The Eyes of the World Focus on Iran

There has been an outpouring of condemnation of what has been characterized as a show trial of seven Baha'i leaders in Iran scheduled for July 11. The seven Baha'is are falsely accused of espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.

U. S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Chair Leonard Leo states: "The charges against these imprisoned Baha’is are baseless and a pretext for the persecution and harassment of a disfavored religious minority. They should be released immediately. . . " And U.S. Congressman Frank Wolf points out that the seven Baha'is have been "unjustly held for over a year without formal charges or access to their attorneys" and that "[t]hey will reportedly be charged with 'espionage for Israel,' a crime which is punishable by death."

British Foreign Office Minister Ivan Lewis MP, in a meeting of the U.K.'s Parliament, called for "maximum transparency and openness in the way in which that trial is conducted" and urged that "[t]he judicial process should be conducted along the lines of international best practice, and international observers should be allowed to witness every conceivable stage of those court proceedings.” In the same session of Parliament, Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik noted that "[t]he Baha’is seek no special privileges. . . All they seek are conditions that accord with the International Bill of Human Rights, of which Iran is a signatory. The right to life, the right to profess and practise their religion, the right to liberty and security of person, and the right to education and work: those are not heady demands."

Several of Germany's Parliamentary groups also addressed the issue, "demand[ing] the immediate and unconditional release of the leaders of the Baha’i religious community" in Iran. Norway’s Foreign Ministry recently summoned Iran’s charge d’affaires in Oslo to express its concern for the human rights situation in Iran, including that of the seven imprisoned Baha'i leaders, "urg[ing] the Iranian authorities to respect the religious beliefs of all minorities in Iran."

Many eyes, hearts and prayers are focused on this situation right now, as well as on the cause of human rights in Iran. Let us hope that some modicum of justice and fair mindedness is extended to the seven Baha'i leaders who face execution in Iran, and that the suffering of the people of Iran will soon be eased.


Message from the Universal House of Justice to the Baha'is of Iran

The Universal House of Justice issued a letter on June 23, 2009 to the Baha'is of Iran in light of recent events in that country. In the letter, the House of Justice describes its "mounting fear for the safety of millions of Iranian men and women, so many of them at the pinnacle of their youth, their vast potentialities yearning to be realized" and links the long suffering of the Iranian Baha'i community to the suffering being experienced by their fellow citizens.

Yet the letter reminds us that there is reason for hope for the future of Iran, that we should keep alive in our hearts "the feeling of confidence that the future of Iran holds bright promise . . . and the belief that love will ultimately conquer hatred and enmity." The House of Justice expresses its confidence that the Baha'is of Iran will adhere to the fundamental principle of the Baha'i Faith strictly prohibiting any involvement in partisan politics and illuminates the appropriate process by which oppression is overcome:
. . . the proper response to oppression is neither to succumb in resignation nor to take on the characteristics of the oppressor. The victim of oppression can transcend it through an inner strength that shields the soul from bitterness and hatred and which sustains consistent, principled action.

Certainly this passage brings to mind the attributes of the great historical figures and groups who were able to transcend oppression through their inner strength, refusal to give in to bitterness and hatred, and consistent, principled action. The letter closes with the assurance of the House of Justice's prayers for the Baha'is of Iran and their compatriots, and the following words of promise from 'Abdu'l-Baha:
Iran shall become a focal centre of divine splendours. Her darksome soil will become luminous and her land will shine resplendent.

Photo reprinted with permission of the Bahá’í International Community


Urgent Situation of Imprisoned Baha'is in Iran

As many of you know, the seven Baha'i leaders currently imprisoned in Iran face an imminent trial, with their execution a possible outcome of the baseless charges leveled against them of "espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic Republic." Moreover recently the Prosecutor General of Iran made an announcement declaring illegal the national and local coordinating bodies of the Baha'i community of Iran.

