9. THE BAHÁ'Í WORLD TODAY


a. The expansion of the Bahá'í community
b. Co-operation with the United Nations and other international agencies
c. Social and economic development projects
d. The Bahá'í community as a model
 

The Bahá'í world today is a community that is extremely diverse in its ethnicity, its social class composition, and the cultural and religious background of its adherents. Despite its diversity, it is managing to work together in pursuing goals of international co-operation and development. In view of this, the Universal House of Justice in a recent message called upon the people of the world to consider the Bahá'í world community as a model for the future unification of humanity.
 
 
 

a. The expansion of the Bahá'í community

The expansion of the Bahá'í Faith takes place mainly through the person-to-person contact of individual Bahá'ís with their neighbours and friends. Those who express an interest are invited to a "fireside", an informal gathering usually held in the home of one of the Bahá'ís. In some countries, however, especially in the villages of the poorer countries of the world, the Bahá'í Faith has been proclaimed and accepted by large numbers of people at one time.
 

There is no ritual or ceremony of conversion. If someone accepts the claims that Bahá'u'lláh has made about his station and mission, agrees to follow the Bahá'í laws, accepts the station of Bahá'u'lláh's successors, `Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, as well as the authority of the Universal House of Justice, which was ordained by Bahá'u'lláh, then that person is a Bahá'í. In order to become part of the world-wide Bahá'í community, however, it is usually necessary to register with one's local Bahá'í community.
 

The spread of the Bahá'í Faith from one country to another usually occurs through the movement of individual Bahá'ís called "pioneers". There are no professional missionaries, and Bahá'ís will usually take up employment or start a business in their new location. The spread of the Bahá'í Faith around the world has been organized through a series of systematic plans (Cross-Reference) begun under Shoghi Effendi and continued by the Universal House of Justice. 

Currently there are Bahá'í communities in every country in the world except the Vatican. This makes the Bahá'í Faith the second most widely spread religion in the world, after Christianity; a statement that is supported by authoritative publications such as the Britannica Book of the Year(1) and the World Christian Encyclopedia.(2) Organized Bahá'í communities exist in most countries, except where persecution and official prohibition of the Bahá'í Faith make this impossible.
 

As a whole, the Bahá'í Faith has been rapidly increasing in numbers. In the early 1950s, there were probably some 200,000 Bahá'ís in the world. This had increased to about one million by the late 1960s, about 4.5 million by the late 1980s, and over 5 million by the mid-1990s. Something of the impact of this tremendous rate of growth in recent years can be gleaned from the fact that as recently as the early 1950s, over 90% of all the Bahá'ís of the world were Iranians. Now Iranians constitute only about 6% of the world Bahá'í population.
 

The number of National and Local Spiritual Assemblies has also increased in proportion to the rise in numbers of Bahá'ís. This increase can best be seen in the accompanying table.
 

 


 



 
GROWTH IN THE INSTITUTIONS OF THE BAHÁ'Í FAITH
  1954 1963 1968 1973 1979 1988 1994
National Spiritual Assemblies 12 56 81 113 125 149 172
Local Spiritual Assemblies 708 3379 5,902 17,037 23,634 19,486 17,780
Localities where Bahá'ís reside 3,117 11,092 31,883 69,541 102,704 112,137 119,276
NOTES: Figures taken from P. Smith and M. Momen, "The Baha'i Faith 1957-1988", p. 70 and The Bahá'í World, 1994-5, p. 317. The drop in the number of Local Spiritual Assemblies between 1979 and 1988 is accounted for by a major reorganization in 1987 in India where the area for each Local Spiritual Assembly was increased to cover more than one village. The result was a drop in the number of Local Spiritual Assemblies in India from 15,448 to 4,497. There have since been similar re-organizations in other countries.

 


The largest Bahá'í communities are in the countries of the Third World: South America, sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific, and South and South-East Asia. The largest Bahá'í community in the world is in India, where they number some two million. The large population of India, however, means that the Bahá'ís are still only a very small proportion of the population. It is in the countries of the Pacific that the Bahá'ís form the largest proportion of the population. In countries such as Kiribati and the Marshall Islands, the Bahá'ís form 12-18% of the total population.
 

Such a rapid increase in numbers has produced its own problems and growth in some areas paused for a time while attempts were made to deepen the knowledge and experience of the new Bahá'ís. The introduction of social and economic projects has broadened the range of activities in many of these Bahá'í communities.
 

Although the Bahá'í Faith began in the Middle East, continued persecution in this region has severely limited its growth here. The Bahá'í Faith is banned in many Islamic countries and there have been sporadic persecutions in some of these countries such as Morocco, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and Indonesia. The most notable case of persecution has been in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where the Bahá'ís are the largest non-Muslim religious minority. Since the revolution of 1979, the Bahá'ís in Iran have been subjected to a relentless programme of persecution which has seen the leading Bahá'ís executed or driven into exile and the remaining Bahá'ís systematically looted of their property and stripped of all rights. Some Muslim countries have, however, exhibited tolerance. In Pakistan, for example, the Bahá'í Faith is officially recognized as a non-Muslim minority.
 

In the countries of "the West" (Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand), Bahá'ís have been present since the time of `Abdu'l-Bahá. Bahá'í communities in continental Europe were severely disrupted by the Second World War (during which there was Nazi persecution of the German Bahá'í community) and its aftermath (several existing Bahá'í communities fell into the Communist bloc and Bahá'í activities ceased in these countries). Although the German Bahá'í community made a slow recovery after the war, the Bahá'í communities in the Communist bloc did not re-emerge until the fall of Communism at the end of the 1980s. There was then a rapid growth of the Bahá'í Faith in Eastern Europe such that the largest Bahá'í communities in Europe now include such countries as Romania and Albania. In North America, western Europe, Australia and New Zealand, there has been slow but steady growth.
 

The Bahá'í communities in South and Central America have their origins in the activities of the North American Bahá'ís in the late 1930s and the 1940s. From the mid-1950s onwards there was a sudden dramatic increase in the number of Bahá'ís in this region. This was the result of a large number of conversions among native Amerindians, in such countries as Bolivia, Ecuador, and Panama.
 

The Bahá'í Faith did not really establish itself in any systematic way in sub-Saharan Africa until the 1950s, when Bahá'ís settled in many newly-emerging independent nations. There was then rapid growth in a few countries such as Uganda, and a gradual expansion into other countries. Outbreaks of persecution or civil unrest have hampered the development of the Bahá'í Faith in many African countries. In those countries where this has not occurred there has been a considerable growth of the Bahá'í community.
 

The Bahá'í Faith has had a presence in South Asia since the time of Bahá'u'lláh. Until the 1960s, however, almost all the Indian Bahá'ís were from either Muslim or Zoroastrian background. From that time on, however, increasing numbers of villagers of Hindu background have been enrolled. There are also substantial Bahá'í communities in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
 

In South-East Asia, there was a rapid spread of the Bahá'í Faith in the 1950s and 1960s, especially in Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. After this time, there was a divergence in the fortunes of these Bahá'í communities. In some countries, such as Indonesia and Vietnam, the Bahá'ís came under persecution, while in other countries expansion continued.
 

In East Asia, the expansion of the Bahá'í Faith has been slow. The Bahá'í Faith is not recognized in the People's Republic of China and North Korea and so there is no organized Bahá'í activity. Even in countries such as Japan and South Korea where there is religious freedom, however, the position of the Bahá'í Faith resembles that of western Europe with only a slow rate of increase.
 

Although Bahá'í communities had existed in Central Asia up to the time of the First World War, these were persecuted and decimated after the Communist takeover. Since the collapse of Communism, there has been a steady growth of Bahá'í communities in all the nations of this region.
 

Apart from Hawaii, where there has been a Bahá'í community since the time of `Abdu'l-Bahá, there were only isolated Bahá'ís in other parts of the Pacific until the 1950s. From the 1960s onwards, there has been significant growth in most of the island groups. The Bahá'ís now form a substantial minority of the population in many of the island nations of the Pacific.
 
