The Baha'i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience

From: <>
Subject: Re: Majnun post
Date: Thursday, February 11, 1999 5:57 PM

It is typical of the Gilbert and Sullivan sort of silliness of high Baha'i
officialdom that this little message should have been seen as some deep dark
conspiracy.   I think it is actually hilarious the way it was taken and is
taken by the glaze-eyed, like Maneck.
I was on Majnun.  It was a little email list with seven or eight members,
most of them Baha'i academics or intellectuals.  It was set up at a time when
group email was relatively new, so we could discuss things with one another. 
It was the kernel of what became later and ultimately
H-Bahai (the latter now with a membership moving toward 200). Most of our
discussions were about things like Arabic philology, which is evident even in
the stray message.  For what it is worth, I was personally tepid about making
majnun into talisman, and warned that it probably wasn't a good idea, given
how many narrow- minded people there were with power in the community.
At one point one of the members was really upset about the prosecution of
David Langness for an email message to  David had his
administrative rights removed for differing on a minor historical point with
the secretary of the NSA.  Moreover, it was clear that Birkland was going to
try to use the 'covenant' as a pretext to close down,
and he had already made one feint in that direction.  It seemed obvious that
the Baha'i administration was at that time unalterably opposed to the
existence of an unmoderated email forum not under their control, where views
they did not like could be posted.
So this person momentarily lost his head and said he thought someone should
organize and that a Manifesto aimed at reform should be published.  He also
thought that evidence of corruption on the part of some Baha'i officials
should be released.
I told this person he was out of his mind.  Then the wife of the person who
posted below weighed in that this was a very bad idea.
And then the author of this message responded, accidentally sending the post
to both majnun and talisman.  What did he say?
1.  He said that an organization would not be tolerated in the Baha'i
community, that this lack of toleration for any Baha'i civil society went back
to the time of the Guardian, and that the very attempt would badly damage the
Baha'i faith when it backfired, because the intellectuals involved in such an
organization would be declared covenant breakers and all intellectuals in the
community would be tainted with that brush.  I'm not sure why it is bad to say
any of these things.  Note that other religions permit organizations to exist;
look at Roman Catholicism.
2.  He pointed out that a manifesto would not work and would in fact simply
make things worse.  Why is this bad?
3.  He opposed any whistle-blowing on corrupt officials, on two grounds.  1)
The officials' corruption would sooner or later be its own punishment and 2)
any open criticism of such officials would leave the house of justice, which
was also unhappy with the situation, no choice but to *defend* them--in other
words criticism would have the opposite of the desired effect.
4.  The poster pointed out that it was unwise to take hasty action in
response to the Langness case and also unnecessary.  Thus far, had not been interfered with by the NSA despite the open
knowledge that they were *very* unhappy with its very existence and the
'tone' of some postings.  This was viewed as a 'win' situation by this
person, not only for but also for the future of the
Baha'i faith.  The NSA had made noises about attacking a talisman poster, but
we had heard back that they were nervous that Indiana University might take a
dim view of their interfering in one of its academic listservs.  And, for
this poster, the fate of the Baha'i Encyclopedia was still important, and he
perceived the NSA to be making a stand that it not be fundamentalized in the
way that Farzam Arbab was insisting it be. The poster regrets the language
about the NSA eating its horses, which was meant to be a colorful way of
saying that one knew they didn't want to exist, but
seemed to feel they could do nothing about it.
I don't actually see what is objectionable about the posting at all, even in
a conservative Baha'i context.	It might be shocking to conservative Baha'is
for its implication that the poster was not on the best of terms with 'the
institutions,' but people *on* the institutions talk like this all the time. 
A staffer told me about a time an NSA member met with them to discuss a
letter from the House that the member didn't like, and slapped on the table,
saying "Look what they've done to us *now*!"  It is only the naive in the
boondocks who don't know about such inter-institutional frictions.
It may also be shocking to some that the person to whom the posting replied
could even suggest organizing and whistle-blowing; though if that person saw
real corruption I should think it natural that anyone barnstorming about how
best to improve the Baha'i religion might think about both.
In the end, I think the poster who sent out this message was being 'way too
naive.	In fact, in the Baha'i organization corruption is very seldom
punished, because of the horse trading high officials are always doing with
one another. Everybody's got something on someone else, and often it is the
most morally compromised who are promoted, because their superiors know they
can be ruined.
Moreover, of course, the Baha'i institutions did not in fact (and this was
already a decision taken by early winter 1996) intend to allow to continue as it was.  They had for a long time
controlled all public discourse in the community and had been ratcheting it
to the Right, toward scriptural literalism and cult-like conformity. 
Talisman was intolerable to them.  Finally, no one imagined that they would
be willing to be so cynical as to use the threat of charges of *covenant
breaker* against professors for their academic email messages!
In the end, the worst possible thing happened, the thing this poster was nobly
attempting to prevent.  Academics were in fact attacked as covenant breakers,
even though they hadn't done anything wrong.  And the community was in fact to
some extent polarized over this issue, with native anti-intellectualism being
reinforced.  The reputation of the Baha'i faith in many circles suffered
because of the attack on the professors.
And it was all for naught.  H-Bahai has replaced Talisman for the academic
stuff, talk.religion.bahai for the general schmoozing.  (I, incidentally, was
the one who put Fred up to promoting talk.religion.bahai, after my discussions
with Usenet officials about the censorship policies on srb).  Neither list is
controlled by the 'institutions'.  So they completely failed in their
objectives, and just made the faith look bad in the attempt.
At least, the evidence is that they have backed off trying to control
discourse in this heavy handed way for the foreseeable future.	If I am right
about this, it is a wonderful development and augurs very well for the Baha'i
faith.	I'm sorry about my own faith being destroyed.  And I'm sorry that
glaze-eyed Inquisitors are continuing the failed Birkland policies of 1996 on
talk.religion.bahai, hoping to throw up smokescreens by crying heretic and
making the poster the issue rather than allowing substantive conversations.
But, well, this is what the Baha'i faith is like for thinking people, so it
may as well be public.	I hope it can mature and grow.
cheers   Juan

Juan Cole
History, U of Michigan
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Cole's claim, incidentally, that he "was the one who had put" me up to creating talk.religion.bahai is false. I had already taken steps to do so before his suggestion, despite his being characteristically quick to take credit for every liberal development.