The Baha'i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience

From: Juan Cole <>
To: <>
Cc: talisman <>; <>
Subject: Re: fw from Poland (was: censorship)
Date: Wednesday, June 10, 1998 3:44 PM
Dear Miguel:
You wrote:
>>The internet is more universal than you imagine. 
I am, of course, well aware of how universal the internet is.  What I said
was that the vast majority of its users are in literate countries and that
they tend to be educated.  This is true of users in Poland and Germany.  I
also said that the *Baha'is* on the internet are in terms of numbers very
predominantly in such countries and have such a profile, which is true.
There are about 60,000 adult Baha'is in the U.S. (a third of whom are
probably interested enough to actually check out the faith on the Net), and
about 13,000 adult Baha'is in Canada (ditto).  [I am not counting 'mail
returns' and 'Baha'is' no one can find]. 
My point was that to run a Baha'i Usenet group with strict censorship of a
sort practiced in Communist China makes no sense, given either the profile
of the Net or the profile of the Baha'is on it.
>>I am also a professor at a university, mind you, only an assistant
>>professor. No one's threatened me from the Baha'is. 
There are lots of things wrong with this way of looking at things.  First
of all, you don't get threatened unless you are considered 'prominent' and
unless you are saying something some Rightwing Baha'i Big Cheese does not
like.  Does the fact that *you* haven't been threatened prove anything at
all?  The question is, is it right for *anyone* to be threatened?  Even in
a dictatorship like Nigeria there are intellectuals who haven't been
threatened or jailed.  Does that mean no one has, or that the regime
(R.I.P.) is not a repressive dictatorship?
>>For me the Baha'i Faith
>>is first and foremost a religion, and not a university subject. People who
>>wish to push the Faith in their own direction, will not win the love and
>>respect of the Baha'i institutions, and certainly not of the Baha'is. I am
>>quite frankly amazed at the audacity of someone who wishes to take the
>>reins of the Faith in their hands.
Are you suggesting that the Baha'i faith is off-limits for academic study?
Why in the world did Shoghi Effendi so strenuously encourage the study of
comparative religions, Islamics, and history in order to better understand
the faith if he did not what Baha'i professors to use those tools to write
about it?  What kind of weird state of mind produces a conviction that for
a Baha'i professor to write academically about the Baha'i faith is an
attempt to 'push' it in some 'direction'?  How can studying it 'push' it?
And if the status quo can't withstand it being studied, isn't there
something fishy about the status quo?
>>That is not to say that criticism is not allowed in the Faith. Criticism,
>>if it is constructive is not only the right but the obligation of every
>>Baha'i, provided that it does not undermine the authority of the Baha'i
>>institutions, which were, after, not man-made, but from Baha'u'llah
>>Himself, as you no doubt well know, seeing that you are a university
>>professor, and that you have written much about the Baha'i Faith.
Criticism of administrators or administrative actions is strictly
prohibited in the Baha'i faith.  It may be voiced only at Baha'i-only
meetings such as Feast, where it can be quietly buried, or in letters to
Baha'i administrators, who can refuse to be responsive.  'Prominent' public
critics are ruthlessly silenced with threats of being sanctioned or
shunned.  There is a Party Line in this administrative dictatorship, and
everyone is expected to toe it Or Else.
Compare that situation to 'liberal' politics, of which contemporary Baha'is
are so disdainful.  President Clinton is the most powerful man in the
world.  But I can write an op-ed piece for a major newspaper and publish it
tomorrow publicly criticizing his Middle East policy.  He can't and won't
punish me for doing so.  But your supposedly humble and nice Baha'i
administrators would come down on a Baha'i who did the equivalent thing to
them like a ton of bricks, have him ostracized, and engage in a global
campaign of backbiting against him.  So who is better, morally flawed
Clinton, or the Baha'i tinpot dictators who are so sanctimonious about
their piety?  And by the way, the society `Abdul-Baha envisages in Secret
of Divine Civilization looks a lot more 'liberal' than current 'Baha'i'
>>Anyway, Baha'is do not quickly put anyone out of the community for
>>covenant breaking. 
