Thursday, 29 December 2016

We are all the flowers of one garden

Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, spoke on radio before Christmas about religious persecution. In many countries, religious minorities face multiple challenges, and the situation reminded him, he said, of the “dark days of the 1930s”. In his opinion, it is "beyond all belief" that it still continues even after the horrors of the Holocaust were exposed.

For members of the Bahá’í Faith, religious persecution has been an issue from its beginning. The Bahá’ís in a number of countries are still facing persecution, with several examples recently appearing in the news media. However, Bahá’u’lláh taught that, “It is better for you to be killed than to kill,” and Bahá’ís never resist violence with violence.

Currently, persecution of various religious minorities takes place in India, Pakistan, Burma and other countries, as well as in the Middle East. The people who kill someone of a different religion deny, by their actions, the very nature and purpose of religion. In the Bahá’í Writings it says: “The advent of the prophets and the revelation of the Holy Books is intended to create love between souls and friendship between the inhabitants of the earth.” Unfortunately, many people no longer read these books…

In this country there have recently been many individual acts of hatred or abuse, such as burning down mosques, rudeness to women wearing hijab and verbal attacks on Jews. However, this sort of behaviour is not only aimed at religious minorities, because there is now rudeness to, and even attacks on, people from other European countries. All of these examples show that the persecution actually stems from a sense of “otherness”: “You are not one of us!” It is also a manifestation of self-centredness and a lack of empathy, as is the persecution of people who have limited mental capacity, or are sleeping on the streets, or who simply look different. It is the same phenomenon as some forms of bullying: “You are inferior (or just different) to me, therefore I will trample on your rights and your feelings.”

A completely different perspective is called for, to eliminate this kind of behaviour. Bahá’u’lláh said, “O people of the world, ye are all the fruit of one tree and the leaves of one branch.” His Son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, used the analogy of the flowers of one garden: “though differing in kind, colour, form and shape, yet … this diversity increases their charm, and adds to their beauty.” This is a poetic way of expressing the scientific fact that, despite certain superficial differences, all human beings are inter-related – one human family. On another occasion he used a musical analogy: “The diversity in the human family should be the cause of love and harmony, as it is in music where many different notes blend together in the making of a perfect chord.”

Prince Charles suggested that regardless of one's religion, people should seek to value and respect other people, “accepting their right to live out their peaceful response to the love of God.” This fits perfectly with Bahá’u’lláh’s call to: “Consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship.” One of the reasons why religion is so necessary is that religion, in its pure form, gives people a positive code of behaviour – lifting people to a more ethical way of life. Far from persecuting others, we should treat them as God would wish us to treat them, and as we would wish to be treated ourselves. We should respect them, love them and help them. Bahá’u’lláh said: “O friend! In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love...”

Monday, 19 December 2016

Let’s put the veto to a vote

After four years of fighting, nearly the whole of the city of Aleppo (in Syria) is now controlled by one side in the war. The United Nations, which people expect to solve conflicts, has been unable to do anything much at all in this war. It has been kept out of the real decision-making processes. What has caused this inability to act? One answer is the veto. Any resolution brought to the Security Council has been vetoed by one of the “Great Powers”. These are the major countries which were on the winning side in World War Two: the United States of America, the U.S.S.R. (now Russia), the United Kingdom, France and China.

The United Nations was set up to “keep the peace”. This was in 1945, when peace had just been achieved at the end of the Second World War. The mindset of the winning side in that war was that peace had been achieved, and that that peace now had to be kept. They simply did not foresee that other trouble spots would endlessly break out over the succeeding years, and that there often would be no peace to keep. Therefore, the United Nations charter has no mandate to achieve or impose a peace. The United Nations has two main decision-making bodies. One is the General Assembly of all 193 member countries. Then there is the fifteen-member Security Council, which specialises in discussing particular crises as they arise. Ten of the members will have been voted onto the Council for a set period of time, but the five Great Powers have permanent seats on it. If one of these Great Powers votes against a particular resolution, it automatically fails to be adopted. This is the power of the veto. In the case of the conflict in Syria, the Great Powers have supported different sides in the war, and the veto has prevented any resolution ever being passed which might stop the war.

The Bahá’í International Community made recommendations to the United Nations for improving the system in 1955, and again in 1995. Among the many suggestions made were that the institution of the five permanent seats on the Security Council should be abolished, and that the veto, likewise, should cease to exist.

