On 4th August, 2020, a fire started at a warehouse in the Port of Beirut, Lebanon, which ignited a quantity of fireworks stored there. It is likely that the fire was caused by some welders working on the warehouse door. The fire soon spread to an enormous store of ammonium nitrate, which had been taken off a damaged ship six years before. Over those six years, repeated letters to the courts, asking for permission to sell the ammonium nitrate, which was not being stored under safe conditions, went unanswered.
The ammonium nitrate exploded in what may have been the largest non-nuclear explosion ever caused by human activity. It damaged ships in the port, destroyed both the warehouse, an adjacent grain silo and most of the other port buildings. Nearly 220 people are known to have died, including sailors, port workers, and nurses and patients at the nearest hospital. A number of those killed were people from other countries. Over 7,000 people were injured, as the shock wave from the blast blew in windows, destroyed balconies and houses, and caused immense damage.
In the Beirut area, a large number of people have expressed general disgust at the way in which circumstances in their country have been deteriorating rapidly over the last few years, and of which this explosion represents a low point. Corruption is considered to be endemic. The economy has been in freefall. Unemployment is rife, about half of the population have now fallen into poverty. Rubbish has not been collected in Beirut. As a result, many are calling for a new type of political leader, rather than the current figureheads who represent different segments of the population. Lebanon has several different sects of Christians, different sects of Muslims and also the local Druze religion, in addition to other ethnic groups such as Palestinian refugees. The political system used at present guarantees seats in government for all the main groups. The same families have been in power for decades. In these circumstances, the idea that all religions are essentially one, and that religion should be a force for unity, is difficult to establish. So is the idea that the people are one, and can be in unity.
Elections within the Bahá’í community are organised on a quite different basis. For a start, there are no candidates. No-one puts themselves forward. Within each town or village, the Bahá’ís come together once a year for a meeting organised on spiritual lines. After prayer, and some short readings encouraging the election of people of “recognised ability”, of “mature experience” and of “selfless devotion”, each person simply writes down the names of nine Bahá’ís within that town/village. The voting papers are collected, and the nine people who receive the most votes are automatically considered to have been elected as the Local Spiritual Assembly. Of course, there are further details, but in essence that is how it is done. The Bahá’ís do not even discuss between themselves the qualities of other individuals. The election is considered as between the voter, his or her conscience, and God.
The result is a harmonious process in which no-one knows who has voted for whom, and in which no cliques can form. The nine people elected are likely to be reasonable and moderate people, whereas an adversarial system can sometimes favour more stubborn people, with strong opinions. Given the historical background in Lebanon, more stubborn people feature widely in the current system.
“Well, yes,” you may say. “It is easy for a small group of people who know each other. It wouldn’t work for the whole country.” Fair point. What happens, in the election of the National Spiritual Assembly, is that the Bahá’ís in each area vote for one person, who becomes their delegate and goes to a national convention. The delegate, once at the convention, will again be able to vote for nine people, again without any hindrance from the procedures of nominations, canvassing, etc. And the odd thing is – it works! Every vote is cast for someone, because of their positive qualities, rather than, as sometimes happens elsewhere, against someone, because of their less attractive qualities or their predetermined ideas. The voter does not have to choose between various parties, none of which actually represents a person’s views in their entirety.
Democracy means “government by the people”, but the actual system for achieving that varies widely from country to country. In the case of Lebanon, what is needed is one body seen to represent the entire country, and not factions seen as protecting particular partisan interests.
In the Bahá’í system, both the Local Spiritual Assembly and the National Spiritual Assembly are automatically elected afresh every year, so there should always be some renewal alongside a certain continuity. With no candidates, and no canvassing, there is no possibility of anyone trumpeting their achievements, or of making extravagant promises for the future. Confrontation and opposition are simply not required as part of the system at all. There are no competing groups or parties, so everyone naturally pulls together.
Lebanon has featured in Bahá’í history in the past. Beirut was an administrative centre within the Ottoman Empire, and Bahá’u’lláh was banished to nearby Akka. Although Bahá’u’lláh Himself was confined to that city, His Son ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had reason to travel to Beirut on various matters. At a later time, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sent His grandson, Shoghi Effendi, first to school, and then to university in Beirut. Shoghi Effendi learned English there, and his command of the language was so good that he was later admitted to Oxford University. There is a small, but significant, Bahá’í community in the country, which has never been involved in any of the factional fighting, and has always promoted the idea of the oneness of religion.
The immediate fate of the country depends on the ability of the country to reform itself. It needs to function as one people, instead of a rainbow of rival Christian and Muslim groupings. The parliament needs to function on behalf of the whole country. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá put it, “The prime requisites for them that take counsel together are purity of motive, radiance of spirit, detachment from all else save God, attraction to His Divine Fragrances, humility and lowliness amongst His loved ones, patience and long-suffering in difficulties and servitude to His exalted Threshold.”
The more Lebanon is able to create a system of government by the people and for the people, the more it will thrive, rise above its present conflicted state and create a better future for its people.