The religion of God

Academic and human rights campaigner Nazila Ghanea explains the basic tenets of Bahá’í belief

Despite its relatively brief history of some 165 years, the Bahá’í faith is the second most geographically widespread religion in the world after Christianity. The Bahá'í community numbers some six million followers living in more than 100,000 localities around the world.

As a Bahá’í, I believe that there is but one God, a Supreme Being that has continually sent divinely-inspired ‘Messengers’ – or 'Manifestations of God' - to impart to humanity the knowledge and spiritual impetus for its social evolution.

Therefore, Bahá'ís believe that there is only one religion – the religion of God – and the various Manifestations who have appeared throughout history are equally valid, but different.

They are teachers in the same school, providing the world with the lessons it needs to learn to move to the next stage of its development. The Bahá’í faith sees itself as the latest in this ongoing unfolding of knowledge, known as 'progressive revelation'.

In Persia, in 1844 and then 19 years later, two such Manifestations, known to history as the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, claimed to be the recipients of revelations from God and founded the Babí and Bahá’í faiths, respectively. As Bahá’ís we consider both as twin revelations bearing the same essential message for this age.

What this understanding of progressive revelation means for me is that I see no conflict in the essential purpose of any of the religions. They are fundamentally one and the same. It is not some kind of gimmick - it is part and parcel of our very religious belief: that God is one, and as such the religious messages he has conveyed to humanity are also one.

This does not mean that any claim to ‘religious truth' is necessarily authentic, however. Nor does it mean that Bahá'ís have somehow taken the 'best bits' of the other faiths and syncretised a new one. There are two essential aspects to religious truth: one, spiritual truths - which the great religious traditions have in common and are unchanging over the centuries and two, social teachings - which change according to the needs of the age.

My religion has a clear response to the challenges of our times. Bahá'u'lláh's writings – and those of his authorised successors - provide the principles by which pressing problems such as civil war, famine, nuclear power, religious extremism, birth control, penal reform, environmental degradation, racism, adoption and surrogacy can be addressed.

The Bahá'í faith has no clergy and very few formal rituals. Bahá’í communities worship, socialize and hold activities either in purposely-acquired buildings, or in believers' homes or in hired facilities.

There are currently Bahá’í Houses of Worship in Sydney-Australia, New Delhi-India, Apia-Samoa, Kampala-Uganda, Frankfurt-Germany, Panama City-Panama, Chicago-USA and one currently under construction in Santiago-Chile. These Houses of Worship are open to all people.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.