A guide to being a Bahá'í'

I was a callow 17-year-old when I first met the Bahá'ís. I'd been brought up and confirmed in the Church of England, but my faith had waned somewhat in my teens and I considered myself an atheist.

I left school in 1965 and went to live in Cambridge with my half-brother Peter. Peter was a Buddhist and was keen I should look into Buddhism. So he sent me to the university freshers' fair – you didn't have to be a student to go into the fair – to find the Buddhist Society stand. I wandered around the various religious and philosophical stalls, found the Buddhists, was accosted by the Christian Union, had a chat with a Humanist, and then came to a bare table adorned with the word 'Bahá'í'.

'What have you got that the humanists haven't got?' I asked the rather severe looking bloke who was standing at the Bahá'í table (I'd just come from the humanist table).

I have no idea what the he said, but he gave me a slip of paper with an invitation to a public meeting a few days hence.

Sheer curiosity got me to the public meeting. It wasn't an exciting or inspiring meeting and I might have left the Bahá'í Faith in my museum of curiosities had I not been approached by one of the younger Bahá'ís and invited to go to a Bahá'í home. Straight away.

And that's where my love affair with the Bahá'í Faith began, in the home of an Iranian Bahá'í family. I'd never knowingly met any Iranians, nor had I experienced the legendary Iranian hospitality. In that home I felt a warmth that I'd not associated with religion before, undemanding but palpable.

I started to attend weekly 'fireside' discussion meetings to learn more about the Bahá'í Faith and got to know more of the Bahá'ís in what was a vibrant and active community. And what a diversity of Bahá'ís I found: the older Scottish lady we all called 'Lady Margaret'; the Southern African couple who came from a Jewish background – he was a photographer, she was a concert pianist; Derek, a Burnleyite who took the responsibility for teaching me about the Faith, and his beautiful Iranian girlfriend, who was the niece of the older Iranian lady the whole community called 'Auntie'. It was in Auntie's house that the fireside meetings took place.

I learned a great deal at those firesides about the history of the Bahá'í Faith and its teachings, about what made the community tick and what held it together. This was a whole new world for me. Religion as I had never experienced it before – informal, non-ritualistic, deeply spiritual.

It took me around five months to come to the conclusion that I wanted to be part of this faith. And it took Derek to push me. I say push, but neither he nor any of the other Bahá'ís ever put any pressure on me – and that's a crucial element of the way the Bahá'í Faith is shared with others. Each of us has the right and the responsibility to explore truth and reality for ourselves, not depending on other people's opinions, and to make up our own minds. But sometimes someone else can see more clearly what one's mind is.

I became a Bahá'í in February 1966. I was 18 years old.

Barney Leith has been an active Bahá’í since the mid 1960s. In 1993 he was elected to the National Spiritual Assembly of the UK Bahá’ís. Barney has been married to Erica since 1970. They have three grown-up offspring and three grandchildren.
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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue