Just watch a few documentaries about animals in the wild, and you’ll recognize a pretty basic and compelling survival instinct—the ability to quickly distinguish friend from foe.
To an animal, friend usually means “my species” or “my family.” Foe means “different species” or “different family.” That ability to quickly and easily distinguish between opposing groups also formed an essential survival instinct in primitive man, much as it remains in animals, insects and other species today.
The human race has succeeded partially because of our ability to quickly distinguish friend from foe. In the primitive stages of our development, this required quick identification of negative differences—of other species, other tribes, other family groupings.
Since then, humanity has undergone a unique advancement as a higher life form: civilization. Although some remnants of our primitive survival response can still be seen in exaggerated and inappropriate reactions to difference and otherness, today we reflect our greater degrees of advancement in civilized expressions of mutuality, reciprocity, collaboration, and forgiveness. The Baha’i teachings praise those higher, more spiritual instincts:
Cleanse ye your eyes, so that ye behold no man as different from yourselves. See ye no strangers; rather see all men as friends, for love and unity come hard when ye fix your gaze on otherness. And in this new and wondrous age, the Holy Writings say that we must be at one with every people; that we must see neither harshness nor injustice, neither malevolence, nor hostility, nor hate, but rather turn our eyes toward the heaven of ancient glory. For each of the creatures is a sign of God … therefore they are not strangers, but in the family; not aliens, but friends, and to be treated as such. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 24.
The effects of globalism—of international travel, trade and so on—mean we are now confronted by unprecedented exposure to “otherness.” Today, many humans still express our primitive animal instincts in unreasonable degrees of fear; in the dislike, contempt and even hatred of foreigners, of people with different customs, cultures, and dress; or of strangers perceived as different from ourselves due to politics, culture, appearance, skin color or hair type. Modern examples of otherness may even be targeted at gender characteristics. The Baha’i teachings warn us against such xenophobia and separation, “for love and unity come hard when ye fix your gaze on otherness.”
Xenophobia is defined as an unreasonable hatred, fear, distrust, or contempt for foreigners or anything perceived as foreign, different, strange, or of others politics or culture. It is expressed both personally and collectively. Nations demonstrate their reaction to the rise of globalism in expressions of extreme nationalism, in zealous and aggressive patriotism or in parades of blind enthusiasm for military glory.
Social groups express xenophobia as biased devotion to particular attitudes, or in causes such as religious chauvinism. More recently it finds expression in attitudes of exclusiveness; exclusive clothing, design, music, dance etc. Genders express it in the denigration, disparagement, and patronization of either sex based on the belief that one gender is inferior to the other and thus deserving of less than equal treatment or benefit.
Parallel with these reactions, we see a great process of world advancement. This was initially expressed in the establishing of mutually agreed-upon national borders, but developed on the political stage to the League of Nations, and presently in the United Nations.
In the process we have seen a growth in unified collective groupings: the British Commonwealth, and other associations represented by acronyms like NATO, UNESCO, ASEAN, TPP and so forth. But whilst our recent human history has seen growing unity and cooperation on one hand, on the other has been a continuing process of enforced dislocation of people due to war, economic and political forces and more.
So to where do we look for effective responses? The law can’t prevent tribalism or prejudice any more than individualism can. We must encourage reason and compassion, not xenophobia. But so much damage has already been done. Our challenge into the future will be how to acknowledge, educate, heal and repair; to engage in processes of restitution and reconciliation.
From a Baha’i perspective, the overriding answer to the suffering of nations presently enduring extreme and continuing levels of violence and oppression–the answer to all warfare—ultimately lies in our recognition of the oneness of humanity.
That recognition—that the Earth is not Syrian, Yemeni or American, is not Jewish, Christian or Muslim—understands that the Earth is our common homeland. It is one country. Such a great change in human affairs will be vastly energized by one predominant factor:
The most momentous question of this day is international peace and arbitration, and universal peace is impossible without universal suffrage. Children are educated by the women. The mother bears the troubles and anxieties of rearing the child, undergoes the ordeal of its birth and training. Therefore, it is most difficult for mothers to send to the battlefield those upon whom they have lavished such love and care. Consider a son reared and trained twenty years by a devoted mother. What sleepless nights and restless, anxious days she has spent! Having brought him through dangers and difficulties to the age of maturity, how agonizing then to sacrifice him upon the battlefield! Therefore, the mothers will not sanction war nor be satisfied with it. So it will come to pass that when women participate fully and equally in the affairs of the world, when they enter confidently and capably the great arena of laws and politics, war will cease; for woman will be the obstacle and hindrance to it. This is true and without doubt. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 134-135.
Now is the time for action. It is time to educate and support all girls and women to play their unique role in this process; to support them through equal access to education and other benefits that they may be enabled to participate fully and equally in the affairs of the world, so that they may be enabled to enter confidently and capably the great arena of laws and politics. These steps are essential to answering the most momentous question of this day, that of universal peace.