Anti-Islamic rhetoric has become heated in the US recently, as efforts to build Islamic community centers and mosques have been met with protests and vandalism, culminating in threats to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of 9/11. At the same time, powerful and persuasive voices are speaking out in defense of American Muslims, in a growing chorus of religious tolerance.
In these twin developments we can see the simultaneous processes of integration and disintegration that are playing out in the world today in this difficult age of transition from an anachronistic social order steeped in conflict and division, to a new order based on global interdependence.
When we turn on the news, we can see disintegrative processes playing out in every sphere of human activity. They are becoming particularly acute in the religious sphere, where, through the manipulations of self-interested leaders of thought, the deepest sources of human meaning and motivation are being channeled toward fanaticism, intolerance, and violence.
One response to this trend is to reject religion itself as an anachronism, as the new atheists and others have done. Another response is to recognize religion as an inextinguishable feature of human consciousness — but to understand it as an evolving system of knowledge and practice that progresses, just like science, through revolutionary advances that are initially dismissed, then debated, then gradually accepted as their validity is recognized.
It is this latter conception of religion that informs an open letter from the international governing body of the Baha’i community, that was written and distributed in 2002 to thousands of the world’s religious leaders. At the heart of this increasingly relevant letter is an appeal to discard all those doctrines of religious exclusivity and finality that lie at the heart of most religious conflict, and to realize the integrative potential of religion at this critical historical juncture. As this open letter concludes:
“With every day that passes, danger grows that the rising fires of religious prejudice will ignite a worldwide conflagration the consequences of which are unthinkable. Such a danger civil government, unaided, cannot overcome. Nor should we delude ourselves that appeals for mutual tolerance can alone hope to extinguish animosities that claim to possess Divine sanction. The crisis calls on religious leadership for a break with the past as decisive as those that opened the way for society to address equally corrosive prejudices of race, gender and nation… At this greatest turning point in the history of civilization, the demands of such service could not be more clear. “The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable”, Bahá’u’lláh urges, “unless and until its unity is firmly established.”