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.
I recently went to see the film “The Gardener”, which is a documentary from the famous Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf that takes place in the Baha’i holy places in Israel. I must say… it was weird. A lot of strange camera angles, long pauses, and confusing symbolism that I find common in Iranian movies. But I suppose those are some of the very things that make people fans of Iranian cinema in the first place.
The film is basically a dialogue between Makhmalbaf and his son about the role of religion in modern day society. The two directors visit the peaceful backdrop of the Baha’i gardens in Haifa and Akka, spending time not only walking the beautiful grounds but observing and interviewing Baha’i volunteers (the gardeners).
Amid the physical beauty of the surroundings, the sense of spiritual contentment of the volunteers, and the ethnic and racial diversity of the people interviewed, the film asks the question: How do we reconcile something so seemingly peaceful and pure intentioned with the destruction that religion has caused over the generations? The elder Makhmalbaf makes the case that religion has already proven its power to motivate the human heart towards destruction, and should now be given a chance to use that power for peace and unity. He’s optimistic about its chances, and over the course of the film he himself slowly transforms from filmmaker to gardener, watering the various flowers in the garden as a clear metaphor for religion’s capacity to nurture and develop every human soul. His son is much more skeptical. All religions start with good intentions, he argues, but they all seem to end up catalyzing conflict and misery.
Religion’s role in the history of conflict is often used to argue that the human race is better off dumping the entire institution in its entirety. But this argument’s fallacious assumption is that religion must necessarily be a cause of conflict. Of course any religion that causes misery in the lives of the people it purports to benefit is better off not existing. This is a point made by Baha’u’llah himself, and repeated beautifully by one of the Baha’i volunteers in the film. But it doesn’t have to be this way. It must not be this way.