Gnosis Magazine, Winter 1997
"Baha'i Leaders Vexed by On-Line Critics"
K. Paul Johnson
The Baha'i faith is the newest world religion, claiming more than 5 million followers around the
globe. Its founder, Baha'u'llah(1817-92), was an Iranian nobleman who proclaimed the unity of
humanity and the unity of all religions.
Generally regarded as a peaceful, liberal, and forward-looking movement, Baha'i proclaims itself
to be devoted to "independent investigation of Truth." But it has become the only major religious
group to launch an inquisition against prominent members for their opinions expressed on an
Internet discussion group.
In the early 1970's, Baha'i membership in the United States quadrupled to nearly 100,000 after
an influx of idealistic baby-boomers and rural Southern blacks. But despite a strong emphasis
on numerical growth, Baha'i membership levels in the United States have been nearly stagnant
for the last twenty years. Some of the young converts of the 1970s became scholars in Persian,
Arabic, Middle Eastern history and related fields. This generation of Baha'i scholars, now in
middle age, has become a source of irritation to the faith's leadership.
In October 1994 the electronic mail list Talisman was created by Indiana University professor
John Walbridge for scholarly discussion of Baha'i history, doctrines, and current affairs.
Walbridge is a specialist in Islamic philosophy, and his wife Linda, an active participant in the
list, is an anthropologist specializing in contemporary Islam in the United States; she also
teaches at Indiana University.
Talisman's initial core group of participants with scholarly and literary backgrounds included
Juan R. I. Cole, then-director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the
University of Michigan and now professor of history there. Two participants were publishers:
Anthony Lee of Kalimat Press, a Baha'i publishing house; and Steven Scholl of White Cloud
Press, publisher of the annual "Common Era: Best New Writings in Religion" and other
Beginning with a dozen or so subscribers, Talisman grew in the first year to more than a
hundred, most of whom were not academians. After eighteen months of existence, Talisman
became the focus of a series of investigations ordered by authorities at the Baha'i World Center
in Haifa, Israel.
Liberal scholars on Talisman scrutinized several aspects of current Baha'i theology and
administration, including the exclusion of women from the Baha'i governing body, the Universal
House of Justice, even though Baha'i claims to teach the equality of the sexes. Academians
familiar with source documents debated whether or not Baha'u'llah had intended this exclusion,
and advanced textual arguments in favor of reconsideration.
Another frequent bone of contention was the policy of literature review, which requires that any
Baha'i who writes about the faith for any publisher submit the work for prior censorship by a
"review committee" composed of the Baha'i National Spiritual Assembly in the country of
publication. Scholars were particularly emphatic about wanting to abolish this policy - which
had been deemed "temporary" when introduced early in this century - on the grounds that it
compromises scholarly independence and integrity.
Perhaps the most interesting debates were about the future of Baha'i institutions, which most
rank-and-file members believe are destined to take over all functions of local and national
government and to create a new international government in a Baha'i-dominated world. The
scholars disputed this totalitarian vision, citing evidence that Baha'u'llah envisioned no such
future. There was also extensive discussion of the Baha'i electoral process, which allows no
nominations or public discussion of candidates. Almost no incumbents on the American
National Spiritual Assembly have been unseated in elections during the last 30 years. Term
limits were proposed as one possible way to open up the system to new blood.
Although the questions and criticisms expressed by the scholars in Talisman were generally
respectful of Baha'i authorities, many of the newer members of the list became irate that such
matters were discussed at all. The worldwide Baha'i community has rigid controls for discourse
on internal matters, with all publications controlled or censored by the administration; even mild
dissent is regarded as treasonous.
Complaints may be made through the process of "consultation" with various levels of
administrators, but may not be expressed outside that context and especially never in public.
Thus Talisman offered participants the first chance to discuss flaws in the Baha'i community
outside administrative channels, and many were shocked by the debate that ensued. Soon it
became common for more conservative Baha'is to insinuate that the scholars and their
sympathizers were "Covenant-breakers," which is the greatest of sins in Baha'i theology.
