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.
Photo: Getty
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On the important issues, Louise Casey all too often has little to say

Far from moving the debate on, this new report on integration adds little to the report I commissioned in 2001. 

For 15 years, “numerous government reports on community cohesion and integration have not been implemented with enough force or consistency” concludes Louise Casey’s review of  integration.  The government’s lukewarm response suggests their effort will be as “diluted and muddled” as all the rest.

There’s a deeper reason why governments shy away from the measures that are needed. The report's wealth of data sets out a stark if sometimes contestable picture of a divided society.  But no amount of data can really bring the lives of our fellow citizens to life. As the Brexit vote underlined, this is now a nation divided by class, geography, education, wealth, opportunity and race. Those divisions colour the way we live our lives, the way we see problems in society, the relations we have with others, and our political choices. The report, like many before it, stops short of setting out that reality. It’s easier to pretend that most of us pretty much agree on most things; but just few people don’t agree and they must be the problem. Predictably, much of the early coverage has focussed on the Muslim community and new migrants. If only it were so easy.

According to Casey “in this country, we take poverty, social exclusion, social justice and social mobility seriously” and we do it “across political divides”. Apparently “creating a fair, just society where everyone can prosper and get on” is a cornerstone of British values. Yet for page after page the report chronicles the serial failure of this benign consensus to tackle educational under-performance, and economic and racial disadvantage. If we all agree, how come we haven't done anything about it?

These problems are not certainly easy to solve, but more lip service is paid to tackling them than effort. The practical material issues documented here need addressing, but punches are pulled when hard answers are needed. Given the dramatic impact of mass migration on cohesion, is integration possible while current rates of immigration persist? Can we find the political will to tackle poverty and disadvantage when those who might benefit from the effort are divided against each other by suspicion, race, geography and values? After all, rather than progressive policies producing a cohesive society, social unity is the precondition for the introduction of progressive policies.

We don't actually actually agree on what our “fundamental values” mean in practice. We can all sign up to democracy and the rule of law, but as soon as those are put into practice – see the court case on Article 50 – we are divided. When judges are popularly seen as “enemies of the people” and a vote in an elected parliament as a threat to democracy, in what sense are law and democracy fundamental?

Casey usefully highlights how treating homeless families equally, irrespective of ethnicity and length of residence can create the perception that minorities are being favoured over long standing residents. Our differing views on what is “just” and how “fairness” are defined can tear us apart. Is it fair to favour the newcomer over the indigenous? Is it just to put length of time on the waiting list above housing need? We often don't even acknowledge the legitimacy of other points of view, let alone try to find common ground.

The continual invocation of Britain and British values lends an air of unreality to the report.  Most people in England include British in their identity, but Englishness and English interests are of growing importance. In a worrying development, some areas of England  may be polarising between a white Englishness and an ethnic minority Britishness. Integration won't happen without a shared national story that combines a unifying national identity with the acceptance that we all have more than one identity that matters to us. Ignoring the reality of complex and multiple identities closes off one essential way forward.

None of this means that the criticism of some reactionary and occasionally dangerous ideas and practices in the Muslim community should be ignored and not confronted. But in a country where the established church opposes homosexual relationships and praise for Vladimir Putin's Russia is now mainstream politics it is hard to believe that all our problems can be reduced to the behaviour of a minority of a minority community.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University