In this context, the Baha'i International Community issued a letter to the Prosecutor General of Iran on 4 March 2009 describing in precise detail the history of the government-sponsored persecution of the Iranian Baha'i community since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the true nature and focus of the activities of the Baha'i community and the fair mindedness and sympathy towards the Baha'is of the majority of Iranian society. The letter calls for the fair judgment of the Iranian judiciary both for the sake of the Baha'i community of Iran and for the freedom of conscience of all Iranian citizens.

This summary merely skims the surface of this unique and important letter, a letter which demands our thoughtful study and will surely occupy a special place in history.


Helping Each Other Progress

The concept of developing and unleashing capacity has been on my mind a great deal lately. As a Baha'i, a fundamental belief is that each human being possesses unique God-given capacity, and that it is part of our purpose in life to exert effort to develop this capacity in order to grow spiritually and be of service to others. So it was with great interest that I read this article on the Harvard Business Review website about the creation by Throkil Sonne of a company to utilize the skills of people with autism. What is particularly striking is that Sonne did not choose to start a non-profit or an entity focused solely on research or training for individuals with autism, but rather, he created a corporation seeking to utilize the unique abilities of these individuals to offer a service to others:
Four years ago Thorkil Sonne realized that his young autistic son possessed an extraordinary memory and a remarkable eye for detail. Those traits are prevalent among people with autism, and Sonne saw an opportunity to help individuals with the disorder find productive employment. As the technical director of a Danish software venture, he knew those qualities were critical in software testers. So he went out on his own and launched Specialisterne, a Copenhagen-based software-testing firm that now has 51 employees, including 37 with autism, and revenues of $2 million.
One noteworthy aspect of this endeavor was that Sonne saw no dichotomy between providing a service to customers and helping people with a disability:

We’re constantly asked whether we support customers or a cause. We want to do both, of course, but we’re always fighting against the suspicion that we’re just a charity. Our corporate social responsibility profile might open doors with CEOs, but executives in charge of software testing aren’t evaluated on CSR, only on getting the most for the company’s money. To wipe away their suspicions, we must exceed performance expectations every time.

All our business comes from the private sector. Because Denmark has no tradition of social enterprises, the government doesn’t earmark contracts for companies like ours or give them tax breaks. We have to compete head on.

The article goes on to describe how Specialisterne is organized to create an environment suited to enabling its autistic employees to be productive. Well worth a read!

The article offers some interesting insights into the nature of the development and utilization of human capacity. As the Baha'i Writings make clear, each of us needs to take responsibility and make effort to develop our own capacity:
The whole duty of man in this Day is to attain that share of the flood of grace which God poureth forth for him.
(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p.8)
Yet we also have an important role to play in helping each other to grow and progess; as the following passage reveals, this is one of the central purposes of true religion:
All the divine Manifestations have proclaimed the oneness of God and the unity of mankind. They have taught that men should love and mutually help each other in order that they might progress.
(Abdu'l-Baha, Baha'i World Faith - Abdu'l-Baha Section, p. 245)
What I appreciate most about the Specialisterne example is that it seems like a good model of these principles in action, and in particular illustrates the importance to this process of organizational structure and the ability to identify and utilize peoples' strengths.


Technology and Social Good

What are the implications of technological innovation for the process of the advancement of civilization?

It seems like in the last few years we've witnessed a number of rapid and far-reaching developments--such as the proliferation of social networking websites and innovations in mobile communications technology--that have great potential to affect how we communicate, access information, and engage in collective endeavors. It is indeed exciting to think about how these technologies might be further adapted and deployed in the future, which will probably occur in ways and to an extent that it is difficult to foresee at this time. To this end, it is interesting to examine what the ultimate objective of technological advancement should be.

A recent article in Machinist, Salon's technology blog, about the concept of persuasive technology, has a number of insights to offer along these lines. According to the article, persuasive technology is the use of technology to persuade someone or group of people to take a certain course of action. The article cites Facebook as a prime example of such technology, referring to the work of B.J. Fogg at Stanford's Persuasive Technology Lab:

"Facebook has changed more people's behavior, more dramatically and faster, than anything that has come before it," [Fogg] said. With millions of people "ritualistically" involved with their Facebook accounts every day, he and his students are now trying to deconstruct precisely how it does its voodoo so well . . . .

Beyond examining the mere persuasive power of various technologies, the article addresses the importance of the ultimate objective of the persuasion:

Any kind of persuasive technique can be used for good or for evil, and no matter what others may do with it, Fogg is trying to use his captological powers for good. Last year, he started teaching a course he calls Peace Innovation. The core idea is to try to "invent peace" through persuasive technology.

"What we're doing is identifying antecedents to peace -- like empathy and tolerance -- that most people would agree need to be present in a peaceful society, then we're designing measurable persuasive techniques to achieve them," said Fogg. "It's a new way of looking at the problem."

Further exploration led me to the Peace Innovation website, which poses questions such as "can you imagine a new way to use Google Maps to promote greater harmony? How about Flickr? or Twitter? or perhaps a combination of these?" It is so refreshing to see these questions being posed, and constructive and systematic efforts being made to answer them.

After reflecting on all of this, the following passage from 'Abdu'l-Baha seemed to resonate in a new way:

Consider carefully: all these highly varied phenomena, these concepts, this knowledge, these technical procedures and philosophical systems, these sciences, arts, industries and inventions -- all are emanations of the human mind. Whatever people has ventured deeper into this shoreless sea, has come to excel the rest. The happiness and pride of a nation consist in this, that it should shine out like the sun in the high heaven of knowledge. . . . And the honor and distinction of the individual consist in this, that he among all the world's multitudes should become a source of social good. Is any larger bounty conceivable than this, that an individual, looking within himself, should find that by the confirming grace of God he has become the cause of peace and well-being, of happiness and advantage to his fellow men? No, by the one true God, there is no greater bliss, no more complete delight.


Perception and Cognition; Vision and Understanding

There are a few moments from the lectures of my college days that stand out as "ah ha" moments, when a concept or idea was articulated that resonated deeply. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these moments have stuck with me ever since, and some have changed the way I view the world. One such moment was a statement made by my religious studies professor in a course titled, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. I can't remember how this topic came up, but I clearly remember the professor saying that "sincerity is the emotional equivalent of truth." I thought it was such a beautiful and simple statement, and also one that struck an answering chord within me, and I'm sure in many of my classmates as well.

Another such moment occurred during a course in social psychology. Though again, the details are a bit foggy, I remember the professor discussing the concepts of perception and cognition. He said that what we perceive affects what think, and what or how we think, in turn affects what we perceive. Put more concisely, our perception affects our cognition, and our cognition affects our perception.

It seems like the topic of the relationship between perception and cognition continues to be a subject of much study, within organizations such as the Yale Perception and Cognition Laboratory, which, according to their website, is "a group of cognitive scientists who are interested in all aspects of perception, cognition, and how they relate to each other."

This topic was brought to mind recently when I was reading the following passage from Baha'u'llah's writings:
We cherish the hope that through the loving-kindness of the All-Wise, the All-Knowing, obscuring dust may be dispelled and the power of perception enhanced, that the people may discover the purpose for which they have been called into being. In this Day whatsoever serveth to reduce blindness and to increase vision is worthy of consideration. This vision acteth as the agent and guide for true knowledge. Indeed in the estimation of men of wisdom keenness of understanding is due to keenness of vision.

The phrase "keenness of understanding is due to keenness of vision" triggered a number of questions for me. Among them were, what is meant by vision? Physical vision? Spiritual vision? Perhaps both and more? On some level, it seemed to me like the vision referred to might relate to the ability to perceive things accurately, or to view reality with a just eye. Another question that arose is how are we able to develop keen vision? And what are the obscuring dusts that cloud our vision?

Interestingly, in one passage, 'Abdu'l-Baha identifies speaking ill of one who is absent as one of the greatest sources of harm to our vision, stating that "it would make the dust to settle so thickly on the heart that the ears would hear no more, and the eyes would no longer behold the light of truth." Thus it would seem that avoiding backbiting would be one indispensable practice that "serveth to reduce blindness and to increase vision." Doubtless there are a number of other tools that we can use to increase our vision, and thereby increase our understanding.

