The Baha'i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience

From: <>
Subject: Re: Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Freedom of Conscience
Date: Thursday, February 04, 1999 9:36 AM
Not all religious bodies are based upon conformity of speech.  Some, like
Sufis or Unitarians, allow very wide lattitude in what a member may say
publicly. Others, like Roman Catholicism, tend to limit the speech mainly of
church officials--priests and monks and teachers of Catholic theology. 
Others, as in Shi`ite Iran, limit everyone's speech, so that it is actually a
criminal offense to question the infallibility of Supreme Jurisprudent Ali
Khamenei.  Similarly, cults in the West toss out anyone who questions the
group's supreme leader.
So, the question is not whether religious groups limit speech, but where they
fall along a spectrum.	The Baha'i leaders in recent years have behaved far
more like the Shi`ites than they have like either Roman Catholics or those to
RC's left.  That is, had Michael McKenny been a lay Catholic who came on
email and argued for women's ordination and ultimately for a female pope,
*nothing* would have been done to him by the church.  It is true that had he
been a Dominican monk and done so, he would have been disciplined.  On the
other hand, had Michael McKenny been a Shi`ite in Iran who published
newspaper op ed pieces calling for women to be allowed to become Shi`ite
mujtahids and questioning Ali Khamenei's infalllibility, he would have
certainly been jailed, if not assassinated.
The Baha'i authorities don't presently have the ability to jail anyone.  But
their structure of reasoning is just like that of Shi`ite authorities in Iran.
Speech, even by powerless laypersons, that publicly and persistently questions
officially sanctioned policy is criminal speech and must be punished.
`Abdul-Baha's Will and Testament and his other writings, on the other hand,
envisage a situation in between that of Unitarians and Roman Catholics.  That
is, he envisages that those with legal authority (mujtahids or LSA members
able to open the door of ijtihad and rule idiosyncratically with legal force
against the wishes of the house of justice) are bound by the official legal
pronouncements of the house of justice.  But laypersons are free to express
their individual views and conscience as they will (azadigi-yi vujdan, by the
way, is a 19th century loan term from European languages meaning freedom of
conscience in the contemporary sense; the phrase did not exist in classical
Persian, and the words did not mean the same things in ancient times. 
Azadigi meant 'nobility'!)
The attempt to read the Will and Testament so as to extend the ban on free
expression beyond practical legal rulings to mere statements of opinion on
policy, and to extend it so as to be applicable to Baha'is like Michael who
had no official position and no authority, is to Khomeini-ize the Baha'i
faith.	It is to warp and distort `Abdul-Baha's clear intent in his Persian
Tablets on these issues. It is to put ordinary Baha'is in precisely the same
position as ordinary Shi`ite Muslims in Iran, with the sole difference that
Baha'i authorities don't yet control the machinery of state and so must
impose symbolic rather than physical punishments on people.
People in Iran aren't happy with the Draconian limits on freedom of
conscience and speech there.  The Iranian Baha'is certainly aren't.  They
will only put up with them as long as Ali Khamenei has the police and
military behind him.  In the West, almost nobody will put up with those
restrictions.  You will note that there is no large Khomeinist religious body
anywhere in the West, despite the large number of Iranian expatriates.
If the Baha'is move in the Ali Khamenei direction, even with only symbolic
punishments, they will not only profoundly betray the spirit and letter of
the teachings of the Baha'i holy figures, but they will doom themselves to
many further decades of tininess and insignificance.  It is not an accident
that there are 2,000 French Baha'is in a country of 55 million, or a similar
number of German Baha'is in a country of 85 million, or only a handful of
Dutch Baha'is.	In the US and Canada the faith has had more success, but
still competes in numbers with things like Scientology and the American
Communist Party.  Even in Iran the number of Baha'is and close sympathizers
has plummeted from about a million in the 1920s to probably something on the
order of 150,000 now. What the Baha'i authorities are trying to sell is
control.  Virtually nobody will put up with this level of interference in
their lives and behavior.  If that was the message that they *had* to sell by
scripture it would be one thing.  But they are selling a message based on a
misunderstanding of what their holy figures were about.  And for that reason
they are limping along in the niche of a 'small religious group' instead of
fulfilling their potential.  The vast majority of Westerners have never even
heard of the religion.
There must be non-Baha'is reading this list.  Why don't you tell us if you
would really like to spend the rest of your life with our resident Nags,
telling you constantly whether you were being covenantal enough for them?
cheers   Juan

In article <>,
  Chris Manvell <> wrote:
> On talk.religion.bahai, Matthew Cromer (
> wrote:
> >I think this emphasis on top-down authoritarianism is a terrible mistake.
> > I'm not convinced that the present direction and attitude of the head of
> >the faith is what Shoghi Effendi had in mind, and most certainly it is
> >not consonant with the express words of Baha'u'llah and Abdul-Baha'
> >about how the Baha'i Religion is not a religion of dogma, absolutism,
> >etc. but rather freedom of thought and speech.
> Dear Matthew,
> What WOULD you have?  If a religion is not based on the teachings of its
> Founder (and, by explicit Writings, its leaders) who would define its
> basic tenets?  One only has to look at the factionalism of some other
> religions to see what happens.  Yes, free speech is a fundamental right
> of any Baha'i or non-Baha'i but if that individual expresses opinions
> that are basically counter to the teachings it can mean (in my limited
> understanding) one of several things, viz, that they are a Covenant
> breaker, that they have not understood (or been told about) some basic
> principle of the Faith, or that they have not really understood the
> station of Baha'u'llah.  I am sure there are many other reasons, but
> those seem to be the basic ones.
> Best wishes,
> Chris.
> BTW, I notice in the news this morning that a homosexual group (Pink
> Triangle?) is taking a Roman Catholic bishop to court for doing exactly
> what we are talking about here -- using his right to free speech in
> speaking against a pro-homosexual rally, thereby attacking their right
> to free speech!  I for one would hate to live in a country where the
> defence that one is using one's right to free speech would be the excuse
> for putting out racist propaganda or slandering individuals.  Yes,
> 'Abdul-Baha defends the right to free speech, but he then goes on to
> define the responsibilities -- responsibilities that some are happy to
> forget about.
> --
> Chris Manvell, Isle of Skye, Scotland.        Tel.:+44(0)1471-822 317
Juan Cole
History, U of Michigan
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