The Baha'i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience


From: Juan R Cole <> Newsgroups: soc.religion.bahai Subject: Re: Denial of
freedom of conscience in Baha'i (fwd) Date: 22 Oct 1996 19:58:05 -0700 Organization: ----
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(rdetweil) Path:!!!!www.nntp.primen!!!!not-for-mail >From
Professor Juan R. I. Cole, Middle Eastern History, University of Michigan: 

I guess I am disappointed at the responses that have come in replying to my plea for greater
open-mindedness in the Baha'i community and for a consideration of where it might have gone
wrong in departing so vividly from its original ideals, which were not so different from the
Unitarian Universalism to which I now adhere.  

The responses from Baha'is fell into three basic categories.  Some denied that there was any
freedom of conscience or speech in the Baha'i faith to begin with, misusing the Kitab-i Aqdas to
this end.  But Baha'u'llah advocated parliamentary liberties in the Absolutist Middle East; he 
criticized the sort of liberty that led to immorality, but he *advocated* human rights.  So too did
`Abdul-Baha, in Secret of Divine Civilization, A Traveller's Narrative, and his talks in the West. 

`Abdul-Baha explicitly  said in his Persian talks in Palo  Alto and Budapest that in the Baha'i
faith there is freedom of thought and speech, but not freedom of behavior, and that houses of
justice are forbidden to persecute Baha'is on the basis of mere beliefs.  (This does not mean there
can be no criminal speech, such as libel; but `Abdul-Baha did not want doctrinal disputes to be a
matter for prosecution).  In my view, current Baha'i practice has diverged from `Abdul-Baha's
high ideals.  Some maintained that  the Baha'i institutions are not democratic.  But  Shoghi
Effendi did say they should be democratic in their methods and  he said that the declaration of
conscience by a Baha'i was a right.  The word Baha'u'llah used for consultation of the sort Baha'i
houses of justice were to undertake, mashvirat, was a synonym in the 19th century Middle East
for parliamentary deliberation, for what we would now call democarcy.  All elective institutions
can run the gamut from being more democratic (with greater popular input, constitutional
guarantees of individual rights) to being elective dictatorships, what the German sociologist Max
Weber called Fuehrerdemokratie.  I suppose Baha'is have a choice of which they want their
institutions to be.  I know that Unitarian Universalism looks a lot more genuinely democratic,
and I think it is a superior way of doing things, and IMHO probably closer to what Baha'u'llah
himself had in mind for the future of religion.  

 Others, on the basis of no knowledge, accused me of desiring some sort of high position for
myself.  I hope that is not true; I certainly don't believe it to be true, nor do I believe the record
supports such an allegation.  All I wanted was to be free to conduct my independent
investigation of reality.    

A third sort of response expressed a knee-jerk support for whatever the Baha'i authorities did. 
These people have a vision in which those in control of the Administrative Order can make no
mistakes.  They have given up the independent investigation of reality in favor of blind
obedience, just as the Shi`ites are to blindly obey their ayatollahs.  This mindset in a religious
group is always dangerous, and Baha'is should really ask themselves whether it is wise to
surrender all their critical faculties to persons about whom they are relatively ignorant. 

`Abdul-Baha seemed confident that if those in authority made an error, and the community
supported them in it, then eventually the error would be corrected.  But empirical evidence
suggests that in fact for the community always unquestioningly to support those in power leads
to abuses of individual rights.  There is a problem here, which Baha'is of good faith really ought
to seek to address. 

Some kind persons did express their gratitude (which I certainly do not deserve) for some of the
provisional translations I did while I was a Baha'i. Those who wish to see these may do so at a
Web site I put up,  .  My Web page can also be
found by looking me up by name in Lycos or Altavista. 

I forgive those individuals who made serious charges against me, precipitating my resignation
from the Baha'i faith.  They thought they were doing something admirable.  I continue to admire
much in the Baha'i religion, and wish my Baha'i friends well.      But you really could all learn a
lot from more seriously considering the Unitarian Universalist principles I posted. 


Juan Cole