 
 

b. Co-operation with the United Nations and other international agencies

The Bahá'í community has had a close relationship with the United Nations ever since its formation. Bahá'ís do not consider the present structure and constitution of the United Nations to be the best possible. They, nevertheless, consider its ideals to be close to those of the Bahá'í Faith and therefore worthy of full support.
 

Over the last few decades, the Bahá'í International Community has been one of the most active of the non-governmental organizations at the United Nations. It has had consultative status with many of the subsidiary organizations of the United Nations (such as ECOSOC, UNICEF, etc.) and also a significant presence at all of the major United Nations conferences. It has presented position papers and seminars at most of them. In addition the Bahá'í community has supported the various campaigns and special years that the United Nations has launched. With the establishment of an Office of the Environment (in 1989), and an Office for the Advancement of Women (in 1992), the Bahá'í International Community has been able to devote greater attention to these areas of concern.
 
 
 

c. Social and economic development projects

Although several attempts were made as early as the closing decades of the nineteenth century in the Iranian Bahá'í community to begin projects for social development, these did not flourish because of the atmosphere of repression against the Bahá'í community. The numerous schools started by the Iranian Bahá'ís, for example, were all closed in 1934 on the orders of the government.
 

Recent decades, which have seen the emergence of large Bahá'í communities in the poorer parts of the world, have led to a renewed impetus towards social and economic development plans. These plans (Cross-Reference) are usually developed by the local communities with some assistance from the national level.
 

In each area of the world, the nature of the development projects has varied according to the needs of the area and the possibilities open to the Bahá'ís. In South America, there are many Bahá'ís among the native Amerindian tribes of the Andes. The difficulty of travelling over the mountainous terrain has led to the development of several Bahá'í radio stations. These can broadcast programmes on health, agriculture and literacy as well as programmes about the Bahá'í Faith to the people in their own languages. One of the major problems faced by the native peoples in this area is the down-grading of the Amerindian culture in favour of the Hispanic European culture. The Bahá'í radio stations have played a major role in the revival of native American culture through native music and the re-telling of stories.
 

In India, the Bahá'ís have adopted a different approach. A number of institutions have been created to which key individuals from villages can be brought. There they are taught skills and knowledge which they then take back to their villages and teach to others. The skills taught at these institutes include literacy, rural technology, health and hygiene, and crafts for women to enable them to earn a living. The participants are also taught about the Bahá'í teachings and the functioning of Bahá'í communities. Similar institutes have been used in a number of other places such as Kivu province in Zaire and among the Guaymi Indians in Panama.
 

Because of the emphasis on education in the Bahá'í teachings, many Bahá'í projects have been in the form of schools. One model is that of the tutorial school, where one or two teachers, who have been specially trained for this work, conduct classes for children and adults, often in the open air. Subjects taught include reading, writing, character training, and other elementary subjects. This pattern has been successful in countries as diverse as India, Zaire, Bolivia, and the Philippines. As of 1992, there were 116 Bahá'í academic schools, 62 kindergartens, and 488 tutorial schools throughout the Bahá'í world, a total of 666. The vast majority of these were in developing countries, serving largely rural areas or small towns.
 

In view of the Bahá'í teaching that it is necessary to advance the social role of women, many Bahá'í projects are oriented towards women. In India, for example, the Bahá'í Vocational Institute for Rural Women at Indore offers village women residential courses on literacy, health care, and income-generating skills. Its success has been widely recognised and it won one of the Global 500 Environmental Action Awards that were awarded at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero in 1992.
 

All Bahá'í projects are open to all the inhabitants of the area in which they take place, both to participate in and to benefit from. Neither the schools nor other projects are ever conducted to benefit Bahá'ís or any other special segment of the populace only. This is in keeping with the Bahá'í ethos of the oneness of humanity.
 

