For the betterment of the world
Posted by Sen on September 26, 2008
Following a discussion of liberation theology on the Talisman list (talisman9@YahooGroups.com), one of the participants wondered whether “religions that discourage active political involvement” do in fact simply favour the powerful. Could it be that religions “that don’t preach open revolution” do more than might appear, by preaching compassion in an apolitical sense, so encouraging a sense of the oneness of humanity that gets at the root of the problem?
“Discouraging active political involvement” on the one hand and preaching “open revolution” on the other are two extremes. But there is a middle ground: the Bahai Teachings encourage political and social activism, where it is possible without partisanship. The Bahais are intended to be in the party of progress, the party for the betterment of human condition, and they share this stance with many people of all religions. Baha’u’llah writes:
“All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization”
(Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, section CIX, p. 214)
“to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization” in the original is islah-e ‘aalam. Elsewhere the Guardian translates the same phrase as “the reformation of this age”, “rehabilitate the fortunes of mankind,” the “betterment of the world” and “to reconstruct the world.” This is the programme of what I call “the party of progress.”
Naturally “progress” does not have its determinist modernist meaning, but is measured by the actual betterment of human conditions, by the realisation of human potential.
Baha’u’llah also writes:
Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration. … Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements. (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 212)
And on politics in the narrower sense, Abdu’l-Baha writes:
O thou servant of Baha’! Thou hast asked regarding the political affairs. In the United States it is necessary that the citizens shall take part in elections. This is a necessary matter and no excuse from it is possible. My object in telling the believers that they should not interfere in the affairs of government is this: That they should not make any trouble and that they should not move against the opinion of the government, but obedience to the laws and the administration of the commonwealth is necessary. Now, as the government of America is a republican form of government, it is necessary that all the citizens shall take part in the elections of officers and take part in the affairs of the republic.
(Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v2, p. 342)
If we ignore this middle ground, where we can always find some form of involvement in society, the question of which of the extremes is preferable — advocating revolution or a non-political stance — must depend on the type of society: pre-modern, modern or postmodern.
The “modern” state – rationalised, centralised, nationalist, colonialist (and oppressive where it can get away with it), with a state ideology and ideological political parties – intrudes on the sphere of thought, including religion. It tries to “train” the citizens it needs, or thinks it needs, and to justify its actions and ambitions, and it employs ideological tools such as patriotism or a particular state ideology to do it. This is an ideal type of course: Pre-war Germany or Italy fit the bill closely, the late great Soviet Union also, but the US with its civil religion, Turkey with its Kemalism, France with its laicite, are not far removed from the ideal type.
In a premodern society – such as Qajar Iran – the state lacks the means to tailor its citizens to its needs, and lacks a “politics” in the modern sense. In Abdu’l-Baha’s time, for example, the concept of the nation in the modernist sense was just developing among intellectuals, and many of those most engaged in efforts to develop Iran were in “the party of progress” : Mirza Yusuf Khan Mustashir ad-Dowleh, and the Prime Minister Mirza Husayn Khan, for example. Abdu’l-Baha supports their ideas, for example in The Secret of Divine Civilization, and so is himself active in the body politic, as a public intellectual. There were others who had embraced “modernity” in its darker sense: who were using modernisation as a way of getting power and wealth, attacking social groups they disliked, or for the glory and power of the fatherland rather than the betterment of its people (Malkom Khan, Akhunzadeh, Afghani). Abdu’l-Baha opposed them, wrote against them, and, when it appeared that the dark side of modernity was to triumph, he withdrew himself and told the Bahais to withdraw from what was becoming “politics” in the modern sense.
In the postmodern state, the state recognises its limitations. It has no business in the world of thought, it cannot direct the economy although it can provide good law. It does not have any legitimate means to train the right kind of citizens — yet it still needs most of its people to be honest and law-abiding most of the time. That means that it is dependent on civil society — on the soft structures of family, culture and religion — to raise children as virtuous persons. It makes no difference to the postmodern state whether they do that as Catholics, Sikhs or Humanists: in fact, it is a good thing to have a variety of training-grounds in civil society, for while all of them teach that honesty is good, courage is good, compassion is good, each puts the emphasis differently. Virtues are universal, the relative values of the virtues — the sphere of values — is particular. Naturally every value system is a web of virtues: if your core value is honesty, then courage is involved. If the core value is courage, then compassion is involved (for courageous action on behalf of others). The value systems are alternative priorities and starting points in this one web of virtues. Having a variety of value systems, teaching the universal virtues, is a good thing for the State: it gives a variety of human resources.
This takes us to a key difference between the modern state and the societies before and after it: the modern state, perceiving the decline of religious institutions, and misled by early sociology’s prediction of the end of religion in modern society (Compte), mistakenly thought that common values were needed to sustain a society (Durkheim), and moved itself into that field. To provide one set of common values, the state thought it needed to foster a “national identity,” which itself creates its negative other (the ‘American way’ leads to ‘unamerican activies’), and to undergird it with an ideology, and with state sanctities that must be respected (Flags, anthems, the reputations of the Founding Fathers). This tragic misconception of society as national, of its supposed need for common values, and the overestimation of the role of the state, underlie some of the darkest passages in the history of the 20th century.
The postmodern state, in contrast, recognises its limitations and its need for virtuous citizens, and therefore its necessary partnership with civil society – with religious and cultural communities within its jurisdiction, with NGOs, and also with the semi-autonomous worlds of business and education. This withdrawal of the state creates not just more possibility, but also an immediate need, for “the party of progress” — Bahais included — to engage vigorously in the body politic. At the same time, the formal politics of government is being transformed, not back to the premodern pattern but towards a new pattern. The political parties that matter are less and less ideological, and those that hold a firm ideological line are increasingly marginal to the political process. They are clearly dinosaurs — but is not yet clear what kind of beast will evolve in their place. Coalition and consensus politics is become more usual, and the horizontal grass-roots politics of blogs and NGOs is developing. The state and the people are less and less conceived as opponents (hence the dwindling of mass demonstrations): the progressive party today sees government not as the problem, but as a tool in solving problems.
I don’t have to join up the dots as to what this means for the social and political involvement of the party of progress — people whose motivation is to better the condition of those who need it most.
It is important for Bahais to note that the high tide of the modern state coincides with the end of Abdu’l-Baha’s ministry and the whole of Shoghi Effendi’s ministry. (In Abdu’l-Baha’s case, I am referring of course to the situation in Europe and the US, where fascism, communism and nationalism (with attendant colonialism) were at their worst from about 1890 onwards. In Iran, modernity was still dawning at that time, and it was still possible for the nation not to be drawn into its dark side.)
When we look at what Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi said and did, as regards politics and the Bahais’ role in it, we need to consider which kind of society they are talking about: a premodern society with a weak state and no politics, or a society of the modern age, with a strong ideological state and politics that dominate life and intrude into civil spheres — and then we need to apply the principles, not the detailed rules, to whatever more-or-less postmodern state we are dealing with ourselves. The stark choice between “discouraging active political involvement” and preaching open revolution is one which we face in only the worst kind of modernist state, which is an abnormal condition for a human society.
This entry was posted on September 26, 2008 at 19:40 and is filed under Church and State, Community. Tagged: Activism, Afghani, Akhunzadeh, Baha'u'llah, Bahai, Bahai civilization, Bahai Faith, bahai theology, civil society, elections, ever-advancing civilization, fascism, ideology, kemalism, liberation theology, Malkom Khan, Mirza Husayn Khan, modernity, Mustashir ad-Dowleh, Organic unity, political engagement, political theology, politics, postmodernity, reform, Religion and Politics, revolution, values, virtues, بـهاءالله, بهائیت. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.