Monday, 30 November 2015

Unless and Until

Today Paris is again the centre of attention as it welcomes, for the first time, representatives of every country on earth to the latest climate conference organised by the United Nations. It is a hopeful sign that most of these countries have already submitted plans to cut emissions in order to start to combat climate change. Mankind as a whole is hoping that an agreement will be reached which will make a real difference. If nothing happens, we are likely to find that wars and upheavals will be caused by the fact that people are desperate to escape floods, drought, water and food shortages caused by the changes to the climate. This, on top of the wars we already have.

Many years before ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stayed in Paris (see previous blog), His Father, Bahá’u’lláh, wrote from exile in Turkey to the kings and rulers of the time, urging them to convene a peace conference. At this conference, permanent boundaries would be fixed, lower levels of armaments would be agreed, and all the rulers would agree to support one another against any aggression. He wrote: “Should any king take up arms against another, all should unitedly arise and prevent him.” Only one ruler, Queen Victoria, responded (politely) to Bahá’u’lláh’s letter. If they had all listened to His proposals, the two World Wars would never have happened, not to mention dozens of other wars from that time to the present day.

The world now finds itself fighting a new kind of war, in which one side in the conflict does not follow the “rules” of war. Ignoring all the conventions and agreements which humanity has come to, there are different groups now which act with complete barbarism. Wholesale slaughter of anyone outside their own group, the forcible abduction of women as sex slaves and the deliberate destruction of mankind’s religious and cultural heritage are all committed openly and triumphantly as if to advertise their total rejection of all the accepted norms of human behaviour. More and more people now understand that unless and until these groups are stopped, no-one else is safe.

Governments have come to realise that they must put aside political differences and work together to eliminate this particular threat to the peace and stability of the world. The ultimate goal of world peace is impossible unless the governments and peoples of the world “unitedly arise and prevent” the wanton massacres perpetrated by these groups. There are early signs that countries are now doing this. In West Africa, there are five armies now working together to combat the threat from one such terrorist group; in East Africa, the African Union has been using troops from six countries to push back another such group; and now, in the Middle East, over twenty countries are increasingly working together to overcome the most infamous group of all. Maybe we haven’t got the world peace conference yet which Bahá’u’lláh called for, but there has been significant advance in that the United Nations Security Council has now given its unanimous assent to action against the most powerful terrorist entity. Previously the United Nations was not able to act, due to the lack of unity among the political leaders. Perhaps we are taking a small step towards what Bahá’u’lláh envisaged.

Meanwhile, we still have the threat of climate change to deal with. The common element in the problems of war and climate change is the need for unity – that all human beings should be aware of their oneness, coming as they do from one species, and inter-related as we all are. Through the fires of suffering, through the threat of climate catastrophe, through the experience of united action, the different races and religions must see one another as one and the same. As Bahá’u’lláh put it:
"The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established."

Let us hope that recent and current events in Paris will move us nearer to this goal.



Friday, 20 November 2015

Paris Talk

In October, 1911, an elderly man of 68 who had been visiting London set out to travel to Paris, where His intention was to announce to the people of Europe in general, and France in particular, the Bahá’í message that all mankind needed to become one human family. Having been released from nearly 60 years in exile, prison and house arrest, He wished to share His Father’s message that the religions of the world were all from the same source and that the world should be united. His name was ‘Abdu’l-Baha, and during His nine-week stay in Paris, He gave nightly talks to crowds of seekers wishing to hear how He thought the world could be changed. The series of talks He gave, to people from all walks of life, were later published as a book, known as “Paris Talks”. Each talk has a simple theme: that we should be welcoming to people from other lands; that prejudice should be abandoned; that there is real spiritual aspiration in the West; the need for union between the peoples of the East and the West; the need for both material and spiritual progress, and so on.

