Century of Light



Bahá’u’lláh’s mission is not limited to the building of the Bahá’í community. The Revelation of God has come for the whole of humanity, and it will win the support of the institutions of society to the extent that they find in its example encouragement and inspiration for their efforts to lay the foundations of a just society. To appreciate the importance of this parallel concern, one has only to recall the time and care that Bahá’u’lláh Himself devoted to cultivating relationships with government officials, leaders of thought, prominent figures in various minority groups, and the diplomatic representatives of foreign governments assigned to service in the Ottoman empire. The spiritual effect of this effort is apparent in the tributes paid to His character and principles by even such bitter enemies as ‘Álí Páshá and the Persian ambassador to Constantinople, Mírzá Ḥusayn Khán. The former, who condemned his Prisoner to banishment in the penal colony at ‘Akká, was nevertheless moved to describe Him as “a man of great distinction, exemplary conduct, great moderation, and a most dignified figure”, whose teachings were, in the minister’s opinion “worthy of high esteem”.131 The latter, whose machinations had been principally responsible for poisoning the minds of ‘Álí Páshá and his colleagues, frankly admitted, in later years, the great contrast between the moral and intellectual stature of his Enemy and the harm done to Persian-Turkish relations by the reputation for greed and dishonesty that characterized most of his other countrymen resident in Constantinople.

From the beginning, ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá took keen interest in efforts to bring into existence a new international order. It is significant, for example, that His early public references in North America to the purpose of His visit there placed particular emphasis on the invitation of the organizing committee of the Lake Mohonk Peace Conference for Him to address this international gathering. He had also been generous in His encouragement of the Central Organization for a Durable Peace at The Hague. He was, however, entirely candid in the counsel He provided. Letters which the Executive Committee of The Hague organization had written to Him during the course of the war provided the opportunity for a response that drew the organizers’ attention to Bahá’u’lláh’s enunciation of spiritual truths which alone can provide a foundation for the realization of their aims:

O ye esteemed ones who are pioneers among the well-wishers of the world of humanity!… At present Universal Peace is a matter of great importance, but unity of conscience is essential, so that the foundation of this matter may become secure, its establishment firm and its edifice strong.… Today nothing but the power of the Word of God which encompasses the realities of things can bring the thoughts, the minds, the hearts and the spirits under the shade of one Tree. He is the potent in all things, the vivifier of souls, the preserver and the controller of the world of mankind.132

Beyond this, the list of influential persons with whom the Master spent patient hours in both North America and Europe—particularly individuals struggling to promote the goal of world peace and humanitarianism—reflects His awareness of the responsibility the Cause has to humanity at large. As the extraordinary response evoked by His passing testifies, He pursued this course to the end of His life.

Shoghi Effendi took up this legacy almost immediately upon beginning his ministry. As early as 1925, he encouraged the interest of an American believer, Jean Stannard, to establish an “International Bahá’í Bureau”, directing her to Geneva, seat of the League of Nations. While the Bureau exercised no administrative authority, it acted, in the Guardian’s words, “as intermediary between Haifa and other Bahá’í centers” and served as an information “distributing center” in the heart of Europe, its role being formally recognized when the League’s publishing house solicited and published an account of the Bureau’s activities.133

As has so often been the case in the history of the Cause, an unexpected crisis served to greatly advance Bahá’í involvement with the larger society at the international level. In 1928, Shoghi Effendi encouraged the Spiritual Assembly of Baghdad to appeal to the League’s Permanent Mandates Commission against the seizure, by Shí‘ih opponents, of Bahá’u’lláh’s House in that city. Recognizing the wrong that had been done, the Council of the League unanimously called on the British mandate authority, in March 1929, to press the Iraqi government “with a view to the immediate redress of the injustice suffered by the Petitioners”. Repeated evasions by the Iraqi government, including the violation of a solemn pledge on the part of the monarch himself, resulted in the case dragging on for years through successive sessions of the Mandates Commission, leaving the House in the hands of those who had seized it, a situation that remains to this day uncorrected.134 Undeterred by this failure, Shoghi Effendi focused the attention of the Bahá’í community on the historic benefit that the campaign had won for the Cause. As had earlier been the case with the Sunni Muslim court’s rejection of the appeal of an Egyptian Bahá’í community regarding marriage, the Guardian pointed out:

