Politicizing religion: Egypt’s Shia
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Egypt’s minority Shia population is thought to make up around one percent of Egypt’s total population. And yet, every year when Shia Muslims celebrate Ashura — commemorating the death of Hussein, one of the Prophet Mohamed’s grandsons, in AD 680 — Salafi groups and the state join forces against Shia worshippers.

This year was no different. On Thursday, Mohamed Abdel Razek, deputy minister of endowments, declared that the ministry would not allow Shia Muslims to practice Ashura celebrations on Friday or Saturday — particularly at Cairo’s Hussein, Sayeda Zeinab or Sayeda Nefisa mosques.

“Shias are taking advantage of Ashura to celebrate their beliefs with special rituals like slapping themselves and cutting their cheeks, in violation of the Quran,” Razek claimed.

A statement by the Ministry of Endowments also justified the closure of mosques based on “the Shia rituals that have no basis in Islam that might occur, and the problems that may result.”

In recent years, during Ashura mosques like Hussein have become annual sites of tension between Shia Muslims on the one hand, and Salafis and the state on the other. But sectarian tensions and state-sanctioned repression of freedom of belief does not just crop up one time of the year — despite the increasingly tired-looking promises of a new Egypt built on a well-held respect for religious moderation, anti-extremism and freedom of belief.

‘No longer about religion’

On May 18 this year, Taher al-Hashimy, a Shia cleric, was arrested when State Security raided his apartment in Dokki and confiscated books and other items. Prosecutors accused Hashimy of running a covert organization, printing books about Shia Islam without permission, violating the principles of Al-Azhar and breaching intellectual property law, Middle East Eye reported.

Hashimy is a member of the Ahl al-Bayt World Assembly, an international Shia organization founded in Tehran, with the blessing of Ayatollah Khamenei, in 1990. Hashimy has previously criticized Saudi Arabia’s Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen and called for Egypt’s Shia community to be able to practice their religion freely in Egypt.

At the same time, according to Al-Bawaba news, Salafi Walid Ismail claimed he had recently communicated with the authorities in order to detain Hashimy for “spreading bias” and Shia Islam — even directing them to his address. Ismail is a leading figure in a Salafi group that calls itself the Coalition of Muslims in Defense of the Companions and Prophet’s Family, which has campaigned against Shia Egyptians marking the traditional Ashura festival at Cairo’s Hussein Mosque in the past.

Hashimy told Middle East Eye that the case “shows the kind of maltreatment Egyptian Shia suffer from,” while his lawyer Youssef Qandil told Mada Masr that it is an example of the Egyptian government’s “new strategy” for the Shia community.

“It’s all about legal discrimination against Shia,” Qandil told Mada Masr, postulating that prosecutions against Shia Muslims are motivated by politics, not Islam.

“It’s no longer about religion,” he said.

Hashimy was released at the end of May  pending trial, after having paid LE1,000 bail. Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Culture can now review evidence found during the raid to assess what happens next, Qandil said.

Until now, there has been no movement on the case. The prosecutor has not submitted it to court or filed a lawsuit against Hashimy.

But in recent years, less visible members of Egypt’s Shia community have also fallen foul of authorities.

Shia and religious defamation cases

A week before Hashimy’s arrest, Mahmoud Dahroug, a dentist from the Daqahlia governorate, was sentenced to six months in prison for contempt of religion and “possession of books and publications that could prove sectarian sedition,” according to Article 98 of Egypt’s Penal Code, which outlaws “ridiculing or insulting heavenly religions or inciting sectarian strife.” Dahroug was also accused of threatening national security. Authorities raided the home of Dahroug, where they found books on Shia Islam and other items “used by [Shia] in the exercise of religious rituals,” according to an EIPR statement on the sentencing.

Cases like this are not uncommon. According to a 2014 EIPR report, between the beginning of the 2011 revolution and the end of 2012, Egypt witnessed civil or judicial proceedings against 10 Shia Muslims (a total of 27 percent of the total Muslims accused) in religious defamation cases. Another six defendants were accused of propagating Shia thought, despite saying they were Sunni Muslims, with 26 Coptic Christians also involved in cases during the same period.

The report, entitled “Besieging Freedom of Thought: Defamation of Religion Cases in Two Years After the Revolution,” documented 36 cases in which both Shia and non-Shia individuals’ civil liberties and rights to belief and expression were violated.

Since the beginning of 2015, there have been a further 17 religious defamation cases in total (including everyone from atheists or Copts, Shia or Sunni Muslims); including one case against a Shia Muslim — Dahroug — although Hashimy could become the second, if his case proceeds.

Ishak Ibrahim, from EIPR’s Freedom of Religion and Belief Program, and author of the report, explains that after the army’s July 3 takeover, “hate speech against Shia from the government decreased for a period of time. But it returned from mid-2014 [when] a lot of Salafi groups tried to portray the Shia as an enemy and incite the government to arrest them.”