It would be a real treat to hear your perspective, dear reader, on this topic!


History of Religion

Though it is missing the inception and spread of the Baha'i Faith, this animation attempts to capture 5,000 Years of religious history in 90 seconds.

From Baha'u'llah: "He that wisheth to promote the Cause of the one true God, let him promote it through his pen and tongue, rather than have recourse to sword or violence."


Seeking Collaborators

In an effort to improve the frequency of postings here at Anxiously Concerned, I am seeking collaborators who would like to contribute material to this blog. In addition to improving the frequency of postings, this would also hopefully increase the diversity of perspectives shared in this "online space," and provide those who would like to share their thoughts on a blog, but aren't able to start one right now, an opportunity to try their hand at writing posts in a forum with an audience already in place. If you would like to contribute, please leave a comment on this post or send me an email (a link to my email address is contained in my profile). Looking forward to hearing from you!


Listening to the Sound of Silence

It's been about a month and a half since the last post on this blog, so I thought it would be fitting--though perhaps a bit self-serving--to start posting again with a piece on the topic of silence. The role of silence, or lack thereof, in our social interactions has always been a topic of interest to me. While it is by no means a purely scientific assertion and contains a number of generalizations, the Wikipedia entry on silence contains the following interesting statement:
Most people find silence uncomfortable, and to the extreme, unbearable. In modern society, especially in the western society, when people are meeting and talking to each other, people often start talking nonsense to skip moments of silence. People seem to have the same feeling all over the world, - however silence seems to be much more appreciated in the eastern world. . . .

I can definitely relate to the potential discomfort of silences in conversation, but have been thinking a lot about its important function, both in allowing the participants the space to express themselves, and in allowing for contemplation and reflection amidst a dialogue. In this light I found the following passage from 'Abdu'l-Baha thought provoking:
Bahá'u'lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things at one time -- he cannot both speak and meditate.

In many ways, it seems like silence can be an active force in our daily interactions, indeed Bahá'u'lláh exhorts us to "observe silence and refrain from idle talk," a phrase that to me, implies something different than refraining from speaking, but suggests taking our time, trying to find and communicate the deeper meaning in any situation or interaction, and observing the active forces at work in the midst of silence.

In this context it is interesting to consider the following passage from the book, Portals to Freedom, written by Howard Colbey Ives. In it, Mr. Ives, who was then a Christian minister, describes an encounter he had with 'Abdu'l-Baha, in which silence plays a profound role:
I asked Abdu'l-Bahá one day: "Why should I believe in Bahá'u'lláh?"

He looked long and searchingly as it seemed into my very soul. The silence deepened. He did not answer. In that silence I had time to consider why I had asked the question, and dimly I began to see that only I myself could supply the reason. After all, why should I believe in anyone or anything except as a means, an incentive, a dynamic for the securing of a fuller, deeper, more perfect life? Does the cabinet-maker's apprentice ask himself why he should believe in the master wood-worker? He wants to know how to make these raw materials into things of beauty and usefulness. He must believe in anyone who can show him how to do that, providing he first has faith in his own capacity. I had the stuff of life. Was Bahá'u'lláh the Master Workman? If He were I knew that I would follow, even though through blood and tears. But how could I know?

I wondered why Abdu'l-Bahá kept silence so long. Yet was it silence? That stillness held more than words. At last He spoke. He said that the work of a Christian minister is most important. When you preach, or pray, or teach your people your heart must be filled with love for them and love for God. And you must be sincere,--very sincere.

He spoke in Persian, the interpreter translating fluently and beautifully. But no one could interpret that Divine Voice. He spoke, indeed, as never mere man spake. One listened entranced and understood inwardly even before the interpreter opened his mouth. It was as though the English skimmed the surface: the voice, the eyes, the smile of Abdu'l-Bahá taught the heart to probe the depths.

What, dear readers, have you learned from your encounters with silence?