Resisting Persecution

The Bahá’í faith supports human rights and interactions with other religions, yet the believers have

The Bahá’í teachings are full of references to justice, legal order, universality, equality, human dignity and individual freedoms, as well as responsibilities, and the need to overcome prejudices of race, religion, nationality or sex. Though pre-dating the modern human rights era by a century, all the core ingredients are there for enthusiastic Bahá’í support for human rights.

Religions are most often criticized in human rights for restricting the role of women to the domestic sphere, drawing sharp distinctions between believers and non-believers, exaggerating their numbers and compelling membership through social stigmatization or even criminal penalties. In the Bahá’í writings the high station of motherhood is balanced with the recognition of a critical role for women in all arenas of human endeavour (science, diplomacy, agriculture and others); importance is attached to sincere dedication in faith and action, but ‘believers’ are warned of arrogant complacency; and both joining and leaving the Bahá’í community are quite simple affairs.

I’m often asked if I am a ‘practicing’ Bahá’í and find this an unusual question. That is because membership of the Bahá’í religion is contingent on belief in the special and divinely guided insights brought by its founder, Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892) and a commitment to realizing that vision in daily life. If I didn’t believe in it I would be quite free to assert that I was no longer a Bahá’í without risking my marriage and family life and cordial social interactions. In fact Bahá’í children are quite aware of this freedom to search individually for truth. Bahá’í membership is not contingent on race or parentage. Bahá’ís are quite free to marry those of other faiths, or none, and are even instructed in their ‘most holy book’ to consort cordially with all irrespective of belief.

Whilst these positions would seem to make the peaceful coexistence with Bahá’ís innocuous worldwide, history has unfortunately demonstrated a few contrary cases. Bahá’ís have faced persecution in a number of countries over the past 165 years – sometimes as part and parcel of wider political repression, and at times singled out on the grounds of their belief. The latter has been the case in Iran, the land of birth of the founders of both the Bahá’í faith and its precursor Bábí faith, but also where no recognition has ever been granted them under the various political regimes that have ruled.

This lack of recognition became established as a concerted programme of obliteration with the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Whilst a pogrom against the Bahá´ís has thus far been averted – thanks most probably to the international outcry against their persecution – there have been a number of alarming trends in recent years that are jeopardizing their very existence as a community in Iran once again. Much has been recorded on the details of the massive human rights violations that are carried out against Bahá’ís in Iran, both individually and in attacks on their community, and even in government-orchestrated efforts to obliterate any trace of their short history in that land.

What I find almost beyond comprehension is how the Iranian Bahá’í community is living out Bahá’í ideals so heroically – of stoic and peaceful resistance against intolerable pressures on them to reject Bahá’u’lláh or lose their employment, lie about their individually-held beliefs or be denied tertiary education, repent or have their hard earned property or pension confiscated by the state, or even recant or die. Once this painful period is over, I look forward to examining this wonderful example of how a minority community under huge pressure of destruction by a concerted government-led ideology against them, maintains its identity, remains loving and positive towards its oppressors, stays active in service to Iranian society at large, and culturally and spiritually flourishes. It is a remarkable story.

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Did Titantic do more for climate change than Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary?

Sex, icebergs and individual plight: the actor’s earlier outing teaches us more about vast disasters than his new docufilm about global warming’s impact, Before the Flood.

“Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me . . . in every way that a person can be saved.” Or did he? For Titanic actor Leonardo DiCaprio, there is one way in which Jack never did rescue Rose: from the threat of climate catastrophe. 

Over the last 15 years, DiCaprio has made the issue a personal mission. Yet even in his role as UN climate ambassador, he stills feels far from heroic:

“If the UN really knew how I feel, how pessimistic I am about our future . . . I mean to be honest, they may have picked the wrong guy.”

So begins his new documentary, Before the Flood. A quest for answers on climate change, the film sees Leo racing around the world, marvelling at the sound of endangered whales, despairing at the destruction caused by tar-sands – “it looks like Mordor” – and interviewing a series of concerned experts, from professors to Barack Obama to the Pope.

There are plenty of naysayers to stand in his way and put him down. “Who better to educate world leaders on made-up climate change and a crisis that doesn't exist, than an actor with zero years of scientific training?” mocks one commentator from Fox News.

But if DiCaprio can gather enough evidence to believe in himself – AND believe that there are viable solutions out there – then so can we. Or so the story arc promises. His journey thus stands as a guide for our own; a self-education that will lead to salvation for all. 

It's all a little messianic. The film is even named after a biblical painting. And will those who don't already know who DiCaprio is even care? 

The sad fact is that, while DiCaprio’s lasting popularity still owes so much Titanic, the 1997 box-office smash that made his name, his new documentary fails to recapture the dramatic wisdom that put him there. It doesn’t even quip about the icebergs.

This is an oversight. Titanic didn’t win 11 academy awards for nothing. As well as a must-see rite of passage (pun intended) and soundtrack for infinite school discos, it taught me something invaluable about storytelling. Though I was not initially a DiCaprio fan, over the years I’ve come to accept that my lasting love of the film is inseparable from my emotional investment in Leo, or at least in his character, Jack. What Titanic showed so brilliantly was that the fastest way to empathise with suffering on a vast scale – be it a sinking ship or a sinking planet – is to learn to care for the fate of one or two individuals involved.

Every part of Jack and Rose's story is thus intimately linked with the story of the ship. Even that famed sex scene gains its erotic force not from the characters alone, but from their race through the blazing engine room (situated as it is between the foreplay of the naked portrait and the famous post-coital ending in the back of the cab).

And such carefully crafted storytelling isn't only essential to great entertainment but to great activism too. It can literally inspire action – as evidenced by fans’ desperate attempts to prove that both Jack and Rose could have climbed to safety aboard the floating piece of wood.

So would Before the Flood have been better if it had been a little bit more like Titanic and less like An Inconvenient Truth? Yes. And does that mean we should make climate films about epic polar bear love stories instead? Not exactly. 

There are many powerful documentaries out there that make you emotionally invested in the lives of those experiencing the consequences of our indirect (fossil fuel-burning) actions. Take Virunga, a heart-wrenching insight into the struggle of those protecting eastern Congo’s national park.

Sadly, Before the Flood is not one of them. Its examples of climate change – from Beijing air pollution to coral reef destruction – are over-familiar and under-explored. Instead of interviewing a Chinese official with a graph on his iPad, I would have preferred visiting a solar-panel factory worker and meeting their family, who are perhaps suffering from the effects of the smog in a way I can't yet imagine.

If you want a whistlestop tour of all things climate change then this necessary and urgent film is the movie for you. But those hoping it will give new depth to climate activism will be disappointed.

DiCaprio's distant relationship with the effects of climate change leave him stranded at the level of a narrator. He makes for a great elderly Rose, but we need a Jack.

Before The Flood is in limited theatres from 21 October and will be shown on National Geographic on Sunday 30 October.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.