But there is another factor — and it has a lot less to do with religion.

The ‘Shia Scare’

Egypt’s Sunni religious establishment often portrays Shia Islam as a troublesome distortion of true (Sunni) Islam, despite Al-Azhar having recognized Shiism as a legitimate branch of Islam in 1959.

During this year’s Ashura, Endowments Ministry officials talked about the “fallacies” of the Shia sect “that have no basis in Islam.” But again, sentiments like this are not just reserved for Ashura.

In May, Islamic researchers and scholars reportedly formed a group named Al-Aemma, aimed at combatting the spread of Shia Islam in Egypt.

Earlier this year, Al-Azhar also republished a 60-year-old book, ‘The Outline of the Shia Religion,’ which argued that Shia Islam was a distinct religion of its own, rather than an Islamic sect. A new foreword, by Islamic scholar Mohamed Amara, claimed that throughout history Shia Muslims have allied themselves with the Crusaders, and American-Zionist-Christian imperialism, against Muslims.

According to Wikileaks cables, which Mada Masr gained exclusive access to through a memorandum of understanding, fears about “Shia encroachment” are often handled through joint cooperation between Al-Azhar and Saudi Arabia.

One of the documents, sent by the head of Saudi intelligence to a number of state bodies within the kingdom including the Foreign Ministry, warned that “the Shia sect has found a vast space to expand after the January 25 revolution,” adding that “the Shia movement took advantage of this opportunity and doubled its activities, raising the bar for its demands.”

Another document, sent by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal to the chief of royal staff, claimed that Egyptian TV host Mostafa Bakry had met with the Saudi ambassador to Cairo and told him that Iran had been reaching out to Egyptian media channels in an attempt to appeal to them.

Bakry then expressed his desire to turn his weekly newspaper into a daily, found a political party and launch a satellite TV station that would be “a strong voice against Shias,” according to the document.

In each case, Shia Muslims are discussed not only as a religious threat, but also a shadowy political menace.

Holly Dagres, an Iranian-American analyst and commentator on Middle East affairs, argues that regional powers and developments have impacted the lives of Egypt’s Shia community before.

“Sectarianism is a tool being exploited by regional powers to justify political agendas and ambitions,” Dagres says. “Iran uses Shiism to promote their agenda in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia uses the Shia ‘Iranian bogeyman’ to justify intervention in Syria and Yemen, despite backing the same Houthis in the 1970s.”

Dagres draws parallels between the current fears of a Shia Crescent and the Red Scare of the Cold War.

With this “Shia Scare,” it is easy to forget that historically Egypt did not have issues with Shia Islam.

“The Shia Shah of Iran was married to Egypt’s Sunni Princess Fawzia,” Dagres points out. “In 1959, Al-Azhar issued an official edict claiming that Shia Islam was an official religion. It wasn’t until the 2003 Iraq invasion that the Mubarak government started cracking down on Shias.”

Regionally the growing popularity of Salafi and Wahhabi ideologies is also an important factor. “Ludicrous rhetoric coming from certain Gulf countries claim the Safavids — the Iranians — are coming back to reclaim their empire,” Dagres says.

There have been vast changes in the Middle East since 2011, ones often presented within the monolithic narrative of sectarianism, framed as part of a medieval to-the-death battle between Sunni and Shia Islam. This school of thought has contended that Saudi Arabia’s Operation Decisive Storm against Houthi rebels in Yemen is purely sectarian, President Barack Obama’s apparent rapprochement with Iran is sectarian in aim and impact, and so is the existential fight that both Hezbollah leader Hassan Sayed Nasrallah and Jabhat al-Nusra’s Abu Mohamed al-Jolani have said they are conducting in Syria.

But sectarianism is political, too.

EIPR’s Ibrahim does not believe that the sectarianism often said to be ripping through the region is totally at play when an Egyptian court sentences someone for contempt of religion for practicing, or supposedly trying to “spread,” Shia Islam. But, he adds, it is an undeniable context.

“We’re back to an age where people think Shia means Iran,” Ibrahim told Mada Masr.

Amr Ezzat, also from EIPR’s freedom of belief unit, agrees. “The regional changes and the emergence of the Houthis in Yemen and the conflict in Syria and the conflict between ISIS and the Shia … makes the situation more tense between Sunnis and Shia, but it’s not the backbone of the situation.”

And the sense of Shia Islam as not only a religious, but also a politically subversive, movement has arguably grown.

“There are two different issues — the [religious] ideological and the political,” explains Ibrahim. “[According to Salafi claims], Shia are always insulting the figures of Islam but, at the same time, when that gets into politics, it raises the hatred against Shia everywhere.”

Ibrahim concludes, “The worst that can happen is when the two issues come together at one time.”

*An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Ashura commemorates the death of both Hassan and Hussein, Prophet Mohamed’s grandsons. This was corrected on October 28, 2015.

Tom Rollins  @rollinz
Tom Rollins is a Cairo-based freelance journalist.

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