A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A Rare Article on Egypt's Shi‘a

 Ahram Online had a piece yesterday about Egypt's small Shi‘a community, timed perhaps to the recent celebration of the mawlid of the Prophet's grandson Hussein. It's a popular feast in Cairo, but each year there are Sunni efforts to make sure the Shi‘a, for whom Hussein is the third imam, do not celebrate publicly with Shi‘a rites,

Egypt has only a tiny Shi‘i community, though as noted in the article its exact numbers are disputed; under the Fatimid Caliphate Egypt was a Shi‘ite country, and al-Azhar itself was a Fatimid foundation, One of the Fatimid gates of the city still has the Shi‘i version of the shahada inscribed (". . .and ‘Ali is the Wali of God"). But today the Shi‘a are small and mostly invisible.

You wouldn't know it from some of the rhetoric, however, Under Husni Mubarak, with Egypt feuding with Iran, they were sometimes portrayed (as they also are in Bahrain) as a potential Iranian Fifth Column, When President Ahmadinejad visited Cairo recently, the Salafi Nour Party erupted in fury at this welcome given to a Shi‘ite. Last year, before the dissolution of the lower house of Parliament, a deputy introduced legislation warning of a "Shi‘a tide." After a Lebanese Shi‘ite cleric visited Egypt around the same time, the government shut down a Shi‘ite Husseiniyya he had opened. Iran explicitly denied involvement at that time.

Though the community is small in Egypt, they do feel discriminated against. (They are, however, considered Muslims legally, so are not denied public schooling, as is being threatened against the Baha'i. Egypt recognizes only Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and treats all Muslims, basically, as Sunni.)

To an outsider the Salafi alarm about a "Shi‘a tide" seems to be one of those cases, rather like anti-Semitism in Japan in the past, where the prejudice seems to exist despite the lack of a visible minority. The minority does exist in this case, though small and rarely outspoken. The appearance of the Iran Online article seems noteworthy in acknowledging its presence without denouncing it as a Fifth Column,.

No comments: