Bahá’ís and Social Action

The Bahá'í ethos of easing the burdens of others inspires believers to build schools and improve hea

There is an oft-quoted Bahá’í maxim that says that if religion brings about more hatred than harmony then we are better off without religion. It is by this measure that Bahá’ís also measure their own worth as a community.

Service to the world of humanity, becoming the cause of harmony, easing the burden of everyone whose path they cross, and making sure that their behaviour each day is better than the previous day's - these are all goals which Bahá’ís worldwide attempt to realize through their daily lives.

As a matter of faith, Bahá’ís – since the earliest days of their religion - have been active in setting up social projects to serve the needs of communities around the world. The vast majority of these have looked beyond the confines of self-help objectives for the Bahá’í community alone. In fact, it may be fair to say that such Bahá’í projects have only been ‘inward looking’ when intense persecution in certain countries has made it impossible for them to extend their desire to serve the wider community.

Schools have been the most popular amongst these social action projects and there are numerous well established Bahá’í inspired schools the world over – for example in Macau, India, Guyana and Zambia. However, projects also relate to other areas of life - such as agriculture, literacy, empowerment, health, challenging racism and environmental protection. The Bahá’í ethos in initiating such projects is simple. They are designed to raise the capacity of populations to take charge of their own lives and to develop the skills, knowledge and insights to progress their communities. Projects are developed in free and open consultation and in a spirit of equality and respect for populations and their traditions.

In recent years, the entire Bahá'í world community has become engaged in three lines of social action that are proving to be core activities for community building. In a predominately voluntary capacity, Bahá’ís are getting involved in a comprehensive syllabus of child and young teenage education, hosting meetings for prayer and reflection, and propagating study groups in neighbourhoods which use the Bahá'í sacred writings to train participants to become useful members of society.

As Bahá’ís we believe that a human being’s purpose is essentially a spiritual one. We are born into this life to develop our spiritual potential. But in Bahá’í metaphor this physical existence is a mere shadow of our true reality. The body is the temple of the soul and is destroyed on our physical death only to release the bird of our soul from its mortal cage. Since life’s purpose is to develop spiritual qualities while in a physical frame, then projects that aid individuals to focus on the spiritual – by pausing to reflect in devotional gatherings or by considering spiritual texts and reflecting them in a life of service to others – is actually core to human development.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide