Saturday, 18 March 2017

It can’t come soon enough

The United Nations is trying to galvanise the world into rapid action on four separate areas of famine, each of which is progressively getting worse at present. Film is shown on television, of malnourished and even starving children, their mothers having had to endure months of watching their offspring suffer. There are inadequate supplies of both medicine and food and the UN is appealing to the countries of the world for help. As mankind is one extended family, these people are our relations, and our common humanity makes it essential that we do what we can to help. People need feeding now – help can’t come soon enough.

The four countries most at risk are four separate cases. Somalia has had no significant rain for three years. This is fundamentally due to geophysical causes. The spinning of the earth produces different wind patterns at different latitudes. Countries just north of the Equator, such as Somalia, have predominately north-easterly winds. These winds tend to come from desert areas, and have not always had chance to pick up much water. The rainfall from these winds is therefore rather unpredictable. Somalis have historically had to make do with this pattern of uncertain rainfall, and still find ways to survive. However, in recent times, things have been made worse by years of fighting – first between different clans, and now between “religious” militants and those wishing to re-establish order. This fighting forces people off the land.

The other three cases are almost entirely man-made problems. In Nigeria the problem is largely “religious” militants again. An amoral self-obsessed group seeks to impose its will on the population of north-eastern Nigeria and on neighbouring countries through death and destruction, kidnap and terror. In this part of the world, the governments are now collaborating in combatting the extremists, but the damage to the towns and villages has already been done, and many people are dispossessed and starving.

In the case of South Sudan, we are endlessly being told that the world’s “newest country” is already divided, as if this is a new problem. In reality, the two biggest tribes there have been in conflict for years. During the decades of fighting against the Khartoum government of northern Sudan, these tribes were often also fighting one another. The loyalty to the tribe and to its political leader needs to be replaced by a loyalty to this new nation and its flag. It cannot come soon enough. Bahá’u’lláh’s statement, "The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established," applies at the national level, just as much as it does at the world level.

Yemen is the only one of the four in which external power politics play an important role. But again, the fundamental cause is the lack of unity within the country. First there are the “rebels”, who are from a religious minority which has felt marginalised and poorly treated. However, fighting alongside them are other factions who still support the president who was deposed in 2012. Ranged against them are those parts of the population which support the new president. The other countries in the region support either one side in the war or the other, and there is an effective blockade to stop all economic activity, normal food imports and even the food aid and medicinal supplies. The result is that there are a huge number of people starving. Those with a political agenda do not care enough about the population to bring about a cessation of hostilities.

The answers to these conflicts are varied and complex in political terms, but the underlying change in the way we all view one another is simple in essence. When visiting London, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Who was Bahá’u’lláh’s eldest son, stated clearly: “The gift of God to this enlightened age is the knowledge of the oneness of mankind and of the fundamental oneness of religion. War shall cease between nations, and by the will of God the Most Great Peace shall come; the world will be seen as a new world, and all men will live as brothers.”

It can’t come soon enough.

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(In the UK, donations to the appeal can be made via www.dec.org.uk.)


Sunday, 26 February 2017

Publish and be blessed!

In a number of countries in the world, press freedoms have been curtailed. The regime in charge shuts down hostile newspapers, TV and radio stations and controls internet access. In many countries, the president is sure of a docile and subservient press. Many regimes over the years have relied on propaganda to keep control and some continue to do so. Now, in this age, “fake news” is being circulated by a variety of people with a variety of motives.

Freedom of speech is central to the Bahá’í approach to the world. In the Bahá’í Writings it states: “At the very root of the Cause lies the principle of the undoubted right of the individual to self-expression, his freedom to declare his conscience and set forth his views.” Bahá’u’lláh, about Whom a lot of false information appeared in the newspapers of the day, stated: “The pages of swiftly-appearing newspapers are indeed the mirror of the world, endowed with hearing, sight and speech. However, it behoveth the writers thereof to be purged from the promptings of evil passions and desires... They should enquire into situations as much as possible and ascertain the facts, then set them down in writing.” In other words, it is the duty of journalists to report only the truth, as far as they are able.

One of the distinctions between dictatorships (whether of the Left or the Right) and the “free world” is the freedom to say what you like. Dictators live in their own reality bubble, only hearing what they want to hear. Democracy runs on a different principle, where people have different approaches to the problems of the day. The principle of free speech ensures that some measure of reality creeps into every politician’s diet of news. But the freedom of speech we are familiar with in “free” countries can be improved, and taken to greater heights. Not only should it be channelled down the path of truth, but what is published should be free from prejudice. Furthermore, in Bahá’í eyes, it should not cause actual offence: “Beware! Beware! lest ye offend any heart! Beware! Beware! lest ye hurt any soul! Beware! Beware! lest ye deal unkindly toward any person!”

People should be ashamed of publishing things which they know not to be true. As mentioned above, there has been much talk recently of “fake news”, and plenty of examples. A lot of these have been on social media, such as Twitter or Facebook. We have the odd situation of a world in which information instantly appears in an abundance of channels, but in which those who publish and circulate falsehoods have created a situation in which it is not immediately obvious which things can be proven as facts, and which are simply “alternative facts” (!) made up by somebody on a whim.

