For a while I’ve wanted to write something about why Baha’is choose not to get involved in politics. I’ve kind of dragged my feet on this, mostly because it’s a difficult topic to write about, and is fraught with potential pitfalls. But given the number of international conflicts and other major news stories that have sprouted up over the past couple of months, and the immense attention that some of these have received in the news and social media, I figured it was as good a time as any.
If you’re wondering why the Baha’is have not stood up and spoken publicly on these various conflicts — Israel vs Hamas, Ukraine vs Russia, the St. Louis protestors vs the police, etc. — then you are probably not alone. That’s because Baha’is actually make it a point not to make their voices heard on specific stories like these. I remember during the buildup to the Iraq War in 2003, for instance, as faith-based groups around the world were holding protests against the possibility of an American invasion, hearing the voices of some well-meaning activists criticizing the relative silence of the Baha’is. How can a religion so committed to peace and justice be so content, as I heard one person put it at the time, to “sit on the sidelines”?
The simple answer is that part of being a Baha’i is to make a commitment to stay out of politics, and to avoid taking sides in terms of one party, group, or nation over another, even as we stand in favor of certain principles.
This commitment goes back to the teachings of Baha’u’llah Himself, who wrote:
Forbear ye from concerning yourselves with the affairs of this world and all that pertaineth unto it, or from meddling with the activities of those who are its outward leaders.
Abdu’l-Baha, who gave us practical interpretations to many of Baha’u’llah’s teachings, expanded on this idea, warning us to stay away from divisive issues and political squabbles:
Speak thou no word of politics; thy task concerneth the life of the soul, for this verily leadeth to man’s joy in the world of God. Except to speak well of them, make thou no mention of the earth’s kings, and the worldly governments thereof. Rather, confine thine utterance to spreading the blissful tidings of the Kingdom of God, and demonstrating the influence of the Word of God, and the holiness of the Cause of God. Tell thou of abiding joy and spiritual delights, and godlike qualities, and of how the Sun of Truth hath risen above the earth’s horizons: tell of the blowing of the spirit of life into the body of the world.
From my perspective at least, ‘Abdu’l-Baha by no means discouraged Baha’is from taking stands in favor of or against certain principles, and to encourage them only to focus on purely spiritual matters. ‘Abdu’l-Baha himself advocated for representative democracy in his homeland of Iran in the late 19th century, arguing that a nation’s leaders must listen and respond to the concerns and interests of their people. Later in life, while traveling in America, he made ostentatious gestures in public to declare the equality of whites and blacks, sometimes at the cost of offending his white hosts. The life of Baha’u’llah Himself might be seen by non-Baha’i historians, quite rightly, as a tireless lifelong struggle for a range of political goals: dignity for the poor, the eradication of prejudice, the establishment of world government, the emancipation of women, etc. He is believed to have planned one of the most famous moments of Babi/Baha’i history, the iconoclastic Tahirih’s public removal of her veil in a then-revolutionary demonstration of gender equality, signifying a violent breaking from previous cultural traditions.
In other words, the Holy figures of the Baha’i Faith were not pacifists careful to shy away from controversy, nor did they encourage their followers to equivocate on who they were or what they believed. So what, then, is the problem with taking sides in politics? It’s that siding with one group, party, nation, etc. over another (as opposed to standing for or against ideas and principles) may feel good and just, but ends up exacerbating conflict rather than solving it. It is indeed tempting to think that if only the right candidate, party, lobbying group, or army could triumph, then the world’s problems would fall one by one like dominoes. Using this logic, then, all we need to do as individuals is to pick the right side in each political conflict, election, etc. and push as hard as we can against the opposition. Yet this approach is limited in actually solving the world’s problems. That’s because, though we may occasionally make a positive impact in the short-term, we end up supporting the very system of adversarial, self-interested conflict that gives rise to so many of these problems in the first place.