The Bahá'í youth have contributed in an important way to many projects around the world. Giving up a year or more to service to the Bahá'í Faith and to humanity as a whole has increasingly become a standard part of the lives of Bahá'í youth when they finish school or university.
 

 


For a description of a Bahá'í social and economic development project, the Bahá'í Vocational Institute for Rural Women at Indore, India, click here WWW.

 


d. The Bahá'í community as a model

The present period is one in which humanity is in an ideological crisis. By the beginning of the twentieth century, religion had ceased, at least in Europe, to play a central role in determining the vision and values of society. During the course of the twentieth century, humanity has experimented with a number of ideologies in an attempt to fill the vacuum left by religion at the centre of society. Nationalism, racism and communism have all been tried and have all spectacularly failed leaving behind destruction on a massive scale. The strident nationalism of the European states brought about the first World War and the consequent ruin of large parts of Europe. Racist ideologies led to the Nazi concentration camps and the destruction of the second World War. Although Europe was the first to be affected, other parts of the world have had similar experiences. More recently, we have seen communism falter and fail, leaving behind a legacy of shattered economies and environmental devastation.
 

There are two major contenders competing to fill the ideological vacuum that now exists. One is free-market capitalism, which at the present time is principally a combination of laisser-faire economics and a strident individualism and consumerism. Having this as the ideology of a society is a paradox in that this ideology is itself destructive of society. For the adherents of this philosophy, all government and regulation are an evil, which should be reduced to a minimum in order to allow the forces of the market to have a free run. There can be little doubt that the pursuit of free-market capitalism by a number of countries, and the individualism and consumerism which are inherent aspects of it, have resulted in a widening of the gap between the rich and poor in those countries, with a consequent deterioration of urban life. The Universal House of Justice has commented on the tendency of this ideology to: 

. . . callously abandon starving millions to the operations of a market system that all too clearly is aggravating the plight of the majority of mankind, while enabling small sections to live in a condition of affluence scarcely dreamed of by our forebears . . . The time has come when those who preach the dogmas of . . . capitalism . . . must give account of the moral stewardship they have presumed to exercise. Where is the "new world" promised by these ideologies? Where is the international peace to whose ideals they proclaim their devotion? Where are the breakthroughs into new realms of cultural achievement . . .? Why is the vast majority of the world's peoples sinking ever deeper into hunger and wretchedness when wealth on a scale undreamed of by the Pharaohs, the Caesars, or even the imperialist powers of the nineteenth century is at the disposal of the present arbiters of human affairs? (3)
 
The other major contender for the ideological vacuum at the centre of world society is religious fundamentalism. The basic premise of this movement is as follows: if the ideological experiments of the twentieth century have failed, then let us return to the previous situation when traditional religion was the ideology of society. In almost every major religion, there exists a fundamentalist movement seeking to bring about a return to a perceived golden past of morality and social responsibility. Unfortunately for the fundamentalists, a basic element of that past situation was that the religious viewpoint was not only the dominant viewpoint of society, it was the only viewpoint. It controlled everything because there was no other available viewpoint. The arts, literature, science, medicine, charitable works, all aspects of social life were dominated and controlled by religion and no competitor existed. From the time of the Renaissance and particularly with the coming of the Enlightenment, alternative viewpoints emerged which competed successfully with religion. With the passing of time, it became possible to see the world through other eyes, the vision of scientific rationalism, for example. One by one, science, the arts, literature, medicine and even charitable works escaped the control of religion because alternative frameworks were found to be better. Once these alternative viewpoints have come into existence, it is almost impossible for the religious fundamentalists to return society to the previous situation where no alternative was even conceived. Even when the fundamentalists succeed in gaining power, no matter what Draconian steps they take to try to force the situation to be as they want it, they cannot reverse the tide of history. Once humanity is aware that alternative viewpoints exist, it is not possible to go back to a situation where such possibilities were not conceived, no matter how strident and overbearing the fundamentalists may become. However loud they shout, they cannot drown out the voice that insists that there is an alternative vision, partly because the voice is also from within themselves.
 

