The history of the faith

Barney Leith recounts the history of the Bahá’í faith and some of the persecution it has suffered

The stories of the life of Jesus and his disciples and of the acts of the apostles were an important part of my childhood.

When I became a Bahá’í I began to learn a whole new religious history, the story of a community that began as a millennial movement in 19th century Persia, that emerged from its Shi’ite Islamic background to become an independent faith community that now spans the globe.

The story of the Bahá’í Faith and of its two founding figures, the Báb (meaning ‘the Gate’) and Bahá’u’lláh (meaning ‘the Glory of God’), is modern history, documented in government archives and the writings of European scholars, as well as in the annals and accounts written by those who themselves experienced the tumultuous early years of the Faith.

The Báb, born in 1819, claimed to be the return of the Hidden Imam, Shi’ite Islam’s equivalent of Christianity’s messianic return of Jesus. He declared his mission in 1844 and many thousands flocked to his cause, including significant numbers of the Islamic clerical class of mullahs.

A central theme of the Báb’s teaching was that he was preparing the way for the coming of a new manifestation of God, one greater than himself.

The Shi’ite establishment was spooked by the rapid growth of this new faith. The Báb was executed by firing squad in 1850. His followers were tortured in the most brutal fashion and as many as 20,000 were martyred. Much of this was witnessed by observers from European governments, who were revolted by the fiendish cruelty of the torturers.

Bahá’u’lláh, born in 1817, was the son of a prominent member of the Shah’s court and a notable patron of the arts. He became one of the leading members of the Bábí community and was arrested in 1852. During four months in a foul dungeon in Tehran he experienced a revelation that gave the direction to the rest of his life. He later described this experience:

"During the days I lay in the prison of Tehran, though the galling weight of the chains and the stench-filled air allow Me but little sleep, still those infrequent moments of slumber I felt as if something flowed from the crown of My head over My breast … At such moments My tongue recited what no man could bear to hear."

Early in 1853 Bahá’u’lláh was sent into exile, never to return to his homeland. In the spring of 1863, as he was preparing to leave Baghdad for Constantinople after ten years in Baghdad, he announced to a few of his closest associates that he was the one whose coming the Báb had foretold.

After five years in Edirne on the Turkish-Bulgarian border, Bahá’u’lláh was sent into his final exile in Acre in the Ottoman province of Syria. It was during his time in Edirne and Acre that he wrote a series of letters to the powerful monarchs of his day, including Queen Victoria. He called on them as trustees of God and of their fellow human beings to work for the unification of the human race and to bring about what he called ‘the Most Great Peace’.

Bahá’u’lláh died an exile in 1892. In His will he appointed his eldest son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, as the Head of the Bahá’í community and gave him the authority to interpret his teachings.

This ‘covenant’, through which the Bahá’ís accept the authority of the legitimate Head of the community (currently an elected body, the Universal House of Justice), has held the community together through many trials and tribulations

At the time of Bahá’u’lláh’s death, his community had already begun to spread from its Middle Eastern cradle, and Bahá’í groups were starting to appear in the USA, in Europe and India. In 1898 a group of American Bahá’ís made the first pilgrimage from the West to visit ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, at that time still under house arrest in Acre.

Since then, the community has spread to pretty much every country and includes people from many different religious and ethnic backgrounds.

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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.