The last few blogs I talked about the subject of Islam and the Renaissance and how it created the foundation for modern advances. I like to step down from and touch upon another renaissance—the twentieth century renaissance. This period, I believe, will be regarded in the future as the dawn of a most glorious era, the birth of a magnificent global civilization, that cannot be visualized at present.
I have been especially interested in the period of 1900-1920, the period that is considered to be “Progressive Era” in the West, a time of reform and great expectations about the future, and “the proliferation of international conferences and agencies” .
To echo a quote from yet another shining star of early Islam, Ibn Khaldun:
“He who finds a new path is a pathfinder, even if the trail has to be found again by others; and he who walks far ahead of his contemporaries is a leader, even though centuries pass before he is recognized as such.”
In this blog, I will talk about an example of activism and anti-racism in the twentieth century, an early fruit of the pathfinders of light: the first Universal Races Congress that convened one hundred years ago, in July 1911. About thirteen years ago, a dear friend—Ms. George—and I wrote an article on this subject, that was published in the United Kingdom Baha’i Journal. I have taken bits and pieces of this article and included it in this blog.
It is hard to believe, that a congress on race unity, with such high motives, was convened so early in the twentieth century. This universal races congress was held at the University College of London (a college that I studied at decades later) in the hot and humid days of July 26-29, 1911. The Congress was initiated by the comments of Felix Adler in 1906 and largely executed due to the efforts of Gustov Spiller.
The original call for the Congress included these remarks about its purpose:
“To discuss, in the light of science and modern conscience, the general relations existing between the peoples of the West and those of the East, between the so-called “white” and the so-called “colored” peoples, with a view to encouraging between them a fuller understanding, the most friendly feelings, and the heartier co-operation.… The interchange of material and other wealth between the races of mankind has of late years assumed such dimensions that the old attitude of distrust and aloofness is giving way to a genuine desire for a closer acquaintanceship. Out of this interesting situation has spring the idea of holding a Congress where the representatives of the different races might meet each other face to face, and might, in friendly rivalry, further the cause of mutual trust and respect between the Occident and Orient, between the so-called “white” peoples and the so-called “colored” peoples.
At that time it was an unprecedented and remarkable gathering of people of capacity exchanging views on race, culture and religion. It was motivated by a strong sense of urgency to abolish ignorance and prejudice, and to kindle the light of unity between different races, and of East and West. More than fifty countries and twenty governments sent official representatives, resulting in fifty eight papers that were categorized into five groups:
-General Confitions of Progress,
-Special Problems of Inter-racial Economics and Peaceful Contact between Civilizations,
-Modern Conscience in Relation to Racial Questions,
-Positive Suggestions for Promoting Inter-racial Friendliness.;
Attendees included delegates from the second Hague conference, British governors, members of clergy and academics. Participants also included scholars from many parts of the world, such as the great African-American scholar, W.E.B Du Bois and Dr. L.L Zamenhof, the originator of the international language of Esperanto, and religious speakers such as Thomas William Rhys Davids, Genchi Kato and Alfred Caldecott. The head of and son of the Prophet founder of the Bahá’í Faith, Abdu’l-Bahá, was invited to speak but could not travel to England in time to attend.
The uniqueness of this congress prompted Abdu’l-Bahá to send an encouraging letter which was read in His absence. The letter was published with the other papers submitted by the leading intellectuals of that time. This paper—though brief in comparison to the other papers presented—set the tone with these inspiring words:
“This Congress is one of the greatest of events. It will be forever to the glory of England that
it was established at her capital. It is easy to accept a truth; but it is difficult to be steadfast in it; for the tests are many and heavy.”
His letter encapsulated the very substance of the origins of racism and how to eradicate it:
“Rivalry between the different races of mankind was first caused by the struggle for existence among the wild animals. This struggle is no longer necessary: nay, rather interdependence and co-operation are seen to produce the highest welfare in nations. The struggle that now continues is cased by prejudice and bigotry. Today nothing but the power of the Divine Word, which embraces the Reality of all things, can draw together the minds, hearts, and spirits of the world under the shadow of the heavenly Tree of Unity.”
Abdu’l-Bahá continues to say:
“The call to arbitration, to peace, to love, and to loyalty is the call of Bahá’u’lláh. His standard floats since fifty years, summoning all of what ever race and creed.”
He then summoned the participants to the Call of His father, Bahá’u’lláh:
“O ye friends of God! Acknowledge this pure light; direct the people who are in ignorance, chanting the melodies of the Kingdom of God, until the dead body of mankind quickens with a new life… O friends of God! strive to dissipate the darkness and reveal the hidden meanings of things, until their Reality becomes clear and established in the sight of all.”
It is now been almost one hundred years since the world’s first congress on racial unity, and the work ahead to dispel racism and prejudice from our midst is still plenteous. At this centenary it behooves us to set far-reaching goals in our personal and collective lives, to promote racial unity, and most of all, to remember the words of Abdu’l-Bahá:
“O Ye People! Cause this thing to be not a thing of words, but deeds.”
Next time: Efforts to create world order in early twentieth century.
 First ever Universal Races Congress- July 1911, Baha’i UK Journal, 1998
 G Spiller, ed., Papers on inter-racial problems: Communicated to the first Universal Races Congress, july 1911
 “Star of the West” Vol 1. March 1910-September 1911 (20 August 1911)