SOCIAL COHESION: DWELLING IN THE SAME LANDMay 2002 CE
A Statement by the Bahá'í Community of the UK
Increased attention has been focused recently on the need to promote better inter-community relationships between the various elements of our society. Addressing this issue a previous paper(1) has already referred to the need for a society-wide change of moral consciousness and understanding and a wider social vision. Poor relationships between individuals and between groups are symptoms of a dysfunctional and fragmented society. Particular attention has been given to questions of race and colour but these are not the only issues. Hostility and suspicion can develop not only across racial boundaries, but also across those of ethnicity, culture, religion, gender, generation, nationality, region, education and class.
The stresses within our society can be seen as symptoms of an unprecedented global restructuring of human society over the past 150 years or so: the mingling of races, cultures and creeds to a previously unimagined degree, the reordering of long-cherished institutions and a growing perception of our world as an increasingly inter-dependent “global village”. The failure to respond fully to such change and what lies behind it is reflected not only in signs of social disintegration but also in an accompanying moral crisis and abdication of ethical and behavioural standards. These are all signs of a loss of understanding of our true nature as human beings.
There is a need to reappraise many accepted approaches and attitudes if this increased attention is actually to reduce the mistrust and antipathy that too often exists in our society.
The Bahá’í vision
While association with all people of diverse beliefs, customs, and outlook is enjoined on His followers by Bahá’u’lláh(2), his vision of a truly cohesive society goes far beyond the limits of mere association or appreciation of cultural difference, important though these are. He sets out the building of a global society whose closely-knit fabric shall be based on active co-operation, reciprocity, shared spiritual and moral values, and genuine concern for others. This society would go beyond a mere passive co-existence and would promote human dignity, stimulate the release of human potential, and actively cultivate the inherent nobility which Bahá’ís believe makes up the basis of human nature.
The foundation of this vision rests unambiguously on the principle of the oneness of the human race. Such a unifying vision should not be confused with uniformity: Far from aiming at the subversion of the existing foundations of society, it seeks to broaden its basis ... It can conflict with no legitimate allegiances, nor can it undermine essential loyalties. Its purpose is neither to stifle the flame of a sane and intelligent patriotism in men's hearts, nor to abolish the system of national autonomy so essential if the evils of excessive centralisation are to be avoided. It does not ignore, nor does it attempt to suppress, the diversity of ethnical origins, of climate, of history, of language and tradition, of thought and habit, that differentiate the peoples and nations of the world.(3)
The global community thus envisioned will delight in the diversity of the secondary characteristics of every minority, race and class within it, but will firmly uphold unity in fundamental principles. It calls for complete freedom from prejudice in dealings with peoples of a different race, class, creed, or colour, and it imposes an inescapable obligation to nurture, encourage, and safeguard all, whatever their faith, race, class, or nation. A person’s origins will no longer be seen as defining “who they really are”, but will lend distinction and charm to such a society in demonstrating “unity in diversity."
Social change, in the Bahá’í view, begins not with the community but with the individual. A person’s moral and ethical code and feelings of self worth come from the basic forces of human nature, but they can be developed positively or distorted, even destroyed, depending on that individual’s life experience. Social endeavours, from local group actions to changes in the structure of society's governing institutions, may be proposed or worked for, but no plan will have a lasting effect unless it is built upon an inner revolution, a dramatic change in the attitudes of the individual. It follows that establishing an agreed set of core values which all individuals, and hence society, are prepared to embrace is absolutely essential for any programme of social cohesion.
Policies and attitudes concerned with diversity but which regard the human race as unalterably divided and which see society as a virtually impermeable “community of communities” need to be reassessed. They may all too easily be understood to reinforce old barriers and insularities, whether of culture, race, religion or gender, be seen to protect groups from legitimate criticism and justify human rights abuses as “cultural differences“, and they may unwittingly confirm the prejudices of those with no interest in integration.
And while anti-racist initiatives are clearly essential, and regulating behaviour by legislation has a place, they are uncertain modifiers of basic attitudes and beliefs. Unless these latter are changed, it is doubtful if a truly cohesive society can ever be more than an unachievable ideal.
Racial discrimination is undoubtedly a major cause of division, and a force for harm in society, but is not the only one. At the root of this and all forms of discrimination is the erroneous idea that humankind is somehow composed of separate and distinct races, peoples or castes, and that those subgroups innately possess varying intellectual, moral, and/or other capacities, which in turn justify different forms of treatment. The reality is that there is only the one human race, a single people inhabiting the planet Earth, one human family bound together in a common destiny.
While a basic recognition of this reality is the antidote to societal division in all its forms, racial and ethnic prejudices are often reinforced by, or are manifestations of other corrosive agencies: cultural, economic and educational prejudice, religious fundamentalism, the impersonal nature of modern industrial society, or the influence of international events. Failure to recognise these influences will inhibit attempts to redress racial injustice and intolerance.
Much antagonism and confusion can be attributed to those who have appropriated religion for their own selfish purposes - fostering animosity, suspicion and the condemnation of other creeds. Fanaticism, notions of superiority, and conflict poison the wells of tolerance and represent corrupt expressions of true religious values. As a result, the transforming power of religion is weakened or cancelled out and the positive contribution it can make, reduced or eliminated. While the right to freedom of thought, conscience and expression of belief is now codified in international human rights instruments, the irresponsible exercise of such freedom to promote hatred and disunity should be curtailed.
Community Cohesion: A Bahá’í Perspective, Feb 2002
(2) Bahá’u’lláh, 1817 - 1892, prophet-founder of the Bahá’í Faith
(3) Quotations from Bahá’í writings
For further information please phone 020-7590 8792, email email@example.com, or visit www.bahai.org.uk.
©Copyright 2002, National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United Kingdom