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The 2002 CESNUR International Conference

Minority Religions, Social Change, and Freedom of Conscience

Salt Lake City and Provo (Utah), June 20-23, 2002

Bridge over national preconceptions: BAHAI movement in Latvia towards a New Multicultural Identity Formation

by Solveiga Krumina-Konkova, Nikandrs Gills
Academic Centre for the Study of Religions, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, University of Latvia
A paper presented at CESNUR 2002, Salt Lake City & Provo. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author

Main theses of this paper are placed on the results of project "Influence of New Religious Minorities on the Development of a New Multicultural Identity". This project was realized with the support of RSS of the Soros Foundation at the Centre for the Study of Religions, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, University of Latvia, from December 2000 till August 2001.

Regarding the methods of our research, we had preferred the qualitative research methods that seem more useful for the subject of our project. We chose the unstructured open observation (participation in the common worships and meetings, as well as visits in the single home-groups) and the semi-structured multilevel interview of members, ex-members of the definite religious minorities, in common with the structured interview of several out-standing experts. During this period, the field research on BAHAI religion in Latvia (about 150 active members in 2000) was carried out and 26 members of this religion had been interviewed.

Social demography of these people was the following: there were 13 women and 13 men. Their age ranged from 17 to 60 (all age groups were represented). Among them were 6 Latvians, 15 Russians, 1 Osset, 1 Lithuanian, 1 Ukrainian and 1 Englishman. One informant was from the ethnically mixed family. A great part of them (14) had higher education, 7 - unaccomplished higher education. 8 informants were from Riga. 1 informant was from Salaspils (a corporate town about 40 km from Riga). 5 informants were from Jelgava (industrial town about 70 km from Riga), 4 - from Liepaja (port and industrial town about 214 km from Riga). 7 informants were from Daugavpils (bordertown with Byelorussia and Lithuania, over 300 km from Riga) and 1 - from Rezekne (small industrial town about 200 km from Riga).

?Interviews witness that joining to this religious minority has substantially changed informants' prior identity or more precisely – their prior system of identities. Although the larger part of interviewees had grown in time when both their and their parents’ living were determined by Soviet politics and ideology, we can not posit that they had some unambiguous Soviet identity in their past. Similarly we can not posit that such identity fully determined their lives and systems of values as well as we cannot speak about some complete replacement. We could speak only about the communistic ideological ideal of such identity that has been imposed by force but never been fully realised in reality. Actually, there were only different forms of timeserving (conformism) to this ideal.

It was not possible to regard Soviet identity as some exclusive identity in the living of informants. The most of informants stressed, that one or both of their parents had belonged to some of Christian confessions and that they thyself had attended services at least on Christmas. One of interviewees has maintained her religious belonging unchangeable till nowadays. The most of interviewees remembered that Christmas and Easter had been celebrated in their families. However these celebrations were formal for the most part. They were taken not as religious but national feasts. It lets us to speak about the identification and replacement between the religious and the national identities. Equal identification has also kept at present. Thus, in some interviews it was mentioned that Latvians regard belonging to the Lutheran Church as the substantial feature of their national identity although their Church visiting is formal, without belief. As it was reflected in the interviews, Latvians have mostly maintained their ethnical belonging and national self-awareness even during the Soviet time. The most of Latvians had maintained their ethnical identity and historical memory about their national and traditional religious and cultural identities. Russians and other Russian-speaking people who did not maintain their national identity were exceptions. There were also several specific cases (for example, the Osset woman) when interviewees who were not Latvians had fully gone native and started to recognise themselves as the agents of Latvian cultural identity.?However, although there was multicultural society in Latvia during Soviet time, we had no an affirmation to speak about some development of more or less advised multicultural identity then. We can speak only about the passive multiculturalism.

The motives wherefore our informants had started their religious and spiritual quests were different. We could subdivide them into two groups:

For people with the first type of motivation the replacement of their former identity had been more rapid and radical than for so-called "religious seekers". In our case, motives of both groups obtained equally.

?Interviews among BAHAI believers fully validated the fact that joining to this religious minority had risen around 1990, when political liberalisation and democratisation started. Political changes in their turn opened the gate for globalisation with it's spread and exchange of information, the increase of cultural interaction, ideological pluralism, essential changes in education, job market etc. As many interviewees noticed, they had gained the possibility to get to know about different religions and to take the proper choice. They fully accepted the processes of democratisation, for these processes provided their religious freedom. About another influences of globalisation, interviews presented that globality leads to the emergence of new cultural forms. We can easily identify a process that was coined by writers as "the periphery talks back" when cultural traditions mix and create new practices and worldviews. Here we find possible to use the term creolization offered by the Swedish anthropologist Ulf Hannerz. [1] This term refers to cultural expressions, which do not have historical roots, but are the result of global interconnections. Globalisation leads to new transnational public spheres, to new communities, which often transcend national and regional boundaries. These new communities are bound together by common interest, profession or social and cultural similarities rather than by origin or geographical closeness. Hence, locality itself looses its importance. The BAHAI community is the typical example of such a transnational and multicultural community.