In the 1860s, Bahá’u’lláh wrote to many of the rulers of the time, and recommended that they attend in person a universal Peace Conference. The agenda would include: fixing all the disputed boundaries; agreeing the level of armaments for each country; and instituting rules on how countries should behave towards one another. The resulting Peace Treaty should be offered to the world, for the population as a whole to give its support to its provisions: “It is their duty to convene an all-inclusive assembly, which either they themselves or their ministers will attend, and to enforce whatever measures are required to establish unity and concord amongst men. They must put away the weapons of war, and turn to the instruments of universal reconstruction. Should one king rise up against another, all the other kings must arise to deter him.” If this treaty had been adopted, it would have been a much more powerful force for peace than the current United Nations Organisation is allowed to be.

Although this treaty would have prevented wars between countries, it would not prevent civil wars breaking out within countries. It is the installation of proper democratic institutions which should stop civil wars. There is then a channel, through the ballot box, both for change, and for expressing discontent. Another of the recommendations from the Bahá’í International Community in 1995 was that in the General Assembly, only governments which had been elected by a proper democratic procedure should have a vote when there are decisions to be made. This should encourage the other countries to adopt some form of democracy.

The course of the war in Syria could have been greatly altered by Security Council resolutions, several years ago, had it been possible to apply a simple majority vote. In fact, just one of the five permanent members has so far vetoed no less than six resolutions on Syria since the war began. (Other members have vetoed other resolutions in previous conflicts.) Had there been no veto, a great deal could have been achieved. For instance, the Security Council could have imposed a “no-fly” zone. It could have imposed sanctions on any country putting in troops to fight there. Instead, chances have been missed to protect the civilian population and to ban the supply of weapons.

The United Nations continues to be hampered by the veto. Does humanity as a whole think it should remain? Does it serve any useful purpose? Perhaps we should put it to a vote.


I have written about related issues before, particularly in “A long way short” (in September, 2015)

Thursday, 1 December 2016

You have to be kind to be kind

Prince William has recently been highlighting the scandal of the poaching of African elephants for ivory. Because people will be paid for any ivory they collect, some individuals are prepared to kill elephants, simply to take the tusks. Others do not even go to the trouble of killing them - they are prepared to cut the tusks off the elephant while it is still alive. To hear that elephants are being killed for this reason pains me, to hear that others are maimed pains me more.

Some people seem to think that animals do not feel pain. It is either that or a feeling that it does not matter if someone inflicts injury on them. I find this rather disturbing.

Kindness to animals is in itself an important Bahá’í principle. Bahá’u’lláh listed kindness to animals as one of the qualities which must be acquired by anyone searching for God. In other words, spiritual development requires that we love and respect all of our fellow-creatures, human or otherwise. The necessity of our treating all creatures with respect was highlighted by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, who quoted the poet Rumi:
“Unless ye must,
Bruise not the serpent in the dust,
How much less wound a man.
And if ye can,
No ant should ye alarm,
Much less a brother harm.”

‘Abdu’l-Bahá also said: “To the blessed animals… the utmost kindness must be shown, the more the better. Tenderness and loving-kindness are basic principles of the divine kingdom. Ye should most carefully bear this matter in mind.”

In the animal world we find emotions, we find intelligence, and highly developed powers. A dog’s hearing is more powerful than that of a human. A bird of prey has much more powerful sight than does a person. Elephants, as we know, have a very well-developed memory. The powers and senses which help migrating birds navigate their journeys are still not fully understood. The abilities and capacities displayed in the animal world should be a cause for wonder, leading naturally to respect and compassion. It should also be considered that animals are themselves an essential part of the world’s eco-system, and should be respected and nurtured as such.

At the present time, meat is still widely used as food for humans. The principle of kindness to animals therefore requires that care is taken over the treatment of animals which are to be eaten. Kindness to animals demands not just an end to inhumane behaviour by poachers, but demands great care in the treatment of farm animals. We sometimes hear of animals transported without food and water; we are made aware of hens kept in battery cages, with no real freedom of movement. We need to ask ourselves if these kinds of practices are acceptable.

Although Bahá’ís are allowed to eat meat, it is a Bahá’í belief that mankind will gradually change to a vegetarian diet. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said: “The food of the future will be fruit and grains. The time will come when meat will no longer be eaten… our natural food is that which grows out of the ground. The people will gradually develop up to the condition of this natural food.”

In the meantime we need to improve the treatment of all animals. Any person indulging in animal cruelty can arguably be described as thoughtless, in one sense or another. It is necessary, therefore, to ensure that children are brought up with the idea of kindness to animals. To produce kind people, we need to develop kind behaviour. In ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s words: “Train your children from their earliest days to be infinitely tender and loving to animals. If an animal be sick, let the children try to heal it, if it be hungry, let them feed it, if thirsty, let them quench its thirst, if weary, let them see that it rests.” If our children are brought up this way, there will be an end to cruelty to animals.