-Azhar Center of Islamic Research, a leading institution of Sunni Muslim learning.
Like many Muslim scholars, he believes Bahaism is a splinter of Islam and not a religion in its own right. He said the Bahais beliefs and practices, including considering Baha u llah as a prophet, offend Muslims.
He added Bahais were lucky the Interior Ministry appealed the April verdict because otherwise extremists could have attacked them.
A statement from Al-Azhar urged Egypt to firmly stand against this group which hurts the religion of God. It urged the government to outlaw the Bahai faith, and another statement from Al-Azhar s research center, playing on the region s anti-Israeli sentiments, argued that Bahaism serves the interests of Zionism.
Bahais say their holy sites in Israel are used to discredit their community. Baha u llah died in 1892 in Akko in what was then the Ottoman Empire and is now in Israel. The international headquarters for the world s five million Bahais are in Haifa, Israel, and they have other holy places in Turkey and Iran.
Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which has monitored the Bahais case, said Egyptians ignorance of the faith has fueled a smear campaign.
It is another manifestation of the narrow and heavy-handed approach with which the Interior Ministry tackles religious affairs. There are strong similarities between these events and the clashes in Alexandria in terms of lack of tolerance, he says, referring to clashes between Muslims and Christians that left two people dead and 40 wounded in April.
Political sociologist Hoda Zakareya said Egypt – which until the 1950s was home to significant numbers of Jews, Armenians, Greeks and other foreigners – has grown less tolerant.
The religious rhetoric in the mosque and the church has become harsher and more conservative, says Zakareya, who is against listing religions on IDs at all. People don t feel secure and don t feel that the future is safe. When people are insecure they … seek refuge in their religious identities as a Muslim or a Christian.
She said the growing influence of Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which aim to galvanize people through religion, not nationalism, contributed to the change. The brotherhood said it would reconstruct the fractured collective conscience on religious basis. But people are dividing, not uniting, around Islam.
Iskandar said many Egyptians were dangerously mixing the religious and secular.
Everyone is acting as if they were God s envoy to the world, labeling people believers and nonbelievers. This is not our job, he says. If you think we are nonbelievers, leave it for God to punish us.