Suffice it to say that, despite these interminable delays, protests and evasions … the publicity achieved for the Faith by this memorable litigation, and the defence of its cause—the cause of truth and justice—by the world’s highest tribunal, have been such as to excite the wonder of its friends and to fill with consternation its enemies.135

The birth of the United Nations opened to the Faith a far broader and more effective forum for its efforts toward exerting a spiritual influence on the life of society. As early as 1947, a special “Palestine Committee” of the United Nations solicited the views of the Guardian on the future of that mandated territory. His response to the inquiry provided an opportunity for him to forward an authoritative exposition of the history and teachings of the Cause itself. That same year, with Shoghi Effendi’s encouragement, the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada submitted to the international organization a document entitled “A Bahá’í Declaration on Human Obligations and Rights”, which was to inspire the work of Bahá’í writers and spokespersons over the decades that followed.136 A year later the eight National Spiritual Assemblies then in existence secured from the responsible United Nations body accreditation for “The Bahá’í International Community” as an international non-governmental organization.

It was not only the Faith’s slowly emerging relationship with the new international order that elicited support of this kind from the Guardian. The pages of God Passes By and Amatu’l-Bahá’s memoirs of the Guardian are filled with references to responses that influential individuals and organizations made to initiatives taken by Shoghi Effendi and to the events around the world in which Bahá’í representatives were invited to participate. In the perspective of history, one is struck by the vast disparity between many of these relatively inconsequential occasions and the attention given them by a figure whose work was not only of enormous importance to humanity’s future, but who understood fully the relative significance of events unfolding around him. What the Bahá’í community has been given in this careful record is a guide to the way that it must take up the growing opportunities born out of modest beginnings.

From the moment of its accreditation, the Bahá’í International Community began to play an energetic role in United Nations’ affairs. An activity that won it much appreciation was a programme carried out, through the expanding network of Bahá’í Assemblies, to provide the public with information about the United Nations itself, and which gave generous support to struggling United Nations associations throughout the world. By 1970, the Community had secured consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). This was followed in 1974 by the granting of formal association with the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and in 1976 by the acquisition of consultative status with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The influence and expertise developed during these years showed their capacity, in 1955 and 1962, when the Community was successful in securing United Nations’ intervention on behalf of the believers suffering persecution in Iran and Morocco, respectively.

In 1980, the patient external affairs activities of the National Spiritual Assemblies and the Community’s United Nations Office were suddenly propelled into a new stage of their development. The catalyst was the attempt by the Shí‘ih clergy of Iran to exterminate the Cause in the land of its birth. The consequences were as little anticipated by the Faith’s persecutors as they were by its defenders.

Throughout the long decades in which the believers in the cradle of the Faith suffered intermittent persecution for their beliefs, the mullás, who instigated and led these attacks, acted in concert with the country’s succession of monarchs. The latter, ostensibly absolute in their authority, were in fact constrained by political calculations that rendered them vulnerable to outside pressures, particularly from Western governments. So it was that the outrage voiced by Russian, British and other diplomatic missions had compelled Náṣiri’d-Dín Sháh, against his will, to bring to an end the orgy of violence that took so many believers’ lives in the early 1850s and threatened that of Bahá’u’lláh Himself. During the twentieth century, his Qájár successors had been similarly concerned to placate the opinion of foreign governments. The pattern was repeated in 1955 when the second of the Pahlaví shahs, who had been induced by the mullás to approve a wave of anti-Bahá’í violence, was forced by United Nations’ protest and by objections on the part of the American government to abruptly halt the campaign—both interventions harbingers of things to come.

Such checks on the clergy’s behaviour seemed to have been swept away by the Islamic revolution of 1979. Suddenly, the mullás were themselves in power, appointing their own nominees to the highest positions in the new republic, and eventually taking over these posts directly. “Revolutionary courts” were set up, answering only to the senior clergy. An army of “revolutionary guards”, far more effective than the shah’s secret police, and quite as brutal, took over control of every aspect of public life.

