UK NSA Letter On London Riots

london riots

The riots that swept through several boroughs of London and in smaller measure other UK cities recently left many shocked and bewildered. The catalyst seems to have been the police shooting of a local man earlier in August. However, there is no agreement on what exactly caused or prepared the environment for it to take place.

Among the many causes mentioned and analyzed are the demographic shifts creating a large percentage of youths within areas, poor relations with police, social estrangement, reduction in government programs, gang culture, criminal opportunism and social dissatisfaction brought on by extremes of wealth and poverty.

The National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the UK has prepared and distributed a short letter to their community addressing the riots. I truly don’t mean to pick on them but suggesting that the solution to such a complex problem is “more Ruhi” courses is disappointing to say the least. You can read the full letter below:

Baha’u’llah & “The Subject of Boys”

The following contains mature content of a sexual nature so if you are squeamish, a prude or a minor, please move along. Maybe check out some kittehs or bunnies.

The subject of homosexuality continues to be a difficult topic within Baha’i theology. For many it presents an insurmountable challenge to accept the Baha’i Faith and for believers it is a topic of seemingly endless polemics.

There are many approaches we can take to attempt a better understanding of this issue. One of the most basic is to go back to the source and try to understand exactly what the Baha’i writings say.

If we search Baha’u’llah’s writings, we find something quite remarkable. Nowhere in Baha’u’llah’s writings is there an explicit mention of homosexuality (and neither by Abdu’l-Baha). Arguably, the only reference we have is an extremely brief mention in the Aqdas (more on that a bit later).

To understand why there is no wider mention of homosexuality and what exactly Baha’u’llah was referring and what Shoghi Effendi translated to the seemingly cryptic words, “the subject of boys”, we have to take a few steps back.

Sexual dynamics and mores differ greatly between cultures and time periods. What may be accepted sexual behavior at one point in time or within a specific society may be completely unknown or unacceptable in another time or place.

For example, the Sambia of Papua New Guinea believe that ingestion of semen is necessary for a boy to reach full maturity. To that end, starting at age 7, Sambia boys orally stimulate their adolescent peers (14-18) and ingest their semen. Upon reaching puberty, they then provide their semen so that the younger boys can reach full sexual maturity and become men.

To the Sambia, semen is a precious substance which is being gifted from the older generation to the younger to assure their development. The act is done not to derive pleasure but to give a nourishing substance that the Sambia believe is as necessary as mother’s milk. While to us this may seem to have homosexual overtones, to the Sambia this is a natural and necessary part of a boy’s development and has absolutely nothing to do with homosexuality. In fact, the Sambia view homosexual acts to be as taboo and socially undesirable as incest.

Of course, because we all fall prey to the recency effect, what we see in our present culture is what we consider to be ‘normal’. But actually, ‘normal’ is rather subjective.

The way that we understand and define homosexual relationships today simply did not exist during Baha’u’llah’s time in the Middle East. That is, there was no recognition or allowance for a mutually consensual, exclusive relationship between two adult women (or men) living together and raising children together as a family. Therefore, since this model of family life did not exist, it is not reasonable to expect that the topic be given explicit treatment. Just as we don’t expect Baha’u’llah to have explicitly written about cloning or stem cell research.

That does not mean however that homosexuality did not exist at all in one guise or another during Baha’u’llah’s time. Homosexuality, after all, has been observed in nature among hundreds of species as well as throughout human history. So while the current definition of homosexual relationships may not have existed, there certainly have always been some forms of homosexuality in human society, just as there have been many other acceptable sexual expressions, beyond the institution of marriage between a man and a woman.

So to understand the extremely limited or non-existent Baha’i treatment of homosexuality, we have to first understand the sexual traditions prevalent in the Middle East during the 1800′s. These would be the norms that Baha’u’llah would be familiar with.
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Freedom for Art is Unity in Diversity

Last Friday, I went to listen to Salman Rushdie present the “Leiden Freedom Lecture.”

Salman Rushdie delivers the "Leiden Freedom Lecture" in the St. Pieters church, Leiden, The Netherlands 18 June 2010

Salman Rushdie delivers the Leiden Freedom Lecture in the St. Pieters church, Leiden, The Netherlands 18 June 2010

Freedom, he argued is the essence of life and the essence of creativity. So many Baha’is have told me that to be a Bahai and an artist means that you need to be ‘moderate’. Some, artists themselves, have presented all sorts of theories about art being at the service of something else, ranging from the idea of self-censorship in order not to offend to art as a framework for the lowest common denominator: the ubiquitous portrait paintings of ‘Abdul-Baha.

Screenshot of the Art Directory of Baha'i Inspired Artists Facebook Group - 18 June 2010

Not all pages include as many portraits as this page happens to, but this is a good representation of much of what is labeled as art in a Baha’i context. I am not criticizing any of this art nor this forum. Mark Granfar, has created an open forum for artworks to be placed and artists could place other forms of art if they wished. My point is that this forum reflects what you see in the Baha’i community in general.

I’m not knocking portrait painting nor those who choose to paint these types of images of ‘Abdul-Baha, but am asking where is the diversity, a tell-tale sign of freedom. Celebrations of ‘oneness’ wear a little thin, when that’s the only story on offer by a community.

When freedom of conscience, liberty of thought and right of speech prevail — that is to say, when every man according to his own idealization may give expression to his beliefs — development and growth are inevitable.
(Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 197)

(E)ach elemental atom of the universe has the opportunity of expressing an infinite variety of those individual virtues. No atom is bereft or deprived of this opportunity or right of expression.
(Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 285)

When I was fresh out of art school, I happily made artworks on themes of peace, diversity, portrait-like pieces, and so on, and felt completely free to do so. It was encouraging that various Baha’is in my community appreciated what I was doing and some even bought my work.

Myriam Bargetze performing in Atras de um arbusto um papa - formigas esverdeia de vergonha (An ant eater hiding behind a bush -turns green out of embarrassment), in the Lisbon Botanical gardens, Portugal, 1990

Myriam Bargetze performing in Atras de um arbusto um papa - formigas esverdeia de vergonha (An ant eater hiding behind a bush - turns green out of embarrassment), in the Lisbon Botanical gardens, Portugal, 1990

I was aware of work such as Joseph Beuys’ social sculpture projects and liked it, but it wasn’t my world. If a Baha’i had been making such work, I wouldn’t have thought this was ‘immoderate’, but because of the way I was living or perhaps because my Baha’i community was so open, whether art was ‘moderate’ or not, wasn’t a question I had.

That was a few decades ago and in the years I’ve been making art, I’ve never felt I needed to censor what I make. In fact I don’t think I could, and because I don’t show my art in Baha’i contexts I don’t have to think about this either. All good and fine.

However the ‘stale air’ is what I often encounter as art made, shown or discussed in Baha’i contexts. Perhaps this is the only possibility, that religious contexts cannot allow for too much artistic diversity? I’ve been told this and it sounds reasonable, however, how can art function if is not free? Other Baha’is have stated that the time for Baha’i art has not started yet, and I think to myself, ‘oh so we sit around and wait, and like magic, something called Baha’i art will appear out of nothing?’

My view is that it started the second the Baha’i Revelation started and art was free.

In this new century the attainment of science, arts and belles lettres, whether divine or worldly, material or spiritual, is a matter which is acceptable before God and a duty which is incumbent upon us all to accomplish…
(my own emphasis added – Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v2, p. 448)

When I look at what is written about the arts and creativity, it seems to me that Baha’i art is not about having the same material form, but about diversity, about difference and freedom of expression. Many artists do as I do, operate outside of Baha’i contexts, partly because there is space outside of the Baha’i community to develop, and there’s nothing wrong with this, and partly because there’s no space for art in the Baha’i community. It is not censored (at least in my case), but it is not made welcome. How can art touch a religious context if it is never shown in one. As much as I love classical music, my heart sinks when I hear it as ‘the music’ at a feast, because there’s no diversity.

In 2006, I called a workshop I gave at an Irish Baha’i summer school, “shocking art” where individuals could bring up the art that shocks them as a starting point for discussion. As it turned out, the individuals were all touched by contemporary art in some way and because of this had already developed their own dialogue. There was no need for me to show that ‘shocking art’ has a place in the world, and so in that context of freedom, I moved the workshop to exercises in expressing the new instead. We had clean air and so didn’t need to protest.

