Sunday, 27 May 2007

Bahá'í Scope for Political Activism

A great many Bahá'ís, impelled by the social vision and insistent imperative for justice, find themselves frustrated with the limits placed on their involvement in political activism. Those limits however, are not fixed, but appear in fact to have expanded with time. This message seeks to explore the stretching yet undeniable boundaries of political action within the Bahá'í community.


Thank you all for the urgent and thought provoking comments in this thread.

I too feel the issue is less clear than may at first appear. The culture ofthe Baha'i community is changing, and things that would have been unthinkable in the past are now becoming acceptable. Non-involvement in partisan politics is less clear than it used to be. For instance, Century of Light is a highly political statement, far more specific in its analysis than we have ever had. Its critique of communism, given the existence of communit regimes like Cuba and North Korea, where Baha'is dwell, is trenchant and specific, naming names, well beyond the Guardian's own generalised critique of communism. Likewise its allusion to desaparecidos is a live political issue that polarises discourse throughout Latin America and beyond. The critique of Western cold-war politics, exposing aid efforts as a toolf or political control, and pointing out the policy of arming and encouragement of what it calls "authoritarian regimes" (p.88), would never have appeared in a Baha'i joural before Century of Light. The same document identifies the Ethiopian regime of the 1980's as "a brutal dictatorship". At a timewhen Ethiopia remains a politically devided country, mostly along tribal lines, such assertions are enormously political and potentially inflamatory within an Ethiopian context. Contemporary happenings in Cambodia are unequivocally characterised as "a campaign of genocide". The statement, on page 136, that "Tragically, what Bahá'ís see in present-day society is unbridled exploitation of the masses of humanity by greed that excuses itself as the operation of "impersonal market forces", could be construed aspolitically loaded.

Nevertheless, the document concludes: "for a Bahá'í the ultimate issues are spiritual. The Cause is not a political party nor an ideology, much less an engine for political agitation against this or that social wrong. The process of transformation it has set in motion advances by inducing a fundamental change of consciousness, and the challenge it poses to everyone who would serve it is to free oneself from attachment to inherited assumptions and preferences that are irreconcilable with the Will of God for humanity's coming of age. Paradoxically, even the distress caused by prevailing conditions that violate one's conscience aids in this process of spiritual liberation. In the final analysis, such disillusionment drives a Bahá'í to confront a truth emphasized over and over again in the Writings ofthe Faith: "He hath chosen out of the whole world the hearts of His servants, and madethem each a seat for the revelation of His glory. Wherefore, sanctify themfrom every defilement, that the things for which they were created may beengraven upon them.[150]"

It seems to me that the parameters for Baha'i political discourse have extended. Silence is no longer straightforward. Non-involvement has acquired novel nuances. Examples abound. In UK, for instance, there was an opening for the Baha'is to have a representative in the House of Lords, not affiliated to a particular party. The UHJ gave its permission, in principle, for Baha'is to avail themselves of this opportunity. This would have gone against the grain of popular Baha'i understanding of non-involvement in politics. The proposals for reform of the House of Lords did not go through and the precedent did not take place. Again, the UK NSA (at least), with permission of the UHJ, used the Baha'i community as an instrument to collect signatures petitioning the establishment of an International Criminal Court. The first time in my experience that Baha'is were being asked by an NSA to sign a political petition issued by outside institutions to lobby political decision makers on an issue not directly related to the welfare of the Baha'i community.

If these are the ambiguities present in our institutions, how much more with individuals. The UHJ, in an unpublished letter validates what they refer to as "various forms of public protest", when"motivated by the dictates of conscience, as opposed to such reasons as the mere venting of personal frustration or violence for its own sake". Such protest, they say, contributes "in no small measure to the awakening of public concern and to the required revision of public policy. Obviously,the effectiveness of such intervention depends on the extent to which the"conscience" motivating the activity is itself enlightened and its dictates relevant to the situation." (on behalf of UHJ to an individual, dated 27November 2001)