While the attention of the new ruling caste was focused chiefly on what it believed were threats from foreign governments, influential elements within it saw an opportunity at last to destroy the Iranian Bahá’í community.137 The harrowing details of the campaign that followed need no review here. Their significance lies, rather, in the response made to these attacks by thousands of individual Bahá’ís—men, women and children—throughout the country. Their refusal to compromise their faith, even at the cost of their lives, inspired in their fellow believers throughout the world a heightened dedication to the Cause for which these sacrifices were being made. It was not, however, only the members of the Faith who were affected by these events. Decades earlier, in 1889, a distinguished Western commentator on the heroism of the dawn-breakers of the Faith had prophetically written of the sufferings of the early believers:

It is the lives and deaths of these, their hope which knows no despair, their love which knows no cooling, their steadfastness which knows no wavering, which stamp this wonderful movement with a character entirely its own.… It is not a small or easy thing to endure what these have endured, and surely what they deemed worth life itself is worth trying to understand. I say nothing of the mighty influence which, as I believe, the Bábí [sic] faith will exert in the future, nor of the new life it may perchance breathe into a dead people; for, whether it succeed or fail, the splendid heroism of the Bábí martyrs is a thing eternal and indestructible.… But what I cannot hope to have conveyed to you is the terrible earnestness of these men, and the indescribable influence which this earnestness, combined with other qualities, exerts on any one who has actually been brought in contact with them.138

These words prefigured the rise of a similar sentiment among non-Bahá’í observers during the Islamic revolutionary years; and this was to become one of the most powerful forces propelling the emergence of the Cause from obscurity. Captured in those early words, too, was the fundamentally spiritual nature of what has always been at stake in the cradle of the Faith. Beyond a revulsion at the senseless brutality of the persecution, a growing body of foreign opinion has been profoundly moved by the response of the Iranian Bahá’ís.

The twentieth century has, alas, been overwhelmed by the suffering of countless victims of oppression. What made the Bahá’í situation unique was the attitude adopted by those who endured the suffering. The Iranian believers refused to accept the all too familiar role of victims. Like the Founders of the Faith before them, they took moral charge of the great issue between them and their adversaries. It was they, not revolutionary courts or revolutionary guards, who quickly set the terms of the encounter, and this extraordinary achievement affected not only the hearts but the minds of those who observed the situation from outside the Bahá’í Faith. The persecuted community neither attacked its oppressors, nor sought political advantage from the crisis. Nor did its Bahá’í defenders in other lands call for the dismantling of the Iranian constitution, much less for revenge. All demanded only justice—the recognition of the rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, endorsed by the community of nations, ratified by the Iranian government, and many of them embodied even in clauses of the Islamic constitution.

The crisis roused the Bahá’í world to extraordinary feats of achievement. National Spiritual Assemblies who had little or no experience in developing a working relationship with officials of their countries’ governments were called on to solicit government support for resolutions at various levels of the international human rights system, and did so with outstanding success. Year after year, for twenty uninterrupted years, the case of the Iranian Bahá’ís proceeded through the international human rights system, gathering support in successive resolutions, ensuring attention to Bahá’í grievances in the missions of rapporteurs appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Commission and consolidating these gains through decisions of the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly. Every attempt by the Iranian regime to escape international condemnation of its treatment of its Bahá’í citizens failed to shake the support the Bahá’í issue attracted from a persistent majority of sympathetic nations represented on the Commission. The achievement was all the more remarkable in the context of the Commission’s constantly changing membership and a demanding agenda that included human rights abuses in other countries that affected millions of victims.

At the same time as direct pressure was being exerted on the Iranian government, the case was attracting unprecedented publicity around the world in newspapers, magazines and the broadcast media. Newspapers such as The New York Times, Le Monde and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, enjoying international readership, gave wide coverage to the persecution, and television networks in Australia, Canada, the United States and a number of European countries produced in-depth, magazine-format presentations. The abuses were denounced in often strong editorial comment. Apart from the support thus lent to the efforts to secure effective intervention at the Human Rights Commission, such publicity had the effect of introducing, usually for the first time and to an audience of tens of millions of people, accurate and appreciative information about Bahá’í teachings and belief. Both the publicity and the campaign being carried on through the United Nations’ system provided influential officials around the world with a sustained opportunity to judge for themselves both the teachings of the Cause and the character of the Bahá’í community.

