The Baha'i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience

From: Juan Cole <>
To: Ian Kluge <>
Cc: <>
Subject: RE: institutions and circumstances associated with birth of Faith
Date: Monday, June 01, 1998 3:59 PM
Thanks for the generous clarification, and sorry if I misread your
position.  I'm glad to hear that you don't dismiss historical
contextualization as worthless.  As for being imprisoned in it, no one is
advocating that (except Judge Bork).  My argument would be, however, that
in order to know what Baha'u'llah meant by the things he said in the Tablet
of the World, it is necessary (or at least highly desirable) to know that
it was written in the summer of 1891 in response to the Tobacco Revolt in
Iran.  But I shouldn't get ahead of the book, which I hope you'll enjoy.
Since you have been so frank and forthcoming, let me be equally so.  Many
thinking people have been for the past two centuries giving serious thought
to how to construct a new, global civilization that would transcend the
tribalisms and narrowness and chauvinism of the current ones.  The
*technology* for global civilization is increasingly in place, so it has
become possible.  And it is increasingly urgent, what with ecological
problems, nuclear proliferation, and the need for economic cooperation. We
are concerned that the new global civilization preserve the best of what
came before while providing a unified 'platform' upon which the planet can
peaceably work out its differences and problems.  Many of us think that
both nationalism and religion are hindrances to this endeavor and must be
jettisoned.  Others among us think spirituality as opposed to religion a
key heritage of humankind that must contribute to the efflorescence of the
new world.
In my youth I abhorred organized religion for its self-righteousness,
mindless conservatism, complicity with the rich and the warlike, and
demands for conformity.  I was for many years, however, persuaded that the
Baha'i faith was different, was the organized religion for people who
didn't like organized religion, and all the other fireside slogans.
In the end, of course, it became perfectly obvious to me that the Baha'i
faith has deteriorated into a narrow organized religion just like all the
others, with the same demands for conformity and blind obedience, the same
cozying up to the rich and powerful, the same intolerance and bigotry.  Of
course, from inside an organized religion all of these values are seen
positively.  Intolerance is just drawing boundaries that protect the
integrity of the faith, bigotry is just protecting the faithful from
dangerous ideas or people.  Any Jesuit could defend it to us without a
moment's reflection.  But the end result is bigotry, intolerance, demands
for intellectual stifling and conformity, and no euphemisms can disguise it.
Of course, not all Baha'is have become wedded to such a vision of their
faith, but the more powerful ones appear to have.  And what this means is
that the Baha'i faith, as an organized community, has become just another
sectarian body, and therefore has decreased usefulness to those of us who
wish to build the world civilization.  Sectarian boundary-drawing is the
very antithesis of global rehabilitation.  Authoritarianism, papal
infallibility, coddling of dictators, censorship, prejudice against gays
and other subcultures, and shunning, all belong to the old world order, not
the new we envision.
But very importantly, Baha'u'llah and some other Baha'i figures are most
certainly not irrelevant to thinking about the new global civilization.  He
had a vision that can inspire.  He disclaimed coming to impose laws; that
had been the Bab's job.  He disclaimed coming to impose an orthodoxy;
rather, each must fare upon the spiritual path according to the state
(hal), station (maqam), and perception (idrak) that he or she had thus far
attained, and, he said, we cannot expect people to agree on dogmas because
each is at a different station.  He desired the end of prejudices, the end
of shunning of some groups by others, the end of narrow sectarian
boundary-drawing.  Baha'u'llah wished to contribute to the new emerging
global civilization not *a* religion, but Religion, true religion,
spirituality.  He did not mean to make rules about what you could say and
still be a Baha'i.  He did not think what people *said* had anything to do
with being Baha'is.  He thought that being a Baha'i meant universal love,
tolerance, peace, and harmony with all.  By those standards the
self-appointed (and, O.K., sometimes elected) guardians of Baha'i
'orthodoxy' are not Baha'is at all.  Or, rather, they are Baha'is with a
capital 'B', Baha'is as others are Roman Catholics and Shi`ites.  But they
are not ahl-i Baha, the followers of the ideals of Baha'u'llah, which were
intended to transcend narrow sectarian boundaries (just as most Christians
are really followers of Jesus).
So if they wish to disfellowship and excommunicate all those who believe
that gays should be treated like human beings, or that women really should
have equal rights all the way through, or that Reason is a valid means of
understanding what Baha'u'llah's message portended, then that is their
choice as religious leaders.  (One can imagine the placards:  "NO PLACE FOR
all it does is reduce their form of their religion to a sect, and make it
inappropriate as the vehicle of World Civilization.
So, we globalists are interested in Baha'u'llah, and a contextualized
understanding of exactly what he thought.  We are not interested in the
rather odd folk traditions and authoritarian sectarianism that grew up in
the cultic milieu of Iran and the US over the 20th century, and which
represent themselves as 'the Baha'i Faith.'  The latter are useless to us
in our quest for what is universal, global, tolerant, loving and
harmonious.  The former is not, and, indeed, could be a fountainhead of
humankind's evolution toward greater maturity if only he could be freed
from the cultic aura in which he has been trapped.  Baha'u'llah is the
heritage of all humankind, and it is the business of us globalists to
reclaim that heritage from persons who have made him into a mere auctioneer.
cheers   Juan