The Baha'i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience

From: <>
Subject: Re: What is a Cult?
Date: Friday, January 29, 1999 11:58 AM

Dear Brian:
I am grateful for your open-mindedness and willing to discuss these matters,
which, at least in the U.S., seem to me to have adversely affected the
fortunes of the community of the most great name.
> Well, actually I am only comfortable dealing with events of which I have
> knowledge.
This was the problem that the human rights community had in the early days.
They would allege that a particular government was arresting writers and
torturing them.  The government would deny it.  Other observers would say, we
have no way of knowing who is right.
The way that Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others responded
to this challenge was to do intensive interviewing with a wide range of
victims of human rights abuses in a particular country and to publish case
studies of these incidents.  Over time, the emergence of lots of such
narratives and cases and their publication made it clear that the human
rights abuses were in fact ocurring, and allowed other groups and governments
to pressure the abuser.
Just as one case, we can look at the treatment of Michael McKenny.  Beginning
in spring, 1996, he began posting his views, as a Baha'i of 25 years, on
issues like the desirability of women's service on the House of Justice and
the need for continued independent investigation of reality within a Baha'i
framework. He was drawn aside by an Auxiliary Board Member in winter, 1997,
for a long interrogation as to his views.  This ABM then wrote a report to
Haifa, which Mr. McKenny was not allowed to see.  As instructed by the ABM,
he wrote a letter to the House of Justice in spring, 1997, which received a
perfunctory reply.  He mentioned that he would like to pursue the
correspondence.  In summer, 1997, the House of Justice wrote the Canadian
National Assembly informing them that Michael McKenny was not a Baha'i.  The
Canadian NSA then unilaterally removed McKenny from its rolls, without
bothering to ascertain as to whether Mr. McKenny considered himself a
believer in Baha'u'llah.  The arbitrariness and lack of due process of this
entire affair, not to mention the clear interference in individual
conscience, is striking.
This is a very public case.  It is only one among many that I have documented
in the past 4 years.
>Some years ago, in a country far from Hong Kong (I will not give
> of Counsellor or NSA) the committee of which I was a representative had
> with the NSA.
The example you give of an intramural dispute between a committee and the NSA
is not relevant, because this would be considered something private and out
of the public eye, and would not normally attract the intervention of the
authorities.  It is the rise of cyberspace and the ability of Baha'is
actually, in Shoghi Effendi's words, to "declare their conscience and express
their views" in public that has so challenged the more authoritarian Baha'i
authorities and led them to employ what can only be called inquisitorial
methods on adherents.
Like you, I had never or very seldom heard of such a thing in all the time I
was a Baha'i, and I was shocked to see it happen over and over again.  I do
not know whether these things were going on quite a lot behind the scenes and
not receiving publicity, or whether the rise of cyberspace led otherwise
tolerant officials to begin intervening on a large scale in the individual
right of free expression.  I suspect the former.
> >
> > Rightwing Baha'is would like to spread the aura of infallibility over pretty
> > much all the Baha'i institutions, but especially the house of justice.
> Here the concept of having  a "wing" to which a Baha'i may belong is, for me,
> 22 years of experience as a Baha'i, entirely foreign. I have lived as a Baha'i
in 4
> countries spanning Europe and Asia (including the USSR) and like to think that
> have seen enough to know what is what in the Baha'i world.
I was in the community for a quarter of a century, 1972-1996, and continue to
follow it, and I saw communities in South Asia, Africa, the Middle East and
North America.	Only in North America and the UK did I notice a division
between right wing Baha'is and Baha'i liberals.  And in those two venues I
also noticed that the right wingers were almost always in power whereas the
liberals were usually besieged.
Right wing Baha'is are firm theocrats, scriptural literalists, social
conservatives, anti-intellectuals fixated on the "covenant" and quite willing
to declare others 'covenant breakers' at the drop of a hat.  They often
dissimulate these beliefs in public, but pursue private vendettas aimed at
ensuring their ideology triumphs in the central institutions of the faith. 
Unless you get close to the levers of power, it is not a struggle you could
easily become aware of.
cheers   Juan
Juan Cole
History, U of Michigan
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