A problem arising out of the persecution was that faced by several thousand Iranian Bahá’ís who found themselves either stranded without valid passports in countries where they were serving as pioneers, or forced to flee from Iran because they or their families had been singled out as targets of the pogrom. In 1983, an International Bahá’í Refugee Office was established in Canada,139 where the government had been particularly responsive to the representations made by the National Spiritual Assembly of that country. Over the next few years, with the assistance of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, a series of other countries likewise opened their doors to more than ten thousand Iranian Bahá’ís, many of whom filled pioneer goals in their new places of residence.

Not only the Bahá’í community but the United Nations’ human rights system itself benefited from this long struggle. Initially, after the Islamic revolution, the community of believers in Iran had faced a threat to its very survival. In time, the United Nations Human Rights Commission, however slow and relatively cumbersome its operations may appear to some outside observers, succeeded in compelling the Iranian regime to bring the worst of the persecution to a halt. In this way, the “case of Iran’s Bahá’ís” marked a significant victory for the Commission and the Bahá’í Faith alike. It served as a startling demonstration of the power of the community of nations, acting through the machinery created for the purpose, to bring under control patterns of oppression that had darkened the pages of recorded history throughout the ages.

This circumstance highlights the relevance of the Faith’s activities to the life of the larger society in which these efforts are taking place. Together with world peace, the need for the international community to take effective steps to realize the ideals in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its related covenants is an urgent challenge facing humanity at the present moment in its history. There are relatively few places in the world where minority populations, because of religious, ethnic or national prejudices, are not still denied basic human needs of some kind. No body of people on the planet understands better this issue than does the Bahá’í community. It has endured—continues to endure in some lands—mistreatment for which there is no conceivable justification, whether legal or moral; it has given its martyrs and shed its tears, while remaining faithful to its conviction that hatred and retaliation are corrosive to the soul; and it has learned, as few communities have done, how to use the United Nations’ human rights system in the manner intended by that system’s creators, without having recourse to involvement in political partisanship of any kind, much less violence. Drawing on this experience, it is today embarked on a programme to encourage governments in a score of countries to institute public education programmes on the subject of human rights, providing whatever practical assistance of its own is possible.140 Throughout the world, it is particularly active in promoting the rights of women and children. Most important of all, it provides a living example of brotherhood, from which countless people outside its embrace derive courage and hope.

As the Iranian crisis was unfolding, an initiative taken by the Universal House of Justice suddenly moved the external affairs work of the Bahá’í community to an entirely new level. In 1985, the statement The Promise of World Peace, addressed to the generality of humankind, was released through National Spiritual Assemblies. In it, the House of Justice asserted, in unprovocative but uncompromising terms, Bahá’í confidence in the advent of international peace as the next stage in the evolution of society. Set out, as well, were elements of the form that this long-awaited development must take, many of which went far beyond the political terms in which the subject is commonly discussed. It concluded:

The experience of the Bahá’í community may be seen as an example of this enlarging unity [of humankind].… If the Bahá’í experience can contribute in whatever measure to reinforcing hope in the unity of the human race, we are happy to offer it as a model for study.

While the immediate purpose of the release was to provide Bahá’í institutions and individual believers with a coherent line of discussion for their interactions with government authorities, organizations of civil society, the media and influential personalities, a collateral effect was to set in motion an intensive and ongoing education of the Bahá’í community itself in several important Bahá’í teachings. The influence of the ideas and perspectives in the document was soon making itself widely felt in conventions, publications, summer and winter schools, and the general discourse of believers everywhere.

In many respects, The Promise of World Peace may be said to have set the agenda for Bahá’í interaction with the United Nations and its attendant organizations in the years since 1985. Building on the reputation it had already won, the Bahá’í International Community became, in only a few short years, one of the most influential of the non-governmental organizations. Because it is, and is seen to be, entirely non-partisan, it has increasingly been trusted as a mediating voice in complex, and often stressful, discussions in international circles on major issues of social progress. This reputation has been strengthened by appreciation of the fact that the Community refrains, on principle, from taking advantage of such trust to press partisan agendas of its own. By 1968, a Bahá’í representative had been elected to membership on the Executive Committee of Non-Governmental Organizations affiliated with the Office of Public Information, subsequently holding the positions of chairman and vice-chairman. From this point on, representatives of the Community found themselves increasingly asked to function as convenors or chairpersons of a wide range of bodies: committees, task forces, working groups and advisory boards. During the past four years, the Community has served as executive secretary of the Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations, the central coordinating body of non-governmental groups affiliated with the United Nations.