Bahá’u’lláh saw the potential of newspapers as promoters of justice and as champions of the oppressed: “O newspapers published throughout the cities and countries of the world! Have ye heard the groan of the downtrodden, and have their cries of anguish reached your ears… investigate the truth of what hath occurred and vindicate it.” But not every newspaper or magazine has such a pure intention. In recent years, a magazine called on cartoonists to lampoon the Prophet Muhammad, recognised by a fifth of mankind as a Messenger of God. This clearly overstepped the boundaries of moderation, tolerance, compassion and respect. The result was widespread offence and a number of horrific revenge attacks, including the one on the “Charlie Hebdo” magazine.

What is printed, broadcast or typed should reflect the right of the individual to free speech, which should be the freedom to speak one’s mind according to one’s conscience, and should be based on respect for others. If you can do that, then publish and be blessed!


Monday, 23 January 2017

Representatives of all that dwell on earth

In 1869, Queen Victoria received a letter from a religious prisoner in a Turkish jail. The prisoner was Bahá’u’lláh, who told her, “O queen in London… We have been informed that thou hast forbidden the trading in slaves, both men and women… God hath, truly, destined a reward for thee, because of this.” The British parliament had passed legislation to put an end to the practice of people being captured from villages in West Africa and transported to the Americas and the Caribbean. Not only was this inhumane treatment of the slaves themselves, but their forced movement to other countries still presents problems for their descendants today.

Bahá’u’lláh also commended the queen on the extension of representative democracy: “We have also heard that thou hast entrusted the reins of counsel into the hands of the representatives of the people. Thou, indeed, hast done well, for thereby the foundations of… thine affairs will be strengthened.” He then commented on the way that those in Parliament should regard their task: “It behoveth them… to be trustworthy… and to regard themselves as the representatives of all that dwell on earth.” Many people in the world today are hoping that the present generation of rulers will adopt this approach, and not try to seek what they perceive as advantages for their own country, at the expense of humanity as a whole. Across the world there seems to be a rising trend towards strident nationalism, often referred to as “patriotism” to make it sound more acceptable. Love of one’s country is important, of course, but love of humanity should take precedence.

In this same letter to Queen Victoria, Bahá’u’lláh advised her to: “Regard the world as the human body which, though at its creation whole and perfect, hath been afflicted, through various causes, with grave disorders and maladies.” Talking about the world, He said, “We behold it, in this day, at the mercy of rulers, so drunk with pride that they cannot discern clearly their own best advantage.” Obviously, Bahá’u’lláh was speaking of the rulers of the late nineteenth century, and it is to be hoped that mankind has learned much since then. The queen sent the Author of the letter a polite reply.

Although Bahá’u’lláh chose to make these particular points in His letter to Queen Victoria, He made many other points in His letters to the other rulers of the time. He explained that all religions are in essence one. Each one teaches principles to guide human behaviour and to build up bonds within society. The points of difference between the religions are partly because they were given to man at different times, when society was in differing stages of development. Other differences have developed over time, as people add things according to their understanding. But the underlying essence of each one is based on spiritual truths, and each religious community should recognise the divine origin of the others. Bahá’u’lláh taught that all mankind is one, and that all peoples are part of the one human race. He stressed that the world should be one: “This handful of dust, this earth, let it be in unity.” He explained that “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.” Let us hope that the elected rulers of the twenty-first century adopt Bahá’u’lláh’s approach, and regard themselves as the representatives of all that dwell on earth.


Monday, 9 January 2017

Only when we live in the spirit

The year 2016 saw a lot of famous people, including actors and musicians, pass from this life. There may be many reasons why, but one of them surely is that many of them have had their lives blighted or cut short by misuse of drugs and alcohol.

 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, talking about the true nature of a human being, said: “Man is, in reality, a spiritual being, and only when he lives in the spirit is he truly happy.” If people are missing this spiritual dimension in their lives, it is easier to understand why they might find false happiness in drugs or alcohol.

Life in this world is temporary, but Bahá’ís believe the life of the spirit lasts forever. When we pass to the next world, it is like a bird being freed from its cage, it soars onward and upward. So while we are here on earth we need to prepare ourselves by strengthening our spiritual wings. Bahá’ís see this life on earth as a matrix, in which we learn lessons and qualities which we will need in the next world. It seems likely that surrendering our faculties to alcohol or to a habit-forming drug may delay or prevent us from learning such lessons, or acquiring such faculties. The natural nobility of the human mind is often brought low by these substances. Bahá’ís think that alcohol and drugs are best avoided altogether.

So how do we prepare ourselves? Living in the spirit is not just thinking spiritual thoughts, action is required as well! One big help is the faculty of meditation which leads us to look for ideas inside ourselves. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said: “It is an axiomatic fact that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed.”
Prayer, another useful practice for anyone wishing to live in the spirit, is “conversation with God”. To work properly, however, conversation needs to be two-way. We pray to God, then remain quietly, to see what we are inspired to do in response.

If we understand the importance of the spiritual life, it will help us to deal with the problems we encounter: “Today, humanity is bowed down with trouble, sorrow and grief, no one escapes; the world is wet with tears; but, thank God, the remedy is at our doors. Let us turn our hearts away from the world of matter and live in the spiritual world! It alone can give us freedom!” Then there will be no need for drugs or alcohol to deaden the pain.

If we live in the spirit then we have a purpose in life, and something to work towards. In the Bahá’í view, it is our innermost essence – our spirit, our soul, which survives after death. It is our spirit which needs to be connected with God, or at least to spiritual ideas. If we are at peace with ourselves, and living in the spirit, we will be happy and make progress both in this world and the next.

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When David Bowie died, last January, I wrote a blog post about him, and about life after death:
http://paddyvickers.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/a-messenger-of-joy.html

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.



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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.