Maryland Bahá’í Chair: Marking 30 years of promoting dialogue and peace
COLLEGE PARK, Maryland, United States — Amid the devastating conflict in Lebanon during the 1980s, Edward Azar, a professor at the University of Maryland and the Director of the University’s Center for International Development and Conflict Management (CIDCM), was advancing ideas and proposals for a resolution to the war.
While he was conducting his research, Professor Azar encountered the statement from the Universal House of Justice titled The Promise of World Peace—a compelling exploration of prerequisites for peace and challenges toward its realization.
This account of the origins of the Bahá’í Chair for World Peace at the University of Maryland was given by its holder, Hoda Mahmoudi, to guests at the 30th anniversary of the Chair.
“He was so moved by its contents,” said Professor Mahmoudi, “that he wrote to the [House of Justice] proposing the establishment of the Bahá’í Chair.”
Professor Azar’s letter reads, in part:
My colleagues and I… have read and thought about… “The Promise of World Peace.” With this letter I am answering on behalf of CIDCM and the University of Maryland your call: “If the Bahá’í experience can contribute in whatever measure to reinforcing hope in the unity of the human race, we are happy to offer it as a model for study.”
Given the mission at our center, your ideas on world peace, and the willingness of the University to proudly invite Bahá’ís to explore and discuss the Bahá’í point of view in a scholarly and objective manner… I propose we establish a Chair and a program on Bahá’í studies at this Center.
Jennifer King Rice, the Senior Vice President and Provost of the University of Maryland, summed up those foundational events at the anniversary gathering, saying: “Thirty years ago, the University of Maryland reached out to the Bahá’í community with an idea: ‘What if we partnered together in applying essential human principles to engage with the world’s largest problems that need attention and solutions?’”
“That simple inquiry,” said Provost Rice, “was the start of a remarkable partnership that has resulted in a breadth of knowledge, promoting the interests and well-being of humanity.”
The Bahá’í Chair was established in 1993, and renowned scholar Suheil Bushrui of the American University of Beirut became its first incumbent, pursuing its mission of promoting peace and education until his retirement in 2005. In 2006, John Grayzel became the second holder, furthering the Chair’s research with programs on peacebuilding and development.
Ever since it was established, the Chair has been engaging in several complementary activities, including conducting and publishing research, designing courses, and offering seminars on world peace, all within an interdisciplinary context that draws on insights from science and religion.
Interdisciplinary approach to promoting dialogue and understanding
The Chair takes an interdisciplinary approach to promoting dialogue and understanding, which it sees as essential to advancing thinking about peace. “We are interdisciplinary because modern life can only be understood from multiple perspectives,” said Professor Mahmoudi.
She noted, however, that this approach is not an end in itself, but rather a means of building “a storehouse of human knowledge… and possibilities.” This pursuit requires a truth-seeking posture as well as a commitment to disinterestedness, which Professor Mahmoudi defines as seeking to “put away personal inclinations and predilections, no matter their origin, in the pursuit of a greater cause.”
Over the past three decades, the Chair has collaborated with a wide range of scholars, researchers, and practitioners to tackle issues related to peace and has published over 25 books and articles. Over the past ten years, the Chair has hosted more than 80 conferences, symposia, and lectures, and welcomed over 250 speakers.
“All of these events,” said Provost Rice, “have been dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, the pursuit of peace, and the pursuit of a better world for humanity.
“The Bahá’í Chair does this in so many ways,” she said, pointing to the five themes that are central to its work: “through the rigorous examination into the roots of systemic racism and the causes of prejudice that we face way too often in our lives; to investigation of the structures that create women’s inequality; to the impediments that restrain us from having a truly global system of governance and leadership; and to the causes of climate change and environmental injustice; and the challenges of human nature.”
Provost Rice expressed her appreciation for the insights emerging from the Bahá’í Chair’s efforts, stating that it “has developed a sound scientific basis for knowledge and strategies that explore the role of social actors and structures in removing obstacles to peace.”
Addressing the root causes of barriers to peace
The Chair sees five themes as being central to the question of peace: structural racism and the root causes of prejudice; human nature; empowerment of women and peace; global governance and leadership; and overcoming challenges in the globalization of the environment.
Professor Mahmoudi explained that lasting peace cannot be realized without a fundamentally different approach to tackling the challenges associated with these themes, given the “tectonic ruptures” they are causing in society. In aiming to cast light on novel approaches, the Chair strives to challenge a prevalent assumption about human nature that is deeply rooted in contemporary discourse, which blocks progress toward peace—namely, the belief that humanity is inherently and incorrigibly selfish.