Rushdie’s metaphor got me thinking about how often Baha’is tell me off (usually online) for expressing what in their view is whining, when in my view it is critique. From their perspective I’m polluting their clean air (of no dissent) while for me the air is stuffy because my critique is seen as not being acceptable for a Baha’i to make. I promise, I really would complain less if there was more dialogue. :-) Seriously though, when individuals have differences of opinion and it is assumed that each party is sincere, then the differing opinions can be worked on. If one or another writes something like “well you can leave”, what that person is really saying is, your viewpoint does not belong here and mine does.

The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions.
(Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 87)

I also think that if we don’t have the freedom to express things that bother us, we can’t process them, learn from them, learn from the differing ideas. I think the fact that one of the Baha’i months is called ‘questions’ indicates that this is part of human nature, part of the development of the spirit and something that is an ongoing aspect of Baha’i community life.

For me making a work of art is more about asking questions, wrestling with some experience, than presenting answers – although art is wonderfully slippery and so is about both and neither.

I do think any artist should have complete freedom of expression. As Rushdie stated, you have to make the effort to open a book to read it, have to walk into a bookshop or a library. No one is forced to encounter art. Likewise with art in a gallery. There’s a lot of art I dislike, but some of it has inspired me to make art in response, and some of it I forget about. I’d be a poorer person if I hadn’t experienced it and yet this is not the same as someone who willingly places themselves or another into a life-threatening situation.

In 2004, at a talk I gave for the Baha’is, I was asked how I would treat Mapplethorpe’s photography in the context of Baha’i art. My answer was that it shouldn’t be censored and that it was focused on the material, and art focused on materiality can be as effective as art focused on spirituality. From another perspective, a detailed realistic painting is as much about materiality as a work by Mapplethorpe.

On the topic of censorship, Salman Rushdie told the story of a Pakistani film (“International Gorillay” (International Guerillas) in which Rushdie, depicted as a Rambo-like figure, is portrayed as plotting to cause the downfall of Pakistan by opening a chain of casinos and discos, tortures with audio recordings of his book, and was finally killed by a bolt of lighting sent from God!

The British Board of Film Classification refused to give it a certificate, meaning it would be banned in the U.K., because they feared they might be sued for the 25 or more instances of libel in the film. Rushdie said he didn’t want to be part to something being censored and so wrote a statement to the board saying he would not sue for libel if the film was released. And so they then released it. A large theater was hired for its first showing in Muslim-dominated Bradford — and no one turned up. However if the movie had been banned, the fact of censorship would have made it popular. As it was, the work was judged according to its quality: a badly made movie not worth the cost of entry.

I’d argue that even if the unbanned film had become popular in the U.K., it would have served as a form of discourse. Having the freedom to express also means having the freedom to judge the work, and learn from it or its mistakes or misrepresentations. If a community doesn’t have freedom, it doesn’t have the mechanisms for diversity.

How do we know if a community has freedom: we look at the diversity of its artforms. There are two responses to this in relation to the Baha’i community. Lots of Baha’is are doing diverse highly creative work and Baha’is are part of the world. Second: if Baha’i communities wish to take advantage of this air of liberty, they have to create a opportunities for it.

A starting point would be to remove ‘review’, so there’s no idea of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways of expression. Of course I’m grateful to Baquia for allowing a freedom of expression on this blog. If Baquia hadn’t, I wouldn’t have made the effort to write this to start with.

This is what I mean by creating opportunities. If artists know that their art is welcome -however materialistic or issue-based- then they will start making an artwork in relation to the Baha’i community and when they do, we’ll have the diversity needed for discourse to develop. As it stands at the moment, artists who are Baha’is such as myself, certainly make art inspired by the Baha’i writings and teachings, but what is missing is art and art discourse in relation to the Baha’i community. Perhaps this is a freedom only possible as a form of diaspora -from the point of view of an outsider. At least at the moment with the dominance of the Ruhi culture, this seems to be the case.

Abdu’l-Baha on Diet and Medicine

I remember reading the quote below from Abdu’l-Baha many years ago and wondering exactly how in the world it would be possible to cure serious diseases with diet.

