Community Development

In the United Kingdom, Bahá'ís promote a dialogue on diversity

Against a backdrop of national concern, the Bahá'í community of the United Kingdom has taken a leading role in promoting a wider discussion of how to heal the divisions that have arisen as Great Britain has grown more diverse.

HACKNEY, United Kingdom — Once known as the home of Britain’s down-and-out working class, this borough in London’s East End stands today as one of the most diverse places in England — if not the world.

According to the 2001 census, only 38 percent of the population in the ward of Hackney Central can claim a traditional British "white" ethnic background. The other 62 percent can trace at least part of their heritage to Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, or elsewhere.

This kind of diversity is an increasing feature of life in the United Kingdom — not to mention the rest of Europe. The effects of globalization, with accompanying trends towards greater immigration and cross-border openness, have given rise to considerable debate here about what it means to be "British" — and how to confront the challenges that inevitably come with a more diverse society.

In the summer of 2001, for example, disturbances broke out in several towns in northern England. Scores were injured in clashes between groups of youth of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin and groups from a white British background. While much of the blame was laid on racial tensions, there was also a religious dimension to the disturbances. The Economist magazine noted at the time: "Islam and hopelessness are a dangerous combination."

The unrest set off a period of considerable reflection on the part of the British government. The government launched a series of investigations into what it means to create "social cohesion," a term that was new at the time but has since become part of the specialized vocabulary in official policy documents.

About a year before the riots, some members of the Bahá'í community of the United Kingdom had begun their own process of reflection. Their goal was to consider how best to contribute to the well-being of British society at large.

The result was the creation in 2000 of the Institute for Social Cohesion, an agency of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United Kingdom. Its mandate, simply put, is to assist British society at large to create a greater sense of unity amidst growing diversity.

"Our concern was balance in society," said Nazila Ghanea, who is a member of the board of the Institute and an early participant in the discussions that led to its founding. "And the idea of promoting social cohesion encapsulated our general concerns. Now the term is very much used by the government."

With about 5,000 members in the United Kingdom, the Bahá'í community is among the smaller religious groups here. And its members have not been identified with the social unrest in any way. But the community has nevertheless taken a leading role in efforts to promote a wider discussion of what will be needed to heal the divisions that have arisen as Great Britain has grown more diverse.

More specifically, the Institute for Social Cohesion has sponsored a series of seminars and workshops that have sought to bring together community leaders and policy makers from all sides, in an effort to facilitate greater dialogue all around.

These efforts have been appreciated by government leaders. In an interview with ONE COUNTRY, British Home Secretary David Blunkett remarked:

"I think because of the very special position of the Bahá'í Faith — it isn’t seen as a threat by anyone — and because it does incorporate and bring together — as perhaps you would say — the best of what faith has to offer, it is possible for the Bahá'í community to be called to do that in a way that other people would cooperate with."

Launched in 2001

The Institute for Social Cohesion was publicly launched at the House of Commons on 31 January 2001, at a seminar hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Friends of the Bahá'ís and chaired by Ian Stewart and Peter Bottomley, both Members of Parliament.

The launch featured a panel discussion by a diverse group of experts on the issue of social cohesion, including Gurbux Singh, then Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, and Yasmin Alibhai Brown, a well-known writer and broadcaster. Mr. Singh spoke on the effects of ethnic discrimination in the UK educational system on young people, while Ms. Brown critiqued current views about multiculturalism and made a plea for a more inclusive sense of identity.

Since then, the Institute has held five more Parliamentary seminars, two major conferences, and a specialized workshop. Each has drawn together a diverse range of speakers and participants. The topics have focused on issues relating to social cohesion, from models of justice to gender equality, immigration, and citizenship. The Institute has also issued a series of position papers on topics related to social cohesion.

"What we bring to the table is an ability to bring people from a wide range of backgrounds together, and to have them talk together," said Barney Leith, Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United Kingdom.

"For example, our colloquia have brought together people from the central government, from local government, from voluntary organizations, from activist organizations, from faith communities, and from the business arena," said Mr. Leith. "These are people who would not necessarily talk to each other, or have an easy time of talking to each other."

By applying Bahá'í principles in the organization of such events, however, a new level of dialogue can be facilitated, said Mr. Leith and others.

