The Baha'i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience

From: Negar Mottahedeh <motta003@MAROON.TC.UMN.EDU>
To: Multiple recipients of list H-BAHAI <H-BAHAI@H-NET.MSU.EDU>
Subject:      Freedom of speech and conscience, and Interpretation
Date: Tuesday, October 21, 1997 12:32 PM
Date: Mon, 20 Oct 1997 20:09:31 -0400
From: jrcole@UMICH.EDU (Juan R. I. Cole)
Subject: Freedom of speech and conscience, and Interpretation
I agree with both Peter Terry and Mike Furst about contemporary Baha'i
administrative practice with regard to issues in freedom of conscience and
speech. That is, I agree with Peter that the Baha'i administration appears
to be acting like Orthodox Rabbis and with Mike Furst in his views of that.
Historically speaking, during the Inquisition the Roman Catholic church
denied the freedom of conscience, so that even private remarks could get
you tortured.
Among the Protestant states that rebelled against this practice was the
Netherlands, and the Dutch Republic enshrined freedom of conscience in the
Treaty of Utrecht in the 1500s. However, "freedom of conscience" is a very
weak right. It is the right to hold private beliefs at variance with public
orthodoxies, as long as one does not speak them publicly or beyond certain
venues (that is, as long as one does not make them a public cause).
Thus, even under a regime of "freedom of conscience," the Dutch Republic
allowed the Jewish community to excommunicate Spinoza for his views, and
occasionally Mennonites and Arminians were sanctioned, and Catholics and
Lutherans had to keep a low profile. In England, where Anglicanism also
recognized the "freedom of conscience," George Fox was jailed for preaching
the Inner Light on street corners. Protestant "dissidents" (non-Anglicans)
were barely tolerated, but only if they did not speak publicly. A similar
regime was still in place in the 1770s in Virginia, where it came to Thomas
Jefferson's attention that Quakers were being punished by the Established
Anglican Church for not having their children baptized.
The Enlightenment brought a new and broader right, to freedom of speech as
well as of conscience. Thus, Locke had argued that magistrates had no
business sanctioning even vocal dissidents from the Anglican church. And
the First Amendment insisted that the U.S. government should make no law
regarding the Establishment of religion (that is, backing an official
religion) or abridging individual freedom of religion, speech or the press.
Given that the Baha'i administration conceives of itself as an embryonic
theocracy, its policy of allowing "freedom of conscience" but not freedom
of speech essentially takes things back to the 1500s and 1600s in the Dutch
Republic and England. It is a revocation of modernity and a flight back
into the Renaissance and Reformation period.
The question is, are current restrictions on freedom of speech consonant
with scriptural Baha'i principle?
I personally see a contradiction. `Abdul-Baha complained about the
persecution of Baha'is in Iran, saying:
"Yet nought has been effected and no advantage has been gained; no remedy
has been discovered for this ill, nor any easy salve for this wound. [To
ensure] freedom of conscience (azadigi-yi vujdan) and tranquillity of heart
and soul is one of the duties and functions of government (vaza'if va
savalih-i hukumat), and is in all ages the cause of progress in development
and ascendency over other lands."
He adds: "Inteference with creed and faith in every country causes manifest
detriment, while justice and equal dealing towards all peoples on the face
of the earth are the means whereby progress is effected."
He makes an argument similar to that of Locke, for religious *liberty* (and
not just private, limited freedom of conscience) when he says,
"In other countries when they perceived severity and persecution in such
instances to be identical with . . . incitement, and saw that paying no
attention was more effectual, they abated the fire of revolution. Therefore
did they universally proclaim the equal rights of all denominations, and
sounded the liberty of all groups (lihadha bi kulli i`lan-i musavat-i
huquq-i ahzab namudand va azadigi-yi `umum-i tava'if gush zad sharq va
In order to illustrate the pragmatic benefits of liberty, he contrasts the
religious policy of Shi`ite Iran, which was weak and losing territory in
the nineteenth century, with that of the British Empire. British
administrators, building on a century of thought and law concerning
toleration, on the whole developed a policy of impartiality across
religious groups. The British, he says, implemented equality and "uniform
political rights" for diverse religious groups. Finally, `Abdul-Baha
affirms that such a policy of allowing equality among the adherents of
various religions is not areligious, and can be pursued by state officials
who are themselves pious believers, just as the British bureaucrats who
foreswore a Christian assault on India were themselves Christians. He seeks
to deny any necessary link between freedom of conscience and irreligion or
Note that the example `Abdul-Baha gives of the best religious policy is
that of Liberal Great Britain of the late nineteenth century, which had
granted liberty of religious expression to all subjects.
He criticizes medieval intolerance and argues of European nations during
the Enlightenment that : "But when they removed these differences,
persecutions, and bigotries out of their midst, and proclaimed the equal
rights of all subjects and the liberty of men's consciences, the lights of
glory and power arose and shone from the horizons of that kingdom in such
wise that those countries made progress in every direction . . . These are
effectual and sufficient proofs that the conscience of man is sacred and to
be respected; and that liberty thereof produces widening of ideas,
amendment of morals, improvement of conduct, disclosure of the secrets of
creation, and manifestation of the hidden verities of the contingent
(Above quotes from *A Traveller's Narrative*  keyword search at
Now, it may be objected that even if the Baha'i administration has
theocratic tendencies, it is after all the steward of a religion and that
`Abdul-Baha had not meant to tie its hands in making it put up with
adherents who openly and publicly spoke their individual views. But in fact
`Abdul-Baha makes an explicit analogy between the sort of *political*
liberty granted individuals in democracies and his hopes for individual
rights of free speech even in the religious sphere:
"Just as in the world of politics there is need for free thought, likewise
in the world of religion there should be the right of unrestricted
individual belief. Consider what a vast difference exists between modern
democracy and the old forms of despotism. Under an autocratic government
the opinions of men are not free, and development is stifled, whereas in a
democracy, because thought and speech are not restricted, the greatest
progress is witnessed. It is likewise true in the world of religion. When
freedom of conscience, liberty of thought and right of speech prevail--that
is to say, when every man according to his own idealization may give
expression to his beliefs--development and growth are inevitable."
(*Promulgation of Universal Peace* p. 197)
Note that `Abdul-Baha here does *not* limit himself to advocating the
"weak" right of conscience only, but openly advocates the liberty of
conscience, thought and *speech.*
`Abdul-Baha did not authorize Baha'i institutions to punish the public
expression of individual belief, only "behavior." The attempt to subsume
Baha'is' email traffic under "behavior" rather than speech does obvious
violence to the distinctions `Abdul-Baha was careful to make in saying
that polite expression of conscience could not be punished, only
infractions of religious law.
Moreover, since the Universal House of Justice has no prerogative to engage
in authoritative Interpretation, it is not obvious how it could be within
its rights to impose its interpretation of Baha'i scripture on an
individual adherent and prevent him or her from expressing an individual
interpretation, as long as the latter was clearly marked as individual.
So, I personally see a rather vast chasm between Baha'i scriptural ideals
with regard to liberty of conscience and speech, and current administrative
practice that puzzles me deeply.
Juan Cole
University of Michigan