It is, therefore, evident that it is possible to cure by foods, aliments and fruits; but as today the science of medicine is imperfect, this fact is not yet fully grasped. When the science of medicine reaches perfection, treatment will be given by foods, aliments, fragrant fruits and vegetables, and by various waters, hot and cold in temperature.
‘Abdu’l-Bah?? in Some Answered Questions

Then I stumbled on this video from TED that illuminates one very real and practical path that is being taken by modern science. It is astonishing when we remind ourselves that Abdu’l-Baha’s words precede this research by more than 100 years:

Dr. William Li’s list of antiangiogenic foods

Can we eat to starve cancer?

The Angiogenesis Foundation

Change is a Law of Nature

Sarah Brown, wife of the British Prime Minister took part in the London Pride march. Photograph copyrighted 2009, Marco SecchiLondon July 4th 2009: Sarah Brown, wife of the British Prime Minister took part the London Pride March. This photo is used with permission by photographer, © Marco Secchi 2008.

One of the most beautiful aspects of the Baha’i Writings in my view is that religious law can be flexible and adapt.

“The second classification or division comprises social laws and regulations applicable to human conduct. This is not the essential spiritual quality of religion. It is subject to change and transformation according to the exigencies and requirements of time and place.”

(Address by Abdu’l Baha Abbas before Congregation Emmanu-El, San Francisco, Cal.
(Martin A. Meyer, Rabbi) Saturday, October 12, 1912.
- Star of the West, Vol. 3, No. 13, p. 3)

Abdu’l-Baha places principles such as justice and equality into the first classification, as part of what all religion is concerned with and which does not change. By “second classificiation” Abdu’l-Baha is referring to daily practices that are to some degree related to social conditions while being based on principles in the first classification such as justice and equality.

Times are changed, and the need and fashion of the world are changed. Interference with creed and faith in every country causes manifest detriment, while justice and equal dealing towards all peoples on the face of the earth are the means whereby progress is effected.

(Abdu’l-Baha, A Traveller’s Narrative, p. 87)

While in London last month, I was reminded of the nature of change when I saw this photograph on the front pages of a newspaper and then read the accompanying article, about a public apology by the leader of the Tory party for past support for Section 28.

Section 28 (a ban on councils and schools promoting homosexuality as a valid lifestyle) was axed in 2003, but it was introduced in the 1980s under a Tory government which is why this apology is so significant. The words quoted in various newspapers were: “I’m sorry for Section 28. We got it wrong. It was an emotional issue. We have got to move on and we have moved on,”

Laws and statutes of governments civil and federal are in process of change and transformation. Sciences and arts are being moulded anew. Thoughts are metamorphosed. The foundations of human society are changing and strengthening.

(Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith – Abdu’l-Baha Section, p. 228)

Seeing this image of the Prime Minister’s wife, Sarah Brown and another photograph of the Prime Minister meeting with Stonewall (they work to reduce homophobic bullying in schools), also part of the UK Gay Pride celebrations, gave me hope to think one day the Baha’i community could change too. Change enough so that gay Bahais wouldn’t lose their voting rights for doing what heterosexuals do: marry. We have a long way to go but that doesn’t mean that I have to give up.

The morals of humanity must undergo change. New remedies and solutions for human problems must be adopted. Human intellects themselves must change and be subject to the universal reformation. Just as the thoughts and hypotheses of past ages are fruitless today, likewise dogmas and codes of human invention are obsolete and barren of product in religion. Nay, it is true that they are the cause of enmity and conducive to strife in the world of humanity; war and bloodshed proceed from them, and the oneness of mankind finds no recognition in their observance. Therefore, it is our duty in this radiant century to investigate the essentials of divine religion, seek the realities underlying the oneness of the world of humanity and discover the source of fellowship and agreement which will unite mankind in the heavenly bond of love. This unity is the radiance of eternity, the divine spirituality, the effulgence of God and the bounty of the Kingdom. We must investigate the divine source of these heavenly bestowals and adhere unto them steadfastly. For if we remain fettered and restricted by human inventions and dogmas, day by day the world of mankind will be degraded, day by day warfare and strife will increase and satanic forces converge toward the destruction of the human race.

(Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 144)

A few months ago my gay Baha’i brother Daniel Orey received a letter from his NSA which began with “It is with deep sadness that the National Spiritual Assembly has learned that you openly married your male companion in a same sex marriage ceremony…” further on the letter states that the National Spiritual Assembly has no choice but to remove his Baha’i membership rights because of his marriage and of his “support of homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle for Baha’is”.

All are one people, one nation, one species, one kind. The common interest is complete equality; justice and equality amongst mankind are amongst the chief promoters of empire and the principal means to the extension of the skirt of conquest. …Times are changed, and the need and fashion of the world are changed… …justice and equal dealing towards all peoples on the face of the earth are the means whereby progress is effected.

(Abdu’l-Baha, A Traveller’s Narrative, p. 87)

So how can I respond to this as a Baha’i myself who believes that homosexuals are as equal as heterosexuals with the same rights and responsibilities? Daniel is one of the few gay Baha’is who has not been afraid to be honest and open. I don’t blame gay Baha’is who have partners in secret and admittedly if a heterosexual couple married as Daniel did, they might lose their voting rights as well, because he didn’t get his parents’ permission and hence couldn’t have a Baha’i ceremony. But I’ll stick to two points made in the NSA’s letter, because they seem to be the reason for his loss of his voting rights: “same sex ceremony” and “support of homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle for Baha’is.”

It should also be borne in mind that the machinery of the Cause has been so fashioned, that whatever is deemed necessary to incorporate into it in order to keep it in the forefront of all progressive movements, can, according to the provisions made by Bah??’u’ll??h, be safely embodied therein.

(Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 22-23)

The topic of equality for homosexuals in the Bahai community often ends up with individuals getting emotional on one side or the other and there ends the dialogue. My attempt here is to see what we can do to move forward on this discussion because I do believe that the Bahai Teachings are for all of humanity and so far haven’t found anything in the Bahai Writings to contradict this. So as a Bahai I continue. This is an important issue for Baha’is to discuss, because, for example, in my own country, the Netherlands, it would be breaking the law to discriminate against homosexuals. I’m not suggesting for one minute that Dutch Law supercedes Baha’i Law, but we need to think about the issues involved in applying Baha’i principles in a changing world.

There’s obedience to one’s country on one hand. There’s the principle of equality. There’s the discussion about just what is the nature of marriage in the Bahai Writings? I would like to base this discussion on what is in the Writings, rather than what we have been told or heard is a Bahai Teaching. My attempt is not a protest nor any attempt to change any Baha’i Adiministration’s policy. My goal here is for a debate on this based on the Baha’i Writings because, I argue, if the Baha’i Teachings are so great, then we will find the answer by applying the Baha’i principles of justice and equality. We don’t need to pretend nor see it as a mystery, we can use science as our aid.

In various places Abdul-Baha states science is a way of keeping religion in balance as much as science needs ethics. And so back to my original thoughts on this topic: the theme of change as a principle of nature.

Science is the discoverer of the past. From its premises of past and present we deduce conclusions as to the future. Science is the governor of nature and its mysteries, the one agency by which man explores the institutions of material creation. All created things are captives of nature and subject to its laws. They cannot transgress the control of these laws in one detail or particular. The infinite starry worlds and heavenly bodies are nature’s obedient subjects. The earth and its myriad organisms, all minerals, plants and animals are thralls of its dominion. But man through the exercise of his scientific, intellectual power can rise out of this condition, can modify, change and control nature according to his own wishes and uses. Science, so to speak, is the breaker of the laws of nature.

(Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 29)

Here is my suggestion for a debate on this topic in the hope of creating an atmosphere of consultative dialogue from various viewponts. To break up the discussion on the topic of homosexuality into several topics so we could see what we can learn from each other. Topics I thought I should try for in later blogs are “the nature of marriage” and “science and religion.” Suggestions for other topics are welcome.

This topic is on the theme of “change”, what is the role of this in the Baha’i Teachings and practice? How does this relate to the Baha’i Writings which don’t change (the fact that they are authenticated and written and seen as Scripture)? And other Writings that are important such as Letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi? What Baha’i principles favour the acceptance of same-sex marriage today, and which Bahai principles restrict this?