"The main Bahá'í principle in operation is the process we call consultation, which is a non-adversarial, non-confrontational process that attempts to synthesize and build on the various contributions that each participant makes," said Mr. Leith. "It applies critical thinking to the process, but without the kind of critique that destroys. It is instead a building process."

That building process was evident at the most recent Institute event, a specialized one-day seminar held at the Bahá'í National Centre offices on 6 July 2004, focusing on "The Family and Social Cohesion."

The featured speaker was Ceridwen Roberts, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford and former director of the Family Policy Studies Centre. In attendance were representatives from Christian, Buddhist, and Islamic faith communities, as well as from the Bahá'í community.

Ms. Roberts discussed trends in changing family composition, such as decreasing family size, increasing cohabitation, and rising divorce rates. Underlying all these trends, she said, are changing values.

"The question is really up for grabs: How explicit, how intervention-oriented, how proactive should government policies towards children and families be?" Ms. Roberts asked.

Role for religion

After her remarks, participants broke into two discussion groups, where they concluded that faith groups, rather than the government, were best equipped to promote positive family values.

"We should focus on faith-based organizations because they have closer links to the family," said Jenny Engstrom, a training specialist at Conflict and Change, a London-based non-governmental organization focusing on community mediation.

The importance of faith-based organizations in promoting social cohesion has indeed been recognized by the government, which launched a series of high-level studies after the 2001 riots.

One of those studies, entitled "Community Cohesion," which was conducted by an independent review team in 2001, concluded that in many British towns and cities the establishment of separate educational arrangements, community and voluntary bodies, employment, places of worship, language, and social and cultural networks had led to a high degree of polarization. "That means that many communities operate on the basis of a series of parallel lives," the report said.

In July 2004, a second review team, the Community Cohesion Panel, issued a report titled "The End of Parallel Lives?" The report made a series of recommendations about how the government and others could rectify the sense of social polarization identified in the 2001 report.

Among other things, the Panel recommended that government agencies give support to interfaith efforts. "Faith communities need to be much more involved in all aspects of social policy and, in particular, in helping communities to understand each other and to assist the statutory agencies to work across faith boundaries," the Panel said.

The importance of interfaith and interreligious cooperation in promoting social cohesion has likewise been recognized by the Home Office, the governmental department with overarching responsibility for internal social affairs.

Home Secretary David Blunkett said social cohesion is the "underpinning" issue in terms of promoting stability and security in the UK. Faith groups can play a key role, he said, in helping people to promote respect for different faiths and different views, and also to help people see "what they hold in common."

"The government has done everything we can to play our part in this, to support the development of interfaith groups," said Mr. Blunkett.

"The Bahá'í community has been instrumental in and part of this process of establishing on-going [interfaith] groups" at the local and national levels, Mr. Blunkett added.

The experience in Hackney

Here in Hackney, the local Bahá'í community in many ways mirrors the diversity of the community at large. For administrative purposes, the Bahá'í community divides London into six "clusters," and the London City East cluster is composed of five boroughs: City of London, Hackney, Haringey, Islington, and Tower Hamlets.

There are some 100 Bahá'ís currently registered in the London City East cluster and, by one count, they come from more than 16 nationalities, from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and various parts of Europe.

The London City East cluster recently sponsored an interfaith event in which a message urging tolerance among religions was presented to local religious leaders.

As well, over the last few years, the London City East cluster has been active in a program of "study circles," built around a series of workbooks created by a Bahá'í-inspired non-governmental organization known as the Ruhi Institute. The program is designed to build human capacity and solidarity, among other things.

The project here, which is also being used in other communities around the United Kingdom, has greatly increased the sense of cohesion among Bahá'ís — and those from other religions who have participated.

"Before studying the Ruhi books, people didn’t necessarily know each other well," said Saman Rahmanian, a 22-year-old Austrian-Iranian Bahá'í who is currently studying in London. "But once you have done a Ruhi book, you really know the person. Bonding and friendships take place on a level that didn’t exist before."

Helena Hastie, a 25-year-old British-born marketing professional, likewise said the study circles have helped increase the sense of unity among Bahá'ís, which was strong even before. Asked to list some of the ethnic roots of other Bahá'ís in the community, she had trouble at first, adding: "I think the fact that we have difficulty remembering that our friends are from different countries is quite a good indicator that we don’t notice nationalities."