This is a false cover story, Miguel.  In fact, Baha'is are routinely
accused of covenant breaking by other Baha'is, over mere differences of
opinion, in ways that can ruin their reputations.  Auxiliary Board members
and Counselors routinely spread false rumors about people they don't like
as being infirm in the covenant.  They call Baha'is of whose views they
disapprove to private meetings for interrogations and intimate to them that
if they don't fall silent they will be declared covenant breakers.  The
Baha'is are so terrified as a result that they do just fall silent, and you
never hear about the bullying.  In late '96 in New Zealand a new Baha'i of
6 months was declared a covenant breaker for refusing to break off an old
friendship with a non-Bahai from among Shoghi Effendi's relatives.  This
person had only *been* a Baha'i for 6 months, so how long really did she
have to respond to the Baha'i authorities' threats?  And under such
pressure she resigned from the Baha'i faith but was declared a covenant
breaker after the fact anyway!  All this sort of cult-like behavior is
carefully hidden from the outside world and also from naive Baha'i
The whole concept of 'covenant-breaker', which might have some validity
with regard to schismatics like Remey, has been expanded to become a
control mechanism used to manipulate all thinking Baha'is.
I wrote that many Baha'is
>>:>believe cities are about to be evaporated, believe women should be
>>:>subordinate to the men on the uhj, believe that all of modern biological
>>:>science, based on Darwin is wrong because scripture says so, and in
>>:>general often behave in ways that are intolerant and narrow-minded,
>>:>chasing people out of the religion, so that it remains tiny. >>
You said:
>>Well if this is the Baha'i Faith then I don't want it either. How about
>>providing some references from the Baha'i writings that support what you
>>have written above. You are a university professor, so you have to support
>>what you write. Otherwise, your academia falls into question.
I did not say that the Baha'i writings support these beliefs, though
`Abdul-Baha is critical of Darwinian biology and Shoghi Effendi in his
letters of the late 1940s seems especially apocalyptic.  I said that these
are widespread beliefs of the actual Baha'is.  And they are not nice when
you demur from these beliefs, let me tell you.  Check out the archived
discussions on on my Web site if you want to see the
flaming over such issues.
>>There are 450 Baha'is in Poland. Poland formed its first National
>>Spiritual Assembly in 1992. We were allowed to teach the faith here since
>>1989. Just under 3 years and boom a National Spiritual Assembly. Not bad
I just hope that the Polish Baha'is, having suffered under totalitarianism
for so many years, can create a Baha'i community more like that envisaged
in Secret of Divine Civilization than like that envisaged by the often
quite fascist current Baha'i administrators.
As for your naive assumption that Baha'i administrators don't want power
over people, I can only suggest that you keep your eyes on them.  Farzam
Arbab does have a Ph.D. in economics, but he never did anything
professionally with that degree of note.  He never bothered even to learn
Arabic or Persian.  He did pioneer in Latin America, but lots of people
have pioneered under difficult conditions.  Baha'i friends of mine who had
anything to do with him found him arrogant and highly anti-intellectual.
He has advocated 'writing off' the Baha'i intellectuals of the West.  When
he was elected to the house of justice in 1993, the first thing he did was
to throw a tantrum over the Baha'i Encyclopedia, a huge project involving
hundreds of Baha'i thinkers throughout the world.  He pronounced its draft
a piece of 'secular humanism' and 'materialism' (borrowing code words from
the Christian Fundamentalists).  He insisted it all be rewritten in
fundamentalist fashion, and went about lambasting everyone who had been
involved in its production.  These included many devoted Baha'i Ph.D.'s in
history, philosophy, and other fields.  Arbab set himself above all of
them, attacked them, sullied their reputations, made all their work
useless, and the rest of the House members let him do it because he cared
so much and they didn't really.
So I haven't had a good experience with your nice humble Dr. Arbab.  As far
as I can see, he's arranged for a large wood-panelled office for himself in
Israel, a country with a per capita income of $17,000 a year, with a good
view of Haifa's beautiful bay, and is spending $200 million of your money
on marble facades for the buildings in which he works.  What is his salary,
by the way?  How is that chauffeured Mercedes paid for?  And how did he get
appointed to the ITC, from which he was elected to the House, in the first
place?  Whose client was he?  To whom does he owe favors?  
I wouldn't have any problem with all this if he hadn't demonstrated himself
a tinpot tyrant and gone about ruining the lives of my friends by
slandering them, forcing several of them out of the faith with threats of
shunning, for daring complain about how he treated the Encyclopedia issue.
Very humble.  Very nice.  Yes.
Juan Cole
Department of History
University of Michigan