The social and religious teachings which ‘Abdu’l-Baha was giving are totally the opposite of the ideas which drove a group of hate-filled terrorists to slaughter innocent people in Paris in November, 2015. One hundred years later, and the teachings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha are just as necessary today as they were then. More so, because the dreadful weapons of the terrorist of today were not even invented then. The ideas that drive ISIS are a long way from the ideas towards which the world is currently moving. In the modern world, many people take for granted that all religions are of comparable value, whether they personally follow a religion or not. The current wave of terrorists assert that one religion is superior to the others, even though they do not actually practise its teachings on how human beings should treat one another! It may be that the foot-soldiers of ISIS are really trying to find a role in life, rather than actually following a religion. They simply have not caught the “spirit of the age”, which is that we are moving towards one world, that everyone should be supporting each other, that mutual aid and tolerance should be the hallmarks of civilisation.

I have no idea why ‘Abdu’l-Baha chose Paris as the place to stress these particular ideas. What I do know is that the world now needs to replace division and “religious” rivalry with unity and harmony. ‘Abdu’l-Baha constantly stressed to His listeners the need to avoid any kind of harm or upset to others: “Beware lest ye harm any soul, or make any heart to sorrow; lest ye wound any man with your words, be he friend or foe. Beware, beware, lest ye offend the feelings of another.” Even further from His ideas was the concept of people deliberately causing physical harm to others: “Force and violence, constraint and oppression are condemned in this divine cycle.”

Paris must rise above the current tragedy and show the cosmopolitan spirit for which it is famous. In one of the “Paris Talks”, ‘Abdu’l-Baha said, “This meeting in Paris is a truly spiritual one… Lift up your hearts above the present and look with the eyes of faith into the future!”

It is the future which must become the talk of Paris.


Wednesday, 11 November 2015

We are in a minority

In almost every country on earth, some groups of people can be identified as “minorities” – people who speak a different language from the “majority” in the country, or follow a different religion, or whose lifestyle is noticeably different from that of others. Probably because of our “us and them” way of thinking, we react towards minorities in odd ways. Some people resent a minority which still speaks its own language (“They live in our country. Why can’t they be like us?”), but if the minority area asks to become a separate country, which would remove the problem, that too is resented – they are resented whether they are “in” or “out”. If there is a minority  group which is perceived as richer, they are resented for that; but if another group is woefully under-employed, they are resented for that!

On British television screens, we have repeatedly been shown a particular minority group – the Rohingyas, in Burma/Myanmar. This particular group of people has apparently now been declared as non-citizens of the country, although this people has been there for several generations. In a country which includes many minorities (the ethnic Burmese [“Bamar”] are about 68% of the population, the others belong to 134 different ethnic groups), the Rohingyas particularly stand out. They look physically different from most groups in the country, and they are Muslims, in a country where the dominant religion is Buddhism. When Burma regained its independence in 1948, the constitution provided for a union, in which the five largest ethnic groups would have autonomy for their areas. The national flag, from 1948 until 1974, had five smaller stars around the main star, to represent these autonomous areas. But no real progress was ever made on recognition of the rights of the minorities – so it was not just a problem for the Rohingyas, but it is they who are now in a particularly desperate position.

Part of the Bahá’í approach to the world’s problems is to raise the status of “minority” peoples – the positive features of every culture should be cherished and encouraged. Although Bahá’í elections involve choosing people on their personal qualities as individuals, care should nevertheless be taken that material and cultural considerations do not prejudice the voter, and if everything else is equal, then a representative of a minority group should be favoured by the voter.

There are a large number of references in Bahá’í literature to down-trodden or underprivileged groups. For example, Bahá’u’lláh once compared the black people of the world to the black pupil of the eye, “from which the light of the Spirit shines forth”, and His son ‘Abdu’l-Baha, talking of the native Americans, said, “There can be no doubt that [through them] the whole earth will be illumined”.

On a world scale, everyone is part of a minority. In a population of 7 billion, even the “Americans” and the “Chinese” are minorities. If we had a world administration, based on the simple idea of “us” (the human beings) rather than “us and them”, we would be supporting and protecting one another, as “minority” peoples who are all on this planet together.