The Baha'i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience

From: Alison Marshall <>
Subject: Re: An apology to Fred
Date: Wednesday, February 10, 1999 2:28 AM
The paragraph Counsellor Birkland wrote to this academic seems to me
to entirely misrepresent the academic's "activities", making him out
to be some kind of "proto-covenant breaker", as he describes below.
What follows is a message to Talisman I (20.5.96) written by this
academic defending his honour against the Counsellor's attacks. The
message contains a clear statement by its author accepting the
authority and legitimacy of the institutions. It also explains that
accusations of acting "against the covenant" were made to a number of
people who simply discussed ideas that Baha'is are not used to hearing
discussed openly. 
[three paragraphs omitted to protect the identity of the author]
For a time, I think, Talisman was successful.  New ideas were
discussed and launched.  There were useful discussions on community
life, worship, Baha'i governance, homosexuality, the infallibility and
authority of the Universal House of Justice, and other subjects.
Often these discussion produced concensus or, at least, a narrowing of
disagreement, a clarification of concepts, and sometimes plausible
proposals.  A great deal of information was exchanged on history and
texts.  Draft translations were exchanged, with benefit both to those
who read them and those who prepared them.  Not least, friendships
were made.
What I underestimated was the deeply conservative character of Baha'i
governance, both formal and informal.  Baha'is are *used* to hearing
things discussed in particular ways, and a significant number of
Baha'is will consider it contrary to the Faith to discuss these things
in different ways.  So, inevitably there were complaints, especially
from those who felt themselves obliged to "defend" the Covenant
against perceived attacks.  There are, moreover, those in high
positions in Baha'i administration who consider free speech to be a
threat to the integrity of the Faith.  Such a view, expressed as
criticism of Western standards of human rights, has been increasingly
evident in letters from the Universal House of Justice, beginning with
the so-called "Rights and Freedoms" letter of 1988.
Such problems did not originate with Talisman.  I was told as early as
1982 by a man who is now a member of the Universal House of Justice
that he believed at least one participant in Talisman to be a
covenant-breaker.  I have heard similar things from responsible
Baha'is, openly or more often by hint, many times since.  It is an
attitude that I consider reprehensible, but it exists and seems now to
be dominant in the Faith--to our great shame, since it is a betrayal
of the principle of freedom of conscience that Baha'u'llah stood for
against the Muslim clergy and the Iranian state.  Contrary to what
Counselor Birkland says about me, I have no doubt about the authority
or the legitimacy of Baha'i administrative institutions.  However, I
am deeply dismayed at a number of things that have been done in their
Talisman has clearly failed, and failed at considerable cost to the
Faith as a whole, to the integrity of Baha'i administrative
institutions, to the aspects of the Faith most dear to me, and to a
number of individual participants. 
	1) David Langness'  administrative rights were removed on the pretext
of something he wrote on Talisman.  I know this to be the case because
I have read all the relevant documents available to David.  He was
chosen, I am certain, because he was already seen as an enemy by a
number of influential Baha'is, particularly in the United States.
Partly this was due to the *dialogue* fiasco of the late 80's.
However, two other facts should also not be forgotten.  First, last
spring David wrