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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

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

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