It is hardest to write of those things about which we feel most deeply. Today I wish to write about someone whose words and life have profoundly influenced and inspired me. That person is Abdu’l Baha: the son of the founder of the Baha’i Faith and its leader from 1892 to 1921. I wish to address particularly what Abdu’l Baha had to say about the issue of ‘foreignness’.
One hundred years ago, on 16 and 17 October 1911, he gave his first recorded talk to the people of Paris. The theme of his talk was “the duty of kindness and sympathy towards strangers and foreigners”.
What did Abdu’l Baha see when he arrived in that centre of civilisation that led him to conclude that the first thing of which he should speak should be the relationship between natives and foreigners?
He did not however speak of borders or political theories. Nor did he speak of sovereignty or cultural difference. He spoke to us as individuals asking us to reflect on the way in which we treat strangers and foreigners in our midst.
“I ask you not to think only of yourselves,” he said.
These simple words seem to me to address the very heart of the divisions on which the exclusion of non-citizens is built.
He emphasized the need for action: of more than theory:
“What profit is there in agreeing that universal friendship is good, and talking of the solidarity of the human race as a grand ideal? Unless these thoughts are translated into the world of action, they are useless.The wrong in the world continues to exist just because people talk only of their ideals, and do not strive to put them into practice. If actions took the place of words, the world’s misery would very soon be changed into comfort.”
He described the kind of action he had in mind in terms of very direct and practical steps:
“When you meet a … stranger, speak to him as to a friend; if he seems to be lonely try to help him, give him of your willing service; if he be sad console him, if poor succour him, if oppressed rescue him, if in misery comfort him. In so doing you will manifest that not in words only, but in deed and in truth, you think of all men as your brothers.”
Human beings and the relationships between them is central to Abdu’l Baha’s advice. It is ‘public policy’ that does not require great expense or complex analysis. It simply requires the exercise of the best in the human spirit. Abdu’l Baha’s words remind us of how close these issues are to us as individuals. The issues of migration are not divorced from community and life. They manifest in day to day experience, choices, attitudes and actions.
What would society look like if the actions and attitudes Abdu’l Baha encouraged characterized more closely the welcome that new members of the community received: whether the newcomers came from overseas or from the next city?
Such behaviour implies fundamentally different social relations. What need of new arrivals to ‘cling to their own’ in a community that makes them welcome? How would the individuals who participated in such interactions be changed by them? What would they learn? What kind of ‘community’ would emerge from the bonds of friendship so built? How would the toxic modern discourse around migration which characterises the modern world have evolved, had this kind of thinking characterized the behaviour of society?
The record of European history after 1911 travelled regrettably in the opposite direction. For hatred of foreigners led to one war after another. Between the wars, nations shut their doors to immigrants and to growing human suffering from which they fled. By the late 1930’s racism plunged the world into the greatest war it has ever seen.
Before Abdu’l Baha left Paris he returned to the theme of the relationship with those we consider ‘foreigners’ speaking of the ‘Cruel Indifference of People to the Suffering of Foreign Races’. What he describes we still see manifested in news reports.
“I have just been told that there has been a terrible accident in this country. A train has fallen into the river and at least twenty people have been killed. This is going to be a matter for discussion in the French Parliament today, and the Director of the State Railway will be called upon to speak. He will be cross-examined as to the condition of the railroad and as to what caused the accident, and there will be a heated argument. I am filled with wonder and surprise to notice what interest and excitement has been aroused throughout the whole country on account of the death of twenty people, while they remain cold and indifferent to the fact that thousands of Italians, Turks, and Arabs are killed in Tripoli! The horror of this wholesale slaughter has not disturbed the Government at all! Yet these unfortunate people are human beings too.Why is there so much interest and eager sympathy shown towards these twenty individuals, while for five thousand persons there is none? They are all men, they all belong to the family of mankind, but they are of other lands and races. It is no concern of the disinterested countries if these men are cut to pieces, this wholesale slaughter does not affect them! How unjust, how cruel is this, how utterly devoid of any good and true feeling! “
So much has changed in 100 years, but in other ways so little. As I write another war affecting North Africa and Tripoli is coming to an end. From time to time we are more ready to care for the lives of those we consider foreigners than the people of 1911, (perhaps more readily in those cases in which we see some benefit to ourselves) yet most of them time we explicitly and implicitly discount the value of the human life of those who do not share our language, nationality and customs.
To imagine 1911 is to imagine a world that has in many ways passed away. European colonial powers were at their height, largely controlled by monarchies and associated aristocratic and commercial interests. Society was ridden by divisions of class, race and gender. Education was denied to the great bulk of humanity.
One thing has however changed for the worse. In 1911, most of the world’s borders were far more open than they are today. It was the social upheaval of World War 1 that led to their closure. We have forgotten that there was a time when people could travel and live in other parts of the world far more freely that we allow today.
The bare facts of Abdu’l Baha’s life cannot capture the depth of his humanity and the complex dimensions of his contribution, but I would like to say something about them.
From the age of 9, he lived in exile and imprisonment with this father and family under the authority of the Ottoman Empire. He was known for his service to the poor: personally devoting himself to care of the poor and the sick in the city of Akka where he was exiled. After World War 1 he was knighted by the British for the work he did to ensure that grain was available for the people of the city during the war, preventing starvation. He was known to leaders of thought in the Middle East of the time. Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith entrusted the leadership of the Baha’i community to him.
Perhaps most remarkably, when at the age of 66 Abdu’l Baha was first given the freedom to travel, following the fall of the Ottoman regime, he arose to bring the ideas of his father’s Faith to the people of the West. The manner in which he did so was in many ways astonishing.
The central theme that he repeated time and again was the concept that all human beings are one: all members of one family. His understanding of what was most central in the Baha’i Faith lifted and challenged the vision of both its adherents and those interested in its ideas. He challenged racism and prejudice in both word and deed in an age when the most esteemed colleges of learning clothed racism with the respectability of scientific endorsement. He called for equality of men and women: and upheld the right of women to enter all branches of society, when women were still struggling to obtain the right to vote in the countries representing the home of modern democracy. He urged the abolition of extremes of wealth and poverty, a recurrent theme again emerging as an issue in the 21st century. The need for justice and the establishment of universal human rights featured among those elements that he believed to define the Baha’i Faith. He spoke and met with both the person on the street and leaders of society in travels that spanned Europe and North America.
In a time when many thinkers in the Middle East were uncritically urging their societies to adopt the ways of the West: he saw the writing on the wall. By 1913, when he gave his last talk to the people of New York before returning to the East, he had repeatedly warned of the great war that was to engulf society. He urged people to work for peace. More, he called us to dedicate our lives to overcoming the age long divisions that have beset the human family.