From a Baha’i vantage point, there can be no lasting solution to what ails the human race without unity, and without ditching our collective fetish for conflict and competition. Baha’u’llah writes:
Though the world is encompassed with misery and distress, yet no man hath paused to reflect what the cause or source of that may be… No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union. The Great Being saith: O well-beloved ones! The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. We cherish the hope that the light of justice may shine upon the world and sanctify it from tyranny.
In another passage He tells His followers:
O people of Justice!… The brightness of the fire of your love will no doubt fuse and unify the contending peoples and kindreds of the earth, whilst the fierceness of the flame of enmity and hatred cannot but result in strife and ruin.
Cynics might respond that conflict is in fact the natural state of human society, rather than unity. But to assert this is to ignore the innumerable ways we needlessly promote conflict among ourselves, and crowd out some of our natural tendencies for cooperation and coexistence. One of the great illustrations of this is the modern university campus, where students are indoctrinated early into the language of “Us versus Them”. When I was a college student, I noticed some classmates who were into politics and leadership obsessing over competition and taking sides. One year, during a time of intense violence between Israel and Palestine (near the start of the Second Intifada), our college’s elected student body for some reason found it necessary to endorse one side over the other in the conflict. (They picked the Palestinians, though this is beside the point.) What was the productive purpose of this exercise?, I wondered. What meaningful contribution towards peace and the betterment of people’s lives was made by the arbitrary judgment of a handful of college go-getters about a part of the world that most had never visited? Who exactly was swayed towards thinking differently about that particular conflict as a result of the student council’s endorsement? In that particular case, I could only imagine that taking such a “stand” simply evoked emotional responses on both sides, causing them to entrench themselves even more stubbornly in their respective views.
Examples of needless compartmentalizations of issues into opposing groups go way beyond the college campus, of course. At every turn, we are encouraged to stake out our own differentness and demarcate imaginary boundaries among ourselves. I still need an explanation, for instance, for why newspapers, on the one hand holding fast to objectivity and journalistic integrity, seem to feel obligated to “endorse” a particular candidate to its readers during election season.
So if we don’t take political sides on issues, how do we stand for what we believe? First and foremost, let’s be clear on some of what the Baha’i Faith actually stands for in terms of its teachings, in the broad context of the conflicts going on today. Among many other things, the Baha’i Writings call for the nations’ leaders to cease their buildup of arms and refocus their energy and resources on the wellbeing of their peoples; assert the unequivocal equality of all races; demand that the poor and disenfranchised be treated with dignity and honor; and call for all of the world’s nations to intervene, militarily if need be, to stop one country’s aggression against another. Baha’is are active in governmental organizations, from the local to the international level, in advocating for these principles. To take one example, the Baha’i representative office at the UN has specifically argued in favor of reforming the UN Security Council. It has not, for instance, pointed fingers at the US, China, Russia, or any other nation for the ways those countries use their veto powers.
To take another example, recently the Baha’is of the US have become much more active on the issue of global warming. To simply avoid this issue because it has become (needlessly) politically charged, with one major political party against and the other in favor of action, would be to deny the legitimacy of science and effectively silence the Baha’i community on possibly the single most important issue of our time. Silence, in other words, is not an option. Yet, Baha’is can not and will not support specific parties or political candidates simply because they are committed towards action on climate change, however tempting.
All of these high-level efforts are secondary to those of the countless Baha’i children’s class teachers, youth mentors, devotional gathering hosts, and study circle guides, etc. trying their best to make a change at the most basic level, that is, the human heart. Frequently on this blog I’ve asked some form of the question: Is it us? Phrased differently, I’ll ask this: What is it about us as a species that allows for our armies to callously kill civilians, or our industry leaders to obfuscate and deny a looming environmental disaster, or our police forces to treat certain groups with disproportionate suspicion and violence? Maybe it’s something lower, more basic, than who we elect or what laws we enact that needs to change. When we start to admit this to ourselves, our political discourse can move forward towards something more constructive, and perhaps the imaginary chasms separating two sides of each issue will no longer seem so wide.