The structure of the Bahá’í International Community reflects the principles guiding its work. It has escaped labelling as merely another special interest lobby group. While making full use of the expertise and executive resources of its United Nations Office and Office of Public Information, the Community has come to be recognized by its fellow non-governmental organizations as essentially an “association” of democratically elected national “councils”, representative of a cross-section of humankind. Bahá’í delegations to international events commonly include members appointed by various National Spiritual Assemblies who are experienced in the subject matters under discussion and who can provide regional perspectives.

This feature of the Faith’s involvement in the life of society—in which motivating principle and operating method represent two dimensions of a unified approach to issues—demonstrated its power at the series of world summits and related conferences organized by the United Nations held between 1990 and 1996. In that period of nearly six years, the political leaders of the world came together repeatedly under the aegis of the Secretary-General of the United Nations to discuss the major challenges facing humankind as the twentieth century drew to a close. No Bahá’í can review the themes of these historic gatherings without being struck by how closely the agenda mirrored major teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. It seemed befitting that the centenary of His ascension should occur at the midway point in the process, endowing the meetings, for Bahá’ís, with spiritual meaning beyond merely their stated goals.

Among those gatherings, the World Conference on Education for All in Thailand (1990), the World Summit for Children in New York (1990), the United Nations Conference on the Environment in Rio de Janeiro (1992), an anguished and chaotic World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna (1993), the International Conference on Population in Cairo (1994), the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen (1995), and the particularly vibrant Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing (1995),141 stand out as highlights of this process of global discourse on the problems afflicting the world’s peoples. At the concurrent non-governmental conferences, Bahá’í delegations, made up of members from a wide range of countries, had the opportunity to place issues in a spiritual as well as social perspective. Evidence of the trust the Community enjoys among hundreds of its fellow non-governmental organizations was the fact that Bahá’í delegations were repeatedly selected by their peers for inclusion among the handful of member groups to be accorded the much prized opportunity to address the conferences from the podium, rather than merely distributing printed copies of presentations.

During the century’s concluding years, many National Spiritual Assemblies won impressive victories of their own in the field of external affairs. Two outstanding examples suggest the character and importance of these advances. The first was achieved by the National Spiritual Assembly of Germany, where the nature of Bahá’í elected bodies had been challenged by local authorities as being technically incompatible with the requirements of German civil law. In upholding the appeal of the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Tübingen against this ruling, Germany’s constitutional High Court concluded that the Bahá’í Administrative Order is an integral feature of the Faith and as such is inseparable from Bahá’í belief. The High Court justified its taking jurisdiction in the case by adducing evidence that the Bahá’í Faith itself is a religion, a judgement with far-reaching implications in a society where church opponents have long sought to misrepresent the Cause as a “cult” or “sect”. The definitive language of the judgement merits repetition:

…the character of the Bahá’í Faith as a religion and of the Bahá’í Community as a religious community is evident, in actual every day life, in cultural tradition, and in the understanding of the general public as well as of the science of comparative religion.142

It was left to the Brazilian Bahá’í community to win a victory in the field of external affairs that is so far unique in Bahá’í history. On 28 May 1992, its country’s highest legislative body, the Chamber of Deputies, held a special session to pay tribute to Bahá’u’lláh on the centenary of His ascension. The Speaker read a message from the Universal House of Justice and representatives of all of the parties rose, one by one, to acknowledge the contribution to human betterment of the Faith and its Founder. A moving address by one prominent deputy described the Bahá’í teachings as “the most colossal religious work ever written by the pen of a single Man”.143

Such appreciations of the nature of the Cause and of the work it is trying to accomplish—coming as they did from the highest judicial and legislative levels, respectively, of two of the world’s major nations—were victories of the spirit as important in their way as those won in the teaching field. They help to open those doors through which Bahá’u’lláh’s healing influence begins to touch the life of society itself.

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