It is possible to predict, then, that these two alternatives, capitalism and religious fundamentalism, which appear at present to be the only viable ideologies on the world scene, are likely to fail as have the other ideologies of the twentieth century, such as nationalism, racism and communism. Each of these ideologies continues to have its proponents and supporters but it is not possible to see, at present, what they can offer humanity other than disunity and disintegration. As Shoghi Effendi commented: 

If long-cherished ideals and time-honoured institutions, if certain social assumptions and religious formulae have ceased to promote the welfare of the generality of mankind, if they no longer minister to the needs of a continually evolving humanity, let them be swept away and relegated to the limbo of obsolescent and forgotten doctrines. Why should these, in a world subject to the immutable law of change and decay, be exempt from the deterioration that must needs overtake every human institution? For legal standards, political and economic theories are solely designed to safeguard the interests of humanity as a whole, and not humanity to be crucified for the preservation of the integrity of any particular law or doctrine. (4)
 
Bahá'ís would maintain that their religion presents a viable alternative to the choices that humanity is facing at present. On the one hand it presents a unified and integrated vision of the direction in which humanity should be proceeding. In a similar manner to the way that religion acted in the past, it presents an overall view of the world that colours everything; its teachings have some relevance to almost every aspect of the individual's personal life and human society as a whole. This does not mean, however, that it seeks to achieve the same aim as religious fundamentalists. The key difference between the Bahá'í Faith and the main established religions of the world is the fact that its vision was created within the last hundred years and so has an immediacy and relevance that visions that had their origins one thousand years ago or more lack. Thus for example, several of the established religions have been discredited in the eyes of many people or have split into deep divisions over such issues as scientific discoveries (for example, the debate over evolution) or the position of women in society. The Bahá'í view on such subjects, however, is compatible with a modern outlook and, because it is based on scripture, is not a cause of division within its ranks.
 

The Bahá'í Faith presents a unique integrated vision of the present state of the world and its future direction. This vision embraces politics, economics, environmental considerations, social issues, social administration, community development, ethical issues and spirituality. Bahá'ís would maintain that this vision is not just a utopian dream, Bahá'ís around the world are actively working for it.
 

Bahá'ís envisage the eventual creation of a world order which will bring about peace and reconciliation among the nations of the world. Bahá'ís believe, however, that this can only be achieved on the basis of the teachings that Bahá'u'lláh has given. The Bahá'í community world-wide is attempting to put into practice and give concrete shape to these teachings. It is taking positive steps towards peace and reconciliation between antagonistic groups and factions in society; it is helping to promote the social role of women in society; it is promoting education, health and agriculture; it is making decisions and adopting policies by consultative means and without partisan politics and factional disputes; and it is building up social structures that are based on power being held by elected bodies and not by powerful individuals and cliques. In these ways, it may be considered to be a model for the kind of future for humanity which will give every individual the best opportunity for self-development and self-fulfilment. In its message addressed to the peoples of the world in 1985, the Universal House of Justice stated: 

The experience of the Bahá'í community may be seen as an example of this enlarging unity. It is a community of some three to four million people drawn from many nations, cultures, classes and creeds, engaged in a wide range of activities serving the spiritual, social and economic needs of the peoples of many lands. It is a single social organism, representative of the diversity of the human family, conducting its affairs through a system of commonly accepted consultative principles, and cherishing equally all the great outpourings of divine guidance in human history. Its existence is yet another convincing proof of the practicality of its Founder's vision of a united world, another evidence that humanity can live as one global society, equal to whatever challenges its coming of age may entail. 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. (5)
 

For news about what is happening in the Baha'i World, click here (link takes you away from this site)
 

 



Extracted and condensed from The Baha'i Faith: A Beginner's Guide


© Moojan Momen 1996. All Rights Reserved
 

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REFERENCES
 

1. See article D. Barrett, "Religion: World Religious Statistics". Return

2. p. 6. Return

3. Promise of World Peace, p. 6-7. Return

4. World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 42. Return

5. Promise of World Peace, pp. 19-20. Return