The Ethics of Globalization: A Baha'i Perspective

Debates on globalization, especially in policy-making circles, are often shaped by purely national interests, whether social, economic, or political. But such interests are parochial, whereas, if the phenomenon of globalization were to be carefully examined, it would be found to affect far more than the narrow range of concerns and issues to which it is customarily restricted, so that discussions of the subject would properly be broadened to take into account the cultural and spiritual dimensions.

While enormous possibilities are associated with the phenomenon of globalization, these potentialities must not blind us to the grave problems it entails. Only through concerted action by the world community can there be any hope of tackling and finally eradicating such menaces as international terrorism, the proliferation of deadly weapons, illegal drug trafficking, organized crime, the spread of disease, and environmental degradation.

Perhaps foremost, all responsible parties and bodies in today's world are compelled to seek some means of global conflict resolution and arbitration. Specifically, the question must be addressed: "How are we to avoid a disastrous and unwinnable 'clash of civilizations?'" The author of that controversial thesis has himself suggested an answer. In his 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Professor Samuel Huntington included this generally neglected conclusion:

" many have pointed out, whatever the degree to which they divided humankind, the world's major religions - Western Christianity, Orthodoxy, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism - also share key values in common. If humans are ever to develop a universal civilization, it will emerge gradually through the exploration and expansion of these commonalities."

Recognizing 125 years ago humanity's acute need for spiritual and religious reconciliation, Bahá'u'lláh touched in his writings upon the conditions essential to the creation of a universal civilization and the establishment of a system of world governance. He emphasized the necessity of creating a universal global consciousness, a new spiritual awareness, and a new sense of responsibility.

"O well-beloved ones!" Bahá'u'lláh wrote. "The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. We cherish the hope that the light of justice may shine upon the world and sanctify it from tyranny."

For the Bahá'í international community, globalization is a vision of world unity in so deep and broad a sense as to embrace every aspect of human life. Such a vision of planetary unity and integration, however, bears no relation to the often bland, faceless, and amoral global marketplace that we see operating today. Instead, it recognizes and celebrates the rich diversity of creeds and cultures while at the same time affirming the fundamental oneness of the human race. The Bahá'í approach to globalization can be summed up as a commitment to the concept of "unity in diversity" and what this practically entails in the life of the individual and society alike.

A diverse world affords the optimal conditions for all to realize their highest potential through independent intellectual, spiritual, or aesthetic endeavor. With the oneness of humanity accorded pride of place in human consciousness, its very diversity becomes rather a safeguard against tyranny than a cause of bitter conflict and division.

The multicultural approach offers a sound alternative to the paradigm of globalization which seems predominant today. Since the end of the Cold War over a decade ago, the proponents of globalization have enthusiastically acclaimed the transformative potential of markets and market mechanisms as a kind of universal panacea for all the world's ills. Undoubtedly, markets do perform certain functions very efficiently: over time, they have emerged as useful instruments for the allocation of goods and services, and, to a certain degree, have succeeded also in connecting and integrating the peoples of the world. Yet, are not other economic models also possible - models that should serve to release and develop human potential, whilst drawing upon those innate human impulses towards fairness and compassion?

All too often, dialogues on globalization are thwarted by appeals to "cultural relativism." In theory, cultural relativism is the notion that certain social, economic, cultural, and political practices are intrinsic to particular groups, and that the peremptory imposition of alien and artificial standards is an unwarrantable infringement. Yet such protests are often but attempts to shirk the application of a universal code of human rights. In fact, cultural relativism, meaning the view that would deny such universal norms, is a political stratagem rooted in the false premise that the member societies of today's world have grown up in hermetic isolation from each other; whereas the most cursory examination of human history reveals beyond the faintest shadow of a doubt that every society on earth is related to its sisters by a thousand ties. And this is a reality which the investigations of archaeologists and others are further corroborating with each passing day. Whatsoever circumstance restricts the ability of individuals to develop their inherent capacities, and to prosper as human beings, must be changed.

Perhaps the essential and underlying unity that binds together all the peoples and races of the world is nowhere more evident than in the perennial wisdom - what Gottfried Leibniz termed the "perennial philosophy" - that "universal and unanimous tradition" common to all cultures and expressing, albeit in a myriad different ways, a common vision of the plight of man. By rediscovering such fundamental perceptions it would be possible to derive those essential commonalities which unite all peoples, and to design in consequence a single global system of governance based upon universal values. From these could then be fashioned a comprehensive global ethic and a shared global "human rights and responsibilities constitution."

Instead of retreating from globalization, developing countries and ethnic communities are summoned to shape the process by themselves actively participating in it; the world must not indeed be deprived of the distinctive and invaluable contribution that all societies, without exception, have within their power to make by sharing with others their highest and most noble values.

A globalization informed rather by the timeless wisdom of the prophets and sages than the arbitrary exigencies of the global mart must of necessity be set upon a firm foundation of interfaith and intercultural cooperation, and be characterized by an amicable and open dialogue between the divers creeds and cultures of the world.

For Bahá'ís, the principle of unity is the bedrock of all religious faith; but in the social sphere, the establishment of a universal standard of justice is of preeminent concern, for justice is the essential foundation of unity, and without unity there can be no peace. The construction of a peaceful global society is thus a progressive task: first, justice is universally established; second, the unity of the planet is realized; and finally, world peace reigns supreme. The global system for which humanity should strive must accordingly renounce all forms of exploitation of one group by another; its international trade must be conducted in a manner both free and fair; and it must accord to all - workers as well as managers and owners - a share in the prosperity created. The new global order should narrow the gap between rich and poor, and grant equal opportunities to all members of the human family; above all, it should insure equality between men and women.

Today perhaps more than at any other time in history, great and incalculable possibilities have opened before us as a world community. New avenues can be perceived that, if wisely followed, will lead us into a world that is at one and the same time diverse and unified, a world suffused and guided by a vision of unity transcending all human differences. Above all, we have the chance as never before to attest to the truth communicated to us by the scriptures of all past ages. Whatever our persuasion, we are all wayfarers on a single path leading to the selfsame ideal haven.

[Editor's note: The following is adapted from a speech by Professor Suheil Bushrui, presented on 11 June 2003 in Brussels, in honor of the opening of a display at the European Parliament. [See accompanying article.] Prof. Bushrui holds the Bahá'í Chair for World Peace at the Center for International Development and Conflict Management, University of Maryland. The entire speech can be read at]