Lincoln reimagines the Middle East through Baha’i lens

Not many people know about the Baha’i religion. Some don’t know that it’s an Abrahamic religion — some don’t even know it exists — but Albert Lincoln thinks the religion’s hometown of Haifa, Israel, could serve as a model for peace and coexistence in the Middle East.

Speaking from the Hall of Philosophy, Lincoln delivered his lecture, “Religion and the Middle East – A Fresh Take,” Thursday. He explained the religion’s founding and its basic practices, and he also gave examples of how Baha’i is working to reform the Middle East into a more harmonious place.

“What we try to do is cultivate aesthetics and create peaceful spaces where all can feel welcome,” Lincoln said. “I’m talking mainly about the gardens, and it’s quite extraordinary how they do draw people from every walk of life and every one of the different diverse communities in the country and in neighboring countries.”

Haifa is located in the mountainous Northern region of the country. The Baha’i international governing body is based there and hosts an expansive garden that draws tourists — both religious and secular — to see.

While Lincoln said he and others try to establish peace in the region, there are pitfalls of peacemongering that they try to avoid.

“We don’t preach to the Jews and Arabs about peace or tell them what they should do to promote it,” Lincoln said. “We don’t get involved in political debates or public controversies, and we don’t fund social projects that promote some particular agenda.”

Pivoting to its origins, Lincoln said the Baha’i religion was founded in Iran circa 1844. Under Muslim authority at the time, the Ottoman government tried to repress the religion.

“As in other places, the repression did not distinguish the fire, but caused it to spread,” Lincoln said.

When the faith’s founder, Baha’u’llah, and his followers were exiled, the Ottomans relocated them to their current locale of Haifa.

“It was not out of good intentions that the Ottoman authorities sent [Baha’u’llah] there, nonetheless he welcomed it as an act of destiny, and with time it turned out to be an extraordinarily good choice,” Lincoln said.

While the Baha’is lived in Israel, rule shifted between Islamic governments for 50 years, Christian governments (under the British Mandate) for 30 years, and 67 years to date under Jewish rule, Lincoln said.

Despite the turbulence of politics in the area, Lincoln said the gardens still serve as a place for people of different backgrounds can interact in a nonthreatening environment.

“People come each year, and one of the things they report is that this is where they can meet people they don’t otherwise see from other walks of life,” Lincoln said.

Going deeper into the diversity aspect, Lincoln shared a favorite memory during his time in Haifa when they opened a new section to guests which drew a massive and diverse crowd.

“One of my happiest memories that I have from my years in Haifa was a day when we opened a large section of the terrace to the public, invited everyone by newspaper ads, and then watched 10,000 people stroll through the gardens in four hours,” Lincoln said.

He likened the people he saw walking through the gardens to the flowers in the gardens themselves, diverse in color but similar in the happiness they radiate.

Lincoln is hopeful that the cooperation he saw everyday in Haifa could be the template for what the Middle East could look like when people of different backgrounds, belief systems and heritages learn to get along together.

“Together with other organizations, we help to strengthen and promote this notion of Haifa as a model of what the Middle East could look like,” he said.