Recently I came across a discussion about whether the enactment of a prohibition in the Baha’i law constitutes discrimination or an abuse of human rights. It seemed a churlish argument but it gave me cause to review the idea of prejudice, discrimination, and human rights.
The definitions that I came across:
- Prejudice is a cultural attitude that rests on negative stereotypes about individuals or groups because of their cultural, religious, racial, or ethnic background.
- Discrimination is the active denial of desired goals from a category of persons. A category can be based on sex, ethnicity, nationality, religion, language, or class. More recently, disadvantaged groups now also include those based on gender, age, and physical disabilities.
It is also worthwhile noting that another usage of the word discrimination is the power of making fine distinctions; discriminating judgment or, something that serves to differentiate.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an extensive document that has been supported by a number of conventions. These are worthy of everyone’s attention and can be found at the United Nations website. http://www.un.org/rights/
Certainly a very detailed response can be made about the question I raised here, but I will answer it in brief.
Human Rights abuses in general relate to discrimination to achieve goals, restrictions of freedom, and denial of equal participation in socio-economic life.
There are several issues that test discrimination and the Baha’i Faith.
1. Are there any discriminations against a person becoming a member of the Faith?
2. Are there any coercions applied to persons that they become members of the Faith?
3. Are there any coercions applied to persons that they cannot recscind their membership in the Faith?
4. Within the body of membership, how are obligations oversighted?
5. Within the body of membership, how are prohibited behaviours oversighted?
6. Are there any coercions applied to deprive a person of membership of the Baha’i Faith?
Q1. What is the conditions for membership to the Baha’i Faith?
Ans.: A Baha’i is someone who believes that Baha’u’llah is the Manifestation or Messenger of God for this age. To officially enroll in the Baha’i Faith, a person must be 15 years or older, and will apply through the local spiritual assembly (an administrative body) and sign a declaration that they wish to become a member, accept Baha’u’llah, endeavours to follow His teachings, accepts the authority of the institutions which administer the affairs of the Baha’i community. The implication is that a person may well want to study the teachings of Baha’u’llah and gain a full understand the organisational structure of the Baha’i Faith prior to making such declaration. However, it is only this understanding and committment that is tested by Baha’i administrative bodies. It is anathema to the teachings of the Faith to proselytise (coerce). One of the spiritual values strongly supported in the teachings of the Faith is the importance of an independent search for truth, and voluntary committment and sacrifice.
Q2. What is the condition for rescinding membership in the Faith.
Ans: A person who comes to realise they no longer believe that Baha’u’llah is a manifestation of God, can have their membership cancelled by application to the Administrative body (usually the National Spiritual Assembly that oversights membership. The Assembly will only apply the test of belief to this application. A person who feels that they are not upholding the teachings adequately would not be considered to failed the belief test, and would be counselled. The administrative authorities do hold the responsibility to rescind membership of the Faith of persons whose attitudes and actions prove that they do not believe that Baha’u’llah is a manifestation of God.
Q 3. What obligations are impressed on members of the Baha’i Faith?
There are three types of obligations: moral behaviour, religious practices, prohibitions, religious community participation. Moral behaviour is dealt with extensively by Baha’u’llah and supports a concept of nobility, sacrifice (lesser for greater worth), and intimate human relationships. For example “Backbiting, slander and dwelling on the faults of others have been repeatedly condemned by Bahá’u’lláh. In the Hidden Words, He clearly states: “O Son of Being! How couldst thou forget thine own faults and busy thyself with the faults of others? Whoso doeth this is accursed of Me.” And again: “O Son of Man! Breathe not the sins of others so long as thou art thyself a sinner. Shouldst thou transgress this command, accursed wouldst thou be, and to this I bear witness.” This strong admonition is further reiterated in His last work, “the Book of My Covenant”: “Verily I say, the tongue is for mentioning what is good, defile it not with unseemly talk. God hath forgiven what is past. Henceforward everyone should utter that which is meet and seemly, and should refrain from slander, abuse and whatever causeth sadness in men.” (Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 181). Religious practices include praying and reading the teachings every day, fasting, attending community meeting, observing holy days, marrriage, giving to the fund. Prohibitions include alcohol, mind-altering drugs, confessing sins, congregational prayer, murder, adultery, backbiting, calumny, kissing of hands, slavery, using pulpits, gambling, cruelty to animals, marrying one’s step-mother, begging, paying a dowry more than (about) 13 ounces of Gold , contention, conflict or, to strike another, bury a dead person’s body more than one hours transport from place of death, carry arms unless essential, shave the head, sexual intercourse between husband and wife during a year of patience, plural marriage, paederasty, homosexual relations. Religious community participation includes attending routine calendar meetings held every 19 days, voting in community elections, accepting election to administrative roles. There are no nominations permitted in Baha’i administrative elections, everyone over 21 years of good standing is eligible to vote and to be voted for. Members of the community who bring public disrepute to the Faith by their behaviour may have their administrative rights removed. The prohibition against backbiting means that complainants must observe strict protocols of complaint to the local administrative body. Being aware that someone is not observing a Baha’i teaching is reason only for applying a ‘sin-covering’ eye and otherwise increasing supportive friendship. The response to observing criminal or harmful activity may vary from nation to nation depending on the nature of the justice system, however I think it is correct to say that Baha’is everywhere would be encouraged to report in order to protect.
So it is clear that the Baha’i Faith supports human rights in every way. However the Baha’i Faith could be said to hold to a philosophy that, not every action you desire, is harmless, and not every seemingly harmless action is noble, but every ignoble action is a barrier to the progress of civilisation. Nonetheless, the Baha’i Faith recognises that all humans struggle spiritually, none more so than at this point in history, and it is in supporting each other to reach up another rung on the nobility ladder that we might aspire to developing a great global civilisation based on justice, equity, peace and well-being.