The "Covenant" is the line of succession from Baha'u'llah to the Universal House of Justice, the
world governing body, which was first elected in 1963. To break the Covenant is to attack the
center of authority within the faith and to advocate an alternative source of authority; such
disputes have arisen with each change in leadership. Baha'is are ordered to avoid all contact
None of the Talisman scholars challenged the legitimacy of the governing body, nor did they
show sympathy for past "Covenant-breakers," a few thousand of whom continue in various small
sects. Nevertheless the Talisman discussions were viewed with alarm by authorities at national
Baha'i headquarters in Wilmette, Illinois, and in Haifa. This generated an investigation by
Stephen Birkland, a member of the Continental Board of Counselors for North America, acting
under direction of the Haifa authorities.
Birkland personally interrogated Langness, Lee, Cole, and John Walbridge. Scholl agreed to
meet with Birkland only on condition that the meeting be recorded for accuracy, a condition that
was deemed unacceptable. Cole and Walbridge refused a second meeting requested by Birkland.
David Langness had his rights to voting and attendance at major functions removed by the
American National Spiritual Assembly, which never specified the charges against him but
implied that it was punishing him for a posting he made on Talisman.
Cole, upon being told he was being investigated for "statements contrary to the Covenant,"
resigned his membership, as did Linda Walbridge after similar remarks. Birkland had chosen to
confront Cole and the Walbridges in late-night telephone calls. The ultimate fate of Langness,
who appealed his punishment to the Universal House of Justice, and John Walbridge, who has
not resigned, remains to be determined. When contacted by e-mail, Birkland declined to
comment on the controversy.
Defending its actions, the Universal House of Justice wrote to a family member of one of the
accused; the letter later appeared on the front page of the journal "The American Baha'i." It
argues that Talisman was the continuation of a conspiracy born in the mid-1980s involving a
liberal Baha'i journal, "Dialogue," which closed after Baha'i authorities accused it of being
The letter goes on to describe the Talisman scholars as a "dissident group of Baha'is who are
attempting to arouse widespread dissatisfaction in the community and thereby to bring about
changes in the structure and principles of Baha'i administration, making it accord more closely
with their personal notions." It accuses them of "publicly and privily assailing the institutions of
the Cause" and "generalizing specific accusations of injustice to such an extent as to accuse the
entire system of corruption, not only in practice, but also in form and theory."
John Walbridge closed Talisman in May of 1996. Juan Cole, now an ex-Baha'i, opened a new
Talisman list the following month. Its e-mail address is email@example.com.
K. Paul Johnson was an active participant in Talisman from its beginnings through its demise.
He was a Baha'i from 1969 to 1974. His article on Edgar Cayce appears in this issue.
The monthly newsletter Religion Watch reports in its January 1997 issue on my Gnosis
article about Talisman. This is "a newsletter monitoring trends in contemporary religion"
and features reports on such things as church burnings, Christian Coalition politics,
churches' reactions to welfare reform, and research findings on tithing practices. -K.P.J.
BAHA'I MOVEMENT TARGETS DISSENTERS
The Baha'i movement is experiencing growing conflicts and dissent over its members
involvement in computer forums, reports Gnosis, (Winter), a magazine on esoteric spirituality.
While regarded as a liberal and nondogmatic religion, the worldwide Baha'i community has
enforced "rigid controls for discourse on internal matters, with all publications controlled or
censored by the administration; even mild dissent is regarded as treasonous," writes K. Paul
Johnson. The Baha'is gained most of their members in the U.S. in the early 1970s (increasing
nearly to 100,000), although membership levels have been stagnant since. Some of the young
converts of the 1970s became scholars of Persian, Middle Eastern history and related fields. In
1994, a discussion group on the Internet was started by these scholars which often questioned or
addressed controversial teachings.
Dissent was voiced over women's exclusion from the Baha'i governing body, the Universal
House of Justice, and the teaching that Baha'is are destined to take over all functions of local and
national government and create an international government. The position that any Baha'i
writing about the movement has to submit such writings for review to Baha'i leaders also drew a
good deal of criticism from the discussion group (which numbered about 100 members), which
is called Talisman. After almost two years of existence, Talisman became the focus of a series
of investigations by authorities at the Baha'i World Center in Haifa, Israel and also by leaders in
the U.S. Baha'i leaders have called the scholars and their sympathizers "dissidents," with mroe
conservative members charging that they are "covenant breakers," which means advocating an
alternative source of authority in the religion. Baha'is are ordered to avoid all contact with
covenant breakers. Although Talisman disbanded last May, an ex-Baha'i has recently opened a
new Talisman group.