Tuesday, 20 October 2015

War: what is it good for?

From time to time the attention of the world switches from one civil war to another – as if warfare can ever be civil. Three years ago, it was Libya, then the Ukraine, and now Syria. In each case, groups are fighting for a particular ethnic or religious cause, and usually there are outside forces willing to supply training and weapons.

In  most cases, if a country has an established history of democracy it tends not to descend into fighting. However, if the political parties in a country actually represent different ethnic groups, the possibility of armed conflict still exists.

The Bahá’í answer to all of this is the concept of unity. Not a grey uniformity, but an underlying recognition that all human beings, of whatever class or level of education, following whichever religion or none, of whatever skin colour and speaking whatever language, are from one original stock, and should belong to one human family. There never should be a situation in which one person seizes power, as happened in both Libya and Syria, and then manipulates everything in the interest of his family and friends. The injustice in this situation always boils over at some point, and leads to the armed struggles. In 1995, when the Bahá’ís made suggestions intended to strengthen the United Nations, one of the suggestions was that only those governments which were freely elected by the people of the country should have a vote in the General Assembly. The various dictatorships would still be allowed to attend the sessions, but would clearly be seen as less legitimate governments than the democracies. (Of course, the forms of democracy currently practised in the world are far from perfect, but are still preferable to locking the population in tyranny.)

On the subject of war itself, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, the son of Bahá’u’lláh, said: “How is it possible for men to fight from morning until evening, killing each other, shedding the blood of their fellow-men: And for what object? To gain possession of a part of the earth!... Land belongs not to one people, but to all people. This earth is not man's home, but his tomb.”
To argue that war should be abandoned as a method of settling disputes should not mean that the well-meaning people of the world should stand aside and let bloodthirsty tyrants and psychopaths slaughter the innocent. Surely the nations of the world should be able to construct an army of peace-keepers to be inserted into trouble spots as soon as a situation begins to get out of hand, instead of after the fighting has finished, which is what often happens now. In various parts of Africa, this approach is now being tried, although the lack of a world language restricts their effectiveness somewhat.

However, the real answer is unity – that people should feel a loyalty to mankind, to the planet, to the human family, rather than to one ethnic background or to the leader of some fanatical group. Bahá’u’lláh said ”The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.” At some point, everyone will see the sense of replacing war with peace. A world peace conference should fix the boundaries of each country, and produce a universal treaty to which all of mankind can give its loyalty: “…and so it shall be; these fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away and the most great peace shall come.”

If we do not learn how to stop these wars, what will the twenty-first century have learned? Absolutely nothing!

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Once in a Lifetime

The Shrine of Baha'u'llah

Recently there was yet another catastrophe at the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage for Muslims. Hundreds of people were killed as two crowd movements collided. As the number of pilgrims continues to grow, the difficulties of maintaining safety for such numbers also grows.

A male Muslim is expected to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, at the time set aside for this, once during his lifetime, provided that he is of sound mind, can afford the journey, is not prevented by circumstances, and it is safe for him to do so. There is no such obligation for women. People who are not Muslims may wonder whether the believers will be put off making the pilgrimage in future. I doubt it. Hundreds of people have died in similar disasters at football matches: Ibrox Park, Heysel, Hillsborough, Bradford, etc., but has this stopped people from going to see football games? Airline crashes sometimes have casualty figures in the hundreds, but many people are still happy to take the risk of flying.

A pilgrimage should be a spiritual experience – potentially life-changing in a positive way. Its impact on the pilgrims will vary dramatically from one individual to another. Some will find it of interest only, while others will come back profoundly changed in some way. There is a risk – of accident or incident – in travelling anywhere. I myself have had three near misses when driving to work, and on one occasion, while out on an errand in the car, I honestly thought I might get killed as a witness to murder! So if unexpected dangerous situations may arise at any time, why deny yourself the opportunity of a lifetime?

The Bahá’í pilgrimage is organised rather differently from the Muslim one. The pilgrimage to visit the Bahá’í Shrines in the Holy Land lasts for nine days, and pilgrims have to apply in advance. Limited numbers are allowed at any one time, and the pilgrimages are spread throughout the year. A fleet of coaches transports the increasing number of pilgrims between the various historical sites connected with the Faith, and each group has a guide as a constant help. Everything, therefore, feels calm and safe. It is made clear to everyone that in the future, as even greater numbers are catered for, pilgrims will not be able to have access to certain sites, as to do so will become logistically impossible. For example, they will only be able to circle round the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh (pictured above) at a distance, rather than be able to go inside to pray as at present.

But what is the point of pilgrimage at all? People will flock to an event – something where they expect to be entertained – whether it is a rock concert, the Edinburgh Festival or a Grand Prix race. But in each of these cases, they also wish to experience something, and a religious pilgrimage should likewise be an experience. Those who decide that there is no divine force potentially shut themselves off from receiving anything from that source. By going on pilgrimage, a person is (hopefully) opening his/her heart to any potential spiritual experiences, sensations, guidance or insights. There may well be an understanding or connection made, in the mind or heart of the pilgrim, with the particular Messenger or saint who lived at, visited or worshipped at the same spot, many centuries before. To deny the possibility of such an emotional connection is to negate the whole purpose of history as a subject, of archaeology, of historical fiction and art generally.

So, if there might be some sort of purpose to a religious pilgrimage, is there any sort of point to religion itself? A Bahá’í would answer “Yes”, believing that it has always been religion – at least in its pure form – which has outlined the way human beings should behave, and therefore given moral guidance. This idea may be difficult for people to accept at present, because we can see how the world’s religions have to a great extent lost their moral force in recent times. However, Bahá’ís have great optimism that the new religious teachings, on the need for a world civilisation, respecting all peoples, will soon take hold. Men and women will be treated equally, and the rights of all human beings will be explicitly spelt out. That which is beneficial in religion will join with that which is beneficial in science, and help to create a World Commonwealth in which all people, from whatever background, will be closely and permanently united. Bahá’u’lláh said: “The purpose of religion as revealed from the heaven of God’s holy Will is to establish unity and concord amongst the peoples of the world; make it not the cause of dissension and strife.” Just once in the lifetime of humanity there is the chance to make the pilgrimage towards world unity, and that chance is now.