Egyptian Baha'is seize opportunity to discuss their nation's future

April 14, 2011
In an open letter to their fellow citizens, the Baha'is of Egypt share perspectives on the prerequisites for "walking the path towards lasting material and spiritual prosperity." The letter says, "Egypt's stature in the international order – its intellectual tradition, its history, its location – means that an enlightened choice on its part could influence the course of human development in the entire region, and impact even the world."

CAIRO, Egypt — In a contribution to the sweeping changes now under way in their society, Egyptian Baha'is are calling for a far-reaching consultative process about their country's future.

In an unprecedented open letter, the Baha'is of Egypt say the nation must look beyond expedient solutions and existing models in other societies, and seek instead "a new, truly progressive approach." Read the open letter here.

Making an "enlightened choice" could influence the course of human development in the entire region, and even impact the world, the letter says.

Such an approach would include engaging all concerned people – especially the young – in a national conversation, by which they would become protagonists of their own development. Emphasis is also placed on identifying and applying fundamental guiding principles, and avoiding the temptation of moving too quickly to deals and decisions about the distribution of power.

Since its release earlier this month, the letter has been distributed to prominent figures in Egyptian public life – including religious leaders, politicians, legal practitioners, human rights activists, writers and artists. It has also been circulated to the press and media, and is being widely disseminated via websites and "blogs."

Online publication of the letter is already generating positive responses.

One reader has described it as a "very deep, humanitarian, civil, and progressive statement."

"The letter I've just read is like a very good guidebook for many years to come," another commented.

"Let us take every single step in building up our new Egypt with lots of care, patience, consultation, trust..." wrote yet another.

A process of consultation

In the letter, the Baha'is of Egypt suggest that the challenge before their country is to initiate a process of consultation about the principles that are to inform the reshaping of society.

Egyptians will avoid the risk of falling into the pattern of any existing models – which see no advantage in empowering people – to the extent that all can be enabled to participate in the consultative processes.

"The ongoing and wide-scale involvement of the population in such a consultative process will go a long way towards persuading the citizenry that policy-makers have the creation of a just society at heart. Given the opportunity to participate in such a process, we will be confirmed in our newly awakened consciousness that we have ownership of our own future and come to realize the collective power we already possess to transform ourselves," the letter says.

Essential principles

The letter also suggests that Egyptians carefully consider a series of principles, essential to inform the reshaping of their society.

"Too often, change brought about by popular protest eventually results in disappointment...That is why it is vital that we endeavor to achieve broad consensus on the operating principles that are to shape a new model for our society," write the Baha'is of Egypt.

"This is a painstaking task. To fashion from divergent conceptions a coherent set of principles with the creative power to unify our population will be no small accomplishment."

Such principles include: the equality of men and women; universal education – offering the best means to safeguard the freedom that the people have won; and the fostering of a new spirit that combines respect for scientific enquiry and the values of religion as the best path to material progress.

A "mature society demonstrates one feature above all others: a recognition of the oneness of humanity," the letter states. "How fortunate, then, that the most abiding memory of recent months is not of religious divisions or ethnic conflict, but of differences being put aside in favour of a common cause."

A "national conversation"

Beginning the "national conversation" called for by the letter, online readers have been sharing their comments on websites. Here is a sample of some of the remarks:

"Forging a new path along the lines outlined in this powerful letter...would not only benefit all the people of Egypt but also inspire all countries of the world. We pray that Allah will guide the decision makers to weigh carefully such principles proposed so thoughtfully by the Baha'is."

"The choice we have is to embrace [these principles] and make the transition relatively painless, or resist them and make it infinitely more difficult."

"I am very hopeful that the political leaders and leaders of thought in Egypt would take this mighty prescription into account. They do not have much choice, when it comes to social order, harmony, and respect of the rights of minorities..."

"This amazing both lofty and practical. Would that all Egyptians were required to read and discuss it at length before making any decisions about the future of their glorious country."

Critical juncture

The open letter is the first opportunity that Egyptian Baha'is – who have faced repression for more than 50 years – have had to communicate directly with their countrymen.

"This chance is one for which we have longed," the Baha'is write, rejoicing that "at such a critical juncture in our nation's history, we are able to make a humble contribution to the conversation which has now begun about its future and to share some perspectives, drawn from our experience and that of Baha'is throughout the world, as to the prerequisites for walking the path towards lasting material and spiritual prosperity."

A presidential decree, issued in 1960 and subsequently enforced by subsequent governments, dissolved Baha'i administrative institutions and banned organized activities. Arrests, investigations, police surveillance, house searches and the destruction of Baha'i literature followed. Moreover, as Baha'is could not legally marry, they had no recourse before the courts regarding family allowances, pensions, inheritance, divorce, alimony and child custody.

In recent years, Egyptian Baha'is suffered discrimination under national laws that required government documents to list an individual's religion – and which also limited that listing to one of three official religions. After a prolonged campaign in which numerous human rights campaigners and people of goodwill supported the Baha'i community, the courts ultimately ruled in their favour, a decision that was widely seen as an important victory for freedom of thought and conscience.

Despite these and other examples of oppression, Egyptian Baha'is maintained their positive outlook and – as a fundamental tenet of their faith – have continued to commit their energy to the betterment of their society.

"I hope that all the efforts combine together for a better Egypt for all of us and not for the interest of one group of people at the expense of others," an online reader of the open letter remarked.