Belonging to such community had the essential influence on informants' ethnic and national identification. During our research we found that religious doctrines and practices had played a vital role in forming sociocultural, psychological, cognitive and emotional orientations of the interviewees. . It is understood that every religion provides its believers with some traditional system of meanings, which serve as a comprehensive cultural function in individuals, families, societies or communities. If we consider each person's self-identity as a system of different complementary identities, we can find a feature that is common also for the adherents of BAHAI religion in Latvia, namely: new religious identity prevails in their self-identity and governs over another identities (including cultural ones).

Yet more – we have nominated a distinct model of a new self-identity that is characteristic for persons belonging to BAHAI religion in Latvia. For the BAHAI model, here the essential characteristic is the interaction among different cultural identities that could be defined as the creation of a new multicultural identity. This model is capable of accommodating a variety of cultures, including national cultures, as a whole. Followers of BAHAI religion recognized and defined it distinctly and precisely.

BAHAI model is based on the principle of unity in diversity. As it was mentioned in one interview: "Religion of BAHAI helps to keep me my own culture. At the same time, this singularity of culture is not confronted to other cultures. Here the principle of the unity of diversities is kept up" [2]; or in another interview: "Diversity of cultures, diversity of races, nations -- they are as flowers in the garden. Moreover, this unity in diversity -- its understanding cannot be enforced. This understanding must grow." [3] It is essentially that several interviewees used the concept of multicultural society themselves when they spoke about their vision of future. They find the multicultural society is that society exactly, which corresponds to the above-mentioned formula of BAHAI religion. Our observations testified that, for example, non-Latvians belonging to this religion knew Latvian language and gladly used it to emphasise their respect towards people and the country were they live. BAHAI followers also create their specific sub-culture what could be defined as multicultural. In BAHAI meetings both Latvian and Russian songs and music were performed. Interviewees emphasised a very friendly tone and tolerance that governed in their congregations. The same tolerance they expressed concerning another religions.

Concerning BAHAI in Latvia, we would like to speak of the situation in Daugavpils, where the BAHAI congregation consisted of non-Latvians mostly. On the one hand, these people took pride for the place they living. On the other hand, they tried to model their living space as the multicultural living space. In our opinion, the situation in Daugavpils is rather good illustration for the border studies theory, which further develops what multicultural theorist James Banks refers to as "multiple acculturation," the incorporation of different heritages into the identity development process. [4] BAHAI followers corresponded to this theory not only due to their geographical position. First, they bridged borders by having both feet in two groups. Just by having both feet in two groups, the BAHAI followers in Daugavpils were wholly immersed, respected, and accepted by at least two cultures simultaneously. Second, BAHAI followers in Daugavpils had so-called "situational ethnicity". It means that at various times a person with a bicultural or multicultural identity may wish temporarily to emphasise or highlight one segment of his identity while de-emphasising another. Thus, for example, in well-disposed surroundings Russian can decline his/her ethnical or traditional cultural identity for instant: he/she wants to speak Latvian and he/she does so; he/she wants to sing Latvian songs and he/she does so. Such a situation was rather common among BAHAI followers in Daugavpils. This kind of dynamic acculturation process has been considered as an integration model rather than assimilation. Third, the individual who decisively sits on a border, experiencing it as the central reference point and wish to invent a new or at least revised identity. BAHAI congregation in Daugavpils as well as BAHAI religion in general runs on such a creation.

In conclusion, we would like to mention several findings that in our opinion are important for our region: followers of BAHAI religion are able to combine or accommodate in their self-identity also the segments of outwardly mutual conflicting religious cultures, such as Christianity and Islam, or outwardly incompatible religious cultures as Christianity and Hinduism. For example, several interviewees (3 cases) were sure that their own religious minority could agree with Christians on the common social projects, such as the actions against drugs. BAHAI believers could be regarded as stabilisers of the society because they and their religious minority in general represent the new life-style. Their goal is to convince not by words and actions but by their own life-style and personal fortune. Such attitude could determine the situation of this religious minority in future, namely, – although BAHAI built bridges over different preconceptions in our society they always will stay as a minority. Because they are pioneers.


[1] Hannerz Ulf, Cultural Complexity. -- New York, 1992. [back]

[2] BAHAI, interview Nr.21. [back]

[3] BAHAI, interview Nr.23. [back]

[4]See: Banks James. Multiethnic Education: Theory and Practice. -- Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1994. -- P. 239. [back]

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