So, if Baha'is can participate is public protests born of enlightened conscience; if Baha'i institutions can be part of the very machinery of national government (in principle); if they can lobby for the creation of political institutions; identify publicly "brutal dictatorships"; critique Western aid policy, etc., yet not support a campaign such as Jubilee 2000 for the ending of the debt or join Amnesty International; we face a context of greater ambiguity than is normally thought. Thus I would suggest that we are in a new territory, that there are no easy answers, and we are at this juncture "experimenting" to find the boundaries and duties imposed by our commitment to social justice and our commitment to unity both. This range of experiments and approaches are, I would suggest, necessary. As the UHJ explains in the above quoted letter, there are certain parameters within which our pursuit of social justice and response to injustice operates, among which they highlight the following:

1) "The most obvious parameter... is, of course, the moral obligation to demonstrate in our lives the sense of justice that the faith teaches."

2) non-involvement in partisan politics. "This principle should not,however, be misunderstood. The programme of the Baha'i Cause itself operates in the political realm to the extent that it is concerned with inducing changes in public policy and behaviour at local, national and international levels... In doing so, its efforts are scrupulous to avoid entanglement in the agendas that serve the interests of particular parties, factions, or similarly biased political forces."

3) That our actions, even if not involving "inappropriate politicalbehaviour", should not harm long-term the Cause or reflect negatively on it.

Having listed these parameters, the UHJ comes to the very crux of ourdicussion:"In the context of such parameters, each one of us must determine the priorities that will govern his or her efforts... This is, admittedly, a process of experimentation which, like all experimentation, entails a degree of risk. Risk is, however, a part of life and cannot in itself be allowed to deter us from fulfilling our responsibilities as Baha'is."

The powerful quotes that have been shared, to my mind, clarify the parameters within which the dilemmas present themselves, but do not eradicate the dilemmas themselves, do not answer them. Non-involvement in politics is not an answer, it is a question demanding a multitude of individual responses, "experimentation", "risk". Like many here, I am profoundly distressed by the events in the Holy Land. I cannot condone the siege, not only of militias, but of refugees and priests in the Church where Christ is believed to have been born. I cannot condone the destruction to dozens of frequently politically disengaged and entirely innocent teenage lives by suicide bombing. I cannot accept that a man should be made to sit for 27 hours next to the decaying bodies of hiswife and uncle, prevented from burying them by tanks and soldiers that claimed their lives. Nor the tear gassing and violent dispersion of a non-violent, quiet peace protest of Israelis, Palestinians, and Europeans, nor the indoctrination of little children that leads an 8 year old girl to grab a knife and announce, in all earnestness, that she is going out to kill Jews, an indoctrination reinforced and even sealed by the sound of tank and missile fire disturbing her young sleep.

These are things that transcend parties and factions. They are violations of the human spirit, whichever way you look at it. Conflict is never simple. Blame is always a suspect quantity. Injustice, like justice, is no respecter of national identities or political affiliations. Injustice to one is injustice to all, and the line between ends and means is not always clearly drawn.

The point for me is that I need to act, and act constructively. I need to build something solid. In my own little corner but also in the Baha'icommunity. I must live what I hope others will follow; and I must work with genuine urgency, with consecration, to build the Baha'i community, likewise, into a living example of what we preach to others. Above all, I need to live, to demonstrate, what I dream about. And apportioning blame, given the urgency of the times, is most frequently a wasteful distraction that makes torpid my imagination, through which I search for, create, new avenues when none are apparent, even if they involve a lot of walking. When the obstacle is very large, getting around it cant ake time. I can only seek the right direction and walk towards it at the pace of my capacity, making friends along the way, trusting that in time I, or my children, or their children, will get to the other side, as theBeatles said, with a little help from my friends, and theirs, along the road.

It's early times yet, a mere century and a half, but I believe we're getting there. The second Baha'i century would witness, the Guardian said, the stirrings of Baha'u'llah's new World Order. Our challenge today is, it seems to me, to mediate the encounter of the Baha'i community and the wider world. Merely to engage fully with the world "outside", merely to communicate effectively across the gap of values, merely to maintain hope in the future, hope in the present, and demonstrate its basis in our practice and ourd iscourse, is challenge enough.

Future generations will take on the task of reconstruction, though we can indicate some broad directions and make some crude beginnings even now.

Always your friend,

Ismael


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