Contributing to social transformation—reflections on Baha’i participation in discourses

3 December 2018

Representatives of a number of national Baha’i communities recently gathered at the Baha’i World Centre to reflect on the past several years of experience learning about participation in the discourses of society. The Baha’i World News Service took the opportunity to interview groups of representatives about the experiences and insights they have gained in this area of endeavor. Listen to one of these conversations in this week’s story.

The next report, to be published later this month, will include an interview about one specific discourse that is becoming more prevalent in countries around the world: the role of religion in society.

BAHA'I WORLD CENTRE — In recent years, national Baha’i institutions and regional agencies have been systematically participating in the discourses of society, such as migration and integration, social cohesion, race unity, the role of religion in society, and climate change, to name a few.

Podcast: What does it mean to participate in the discourses of society?

In this podcast, Saba Detweiler from Germany, Rachel Bayani from the BIC Brussels Office, Vahid Vahdat from Brazil, and Karl Wightman from the United Kingdom discuss the efforts of regional and national Baha’i communities to participate in the discourses of society.

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The phrase “participation in the discourses of society” is being used more and more to describe the involvement of the Baha’i community in the broad conversations focused on social betterment.

Discourses take place at different levels. Individuals can contribute to discourses in their professions or fields of study. Many individuals and communities are drawn into discourses on issues vital to their neighborhoods and villages. Non-governmental organizations inspired by the Baha’i teachings—for example, in the area of social and economic development—contribute to discourses related to their efforts. The Baha’i community’s formal involvement in discourses related to the well-being and progress of society is facilitated at the national and international levels by offices of external affairs and the Baha’i International Community, respectively.

“There are conversations that are happening all around society in which different people are participating,” Vahid Vahdat, from Brazil, explains in the podcast. “You have government officials, you have the media, you have religious communities, you have local organizations, national organizations, NGOs, and they are all concerned with certain subjects. How does our society advance the equality of men and women? How do we deal with prejudice? How do we bring about united societies? So as a Baha’i community we are taking part in these conversations.”

No matter the setting, Baha’is are learning to contribute insights and experiences that are relevant to the profound challenges facing humanity today. In so doing, they strive to adopt a posture of humility, engage in genuine conversation, generously contribute relevant Baha’i principles, and learn with and from other like-minded individuals and groups.

“It's not just about the Baha’is contributing ideas; it’s about everybody in the wider society trying to advance this thinking and change the trajectory of humanity's ultimate development just a little bit, incrementally over time,” notes Ida Walker, from Australia.

This conception of participating in discourses is about cooperation, collaboration, and inclusivity. “It requires the participation of every member of society,” adds Saba Detweiler, from Germany. “And by engaging in conversations with different people, with different organizations, our common understanding will find expression in action. And action can take different forms.”

Ida Walker (second from right), who works with the Office of External Affairs in Australia, speaks in a seminar about social cohesion with participants from around the country. The gathering was held last week on the grounds of the Baha’i House of Worship in Sydney.SLIDESHOW
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Ida Walker (second from right), who works with the Office of External Affairs in Australia, speaks in a seminar about social cohesion with participants from around the country. The gathering was held last week on the grounds of the Baha’i House of Worship in Sydney.

Baha’i efforts to contribute to the advancement of thought find their origins in the very beginnings of the Faith’s history. Baha’u’llah, while a prisoner and exile in Edirne and later in Akka, addressed the rulers of His time. He put forth far-reaching spiritual principles and wrote on a range of topics including issues of great concern to world leaders at the time, for example, calling for the establishment of international peace and disarmament and the abolition of slavery, praising the benefits of representative government, and challenging rulers to give due regard to the rights and dignity of the poor. Another example is ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s penetrating analysis of Persian society in a widely disseminated treatise to the people of Iran, penned in 1875, about the conditions that would conduce to the progress and prosperity of the nation.

Since its establishment in 1948, the Baha’i International Community (BIC) has consistently sought to contribute constructively to international discourses at the United Nations. From its earliest days, the BIC promoted the advancement of women and the education of the girl child, the latter becoming a major topic of discourse in development circles starting in the 1980s and a strategic focus of development efforts since. World citizenship education is another such topic that was advanced by the BIC and has also become a widely recognized element in the UN’s efforts to promote education. Today, the BIC participates in numerous discourses including the equality of women and men, human rights, and sustainable development.

In this podcast, Ms. Detweiler from Germany interviews a group of Baha’i representatives about the experience of the Baha’i community in contributing to discourses on the national and international stages: Rachel Bayani from the BIC Brussels Office, Mr. Vahdat from Brazil, and Karl Wightman from the United Kingdom.