Egyptian Shias keep low profile in face of defamation

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gives a press conference following his meeting with Ahmed al-Tayeb (not seen), the Grand Imam of Cairo's Al-Azhar, Sunni Muslim Islam's highest seat of learning, in Cairo on February 5, 2013. Since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Egypt, Salafist movements have initiated an ongoing campaign against Shias.

CAIRO — The Sufis’ chants rose in an accelerating rhythm. 

"Have a look upon us, have a look upon us... you who were given the precious knowledge."

Thursday marked the birthday — Mulid — of Al-Sayeda Nafisa, wife of one of Prophet Muhammad's grandsons. The air was filled with eulogy poems, music and Quran recitations by thousands of her devotees from across the country who travel annually to her mausoleum in Old Cairo. They ask her for guidance and to grant the wishes they whisper to her tomb.

Hundreds of large tents were erected around the mosque to accommodate the visitors. Each tent carries a banner that shows the Sufi sect that manages it and the governorate it comes from.

One tent in particular, with a sign reading, "The Khalilia Sect — Giza" was quieter than all the others. It catered food and beverages for the poor and needy, but offered no music nor dhikr dancing.

"Of course not all those who are celebrating the Mulid are Sufis, many of them are Shias," said Khaled Alatfy, editor-in-chief of "The Arabic Family" newspaper, who was sitting inside the Khalilia of Giza tent. "But most of them don’t wish to be identified."

Sufism and Shia Islam share many characteristics, including the deep love and glorification of Prophet Muhammad's bloodline, Ahl al-Bayt.

"Many Shias prefer to practice their faith under the umbrella of Sufism," said Alatfy. Sufism, he said, provides a tolerant safe haven while carrying a more socially and politically acceptable label.

Hundreds of Shia were hunted, imprisoned, and persecuted under the rule of the toppled president Hosni Mubarak.

There is no law that prohibits one from being Shia, but police and prosecutors have chosen from a variety of "disrespecting religion," and "disrupting the social harmony" charges that can be stretched to fit anyone who belongs to a non acceptable faith or ideology. 

Alatfy spoke in a low voice; he didn't want to attract attention. Media were not welcomed inside the tent, and photography was strictly prohibited.

Many members of this specific sect, Alatfy explained, had been arrested and subjected to constant police surveillance and harassment. In 1996, Hasan Shehata, an imam in Giza, gained notoriety for publicly preaching Shia Islam. He was frank and spoke up harshly and satirically against Sunni Islam.

It wasn't long before he, hundreds of his followers, and many who were suspected to be followers were arrested without charge under emergency law.

One of the strictly Sufi members of the sect, who wished not to be identified, said that he spent five months in prison and was summoned several times for security checks for no apparent reason.

"I had some friends who happened to be among the audience of Hasan Shehata, and that was my only crime," he said.

The agonizing past of Egyptian Shia in the past two decades is not the only reason that keeps many reluctant to speak.

Mohammad Al Hussieny, a Shia primary school teacher, grabbed from his pocket a leaflet distributed in the streets of Cairo few weeks ago. It read: "Shias are the enemy of God and the spies of Iran. They are more dangerous to the Islamic Nation than the Jews. Shias must be expelled out of Egypt."

The Salafist rise after the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt evoked an unprecedented anti-Shia wave of hatred. The new Egyptian constitution has an article that limits the interpretation of Sharia law to the sources and jurisprudence of the Sunni doctrine.

That article is viewed by Shias as a gateway to ban the celebration of Al-Sayeda Nafisa's birthday, and hundreds of similar Mulids commemorated in every corner of Egypt, and enforce more hostile policies against their freedom to express their faith.

In September 2012, the Supreme Administrative Court rejected granting a permit for Al Tahrir Party, a socialist party founded by several Shia figures, because it was "based on religious principle." This wasn’t an obstacle for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, nor for the Salafi Al-Nour party, both of which have strong declared Islamic affiliations.
Since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Egypt last February, Salafist movements have initiated an ongoing campaign against Shias. They have called for marches to counter the "Iranian-Shia tide," and organized conferences about the "dangers of Shiism."

Two weeks ago, there were clashes between Salafist demonstrators and the security forces surrounding the house of the head of the Iranian mission in Cairo.

The reasons for the Salafists’ hostility are not merely religious, but also political, according to Khaled Saeed, spokesperson of the Salafi Front, one of the hardliner Sunni groups who took part in the latest anti-Shia campaign.

"Look at the east of Saudi Arabia, the south of Lebanon, and what's happening in Bahrain and Iraq. Iran spreads havoc everywhere they reach," Saaed said in a phone interview.

Saeed claims that Egyptian Shia are not the target.

"As long as they are fully integrated inside the Egyptian society, they are not an enemy,” said Saeed. “It is a different story if they tried manifesting the Iranian agenda."

Saeed asserts that some Salafist groups are using the anti-Shia rhetoric for political gains.

"It is a way of attracting more followers and strengthen[ing] their unity in front of a common enemy," he said.

Saeed added that it is possible some Salafist forces are using the Shia card to pressure the Muslim Brotherhood regime trying to normalize diplomatic relations with Iran and allow Iranian tourism, which has been suspended since the seventies.

It is hard to draw a strict line between where religious motives end and electoral strategies begin. The results are the same: the majority of Shia are keeping a low profile, and continue to practice their faith with a great deal of secrecy and caution, yet with a strong belief that their community shall survive the difficult circumstances.

"Isn't it ironic to see leaflets calling for kicking Shias out of Egypt, while they were the ones who built its capital?" asked the teacher Al Hussieny bitterly.

Cairo was built during the Fatimid Shia dynasty that ruled Egypt in the 10th century. Shrines and holy sites like that of Al-Sayeda Nafisa are spread everywhere in the historical parts of the capital and remain a source of comfort and strength to Shia and Sufis.

"We built it, we will stay in it, and so will our sons and grandsons," said Al Hussieny in a resilient tone.