A view of humanity as capable of achieving peace
The Bahá’í Chair, recognizing the challenges and complexities of the world, acknowledges that there are disheartening examples of corruption and unethical conduct in society. However, the Chair also sees that there are countless examples of people selflessly acting for the common good.
Throughout her remarks at the anniversary gathering, Professor Mahmoudi emphasized that the Chair views humanity as fundamentally capable of working toward a peaceful world. This view is affirmed in the Bahá’í teachings, which recognize the nobility of the human spirit and envision a society that is worthy of that nobility.
By recognizing the shared identity of all people as members of one human family and promoting values such as justice and selfless service to society, the Chair challenges some of underlying beliefs about humanity that block progress toward peace. As Professor Mahmoudi put it, “we refuse to consider the notion that a better world cannot be constructed.”
Fostering a culture of peace at the university and beyond
A promising area of development for the Bahá’í Chair has been its work in the classroom, where Professor Mahmoudi offers a unique course each academic year that helps students identify the root causes of social challenges in the light of spiritual principles.
Provost Rice stated: “Professor Mahmoudi’s… impactful work seeks to answer big questions like ‘how do we create world peace?’ She encourages people… to reflect and think more about the kind of world we want to have.”
Two former students of Professor Mahmoudi spoke about their experiences with the Chair and the impact it has had on their personal and professional journeys.
Ashli Taylor, a recent graduate of Vermont Law School and now a member of the United States Air Force Judge Advocate General Corps, reflected on her journey with the Bahá’í Chair. She spoke about her experience of attending a lecture on Iranian women writers hosted by the Chair as a first-year student in college and being inspired to get involved with the program in any way she could.
Ms. Taylor went on to express her appreciation for the unique approach of the Bahá’í Chair in addressing the issue of world peace, “by bringing together scholars from all over the world to discuss their concrete views of how we can achieve peace…, whether within ourselves, our communities, our education system, our environment, and in so many other [ways] ”
Ms. Taylor also spoke about her experience as a teaching assistant in a class taught by Professor Mahmoudi, where participants discussed prejudice and its roots: “In this particular seminar, I saw students truly grow and become introspective… Years later, students have reached out to me saying how transformative the class was, and how they’re still initiating this dialogue, continuing to have hard conversations.”
Emily Gorey, a graduate of the University of Maryland and now a strategist for a creative agency in Los Angeles, spoke about the transformative impact the Bahá’í Chair has had on her life and how it has shaped her future aspirations. She explained how she became more attuned to social disparities and injustices when she enrolled in the course; it was there that she was introduced to the themes of the Bahá’í Chair and its emphasis on compassion and understanding as a means for creating a more equitable world.
“Throughout college, I took 35 classes, but there was only one that fundamentally changed how I looked at the world,” says Ms. Gorey. “It was Professor Mahmoudi’s honors seminar my first week at the University of Maryland. It was here that I learned how different the world looks outside of Howard County, Maryland. I learned about unconscious biases, the science of empathy, and the power of representation.”
Ms. Gorey’s time with the Bahá’í Chair allowed her to learn about the interconnectedness of people and the role that empathy and understanding play in creating a more equitable world. As a teaching assistant for the class, she saw first-hand the impact that these lessons had on her fellow students and was inspired to use her education and career to help others. “We became better listeners,” she said, echoing the sentiments of many students who have gone through the courses of the Chair.
Stella Hudson, a current student, explained that students’ view of the world evolves because the Chair “approaches complex questions with intelligence and an important human perspective, diving into the root of the problem.”
The occasion of the anniversary was an opportunity for the Bahá’í Chair and its wide circles of collaborators to reflect on the Chair’s ongoing efforts to advance the discourse on peace, and to look ahead to the future.
“The successes of peace will come from all of us,” said Professor Mahmoudi in her closing remarks, “an ‘us’ comprised of a fellowship of the willing. The work of peace will come from a collaboration of those dedicated to toiling in unison, regardful of the past, while being fully in the present, and with a mind to the future. We invite you to help us imagine such a new world of peace.”
In his remarks at the gathering, Kenneth Bowers, member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, elaborated: “The essential premise of the Chair is to view all of humanity in all its infinite diversity and richness as an organic whole. And with this view, its work is to advance discourse and learning about the path to world peace, through the systematic and scientific application of principles of which the world is in dire need.”
A recording of the 30th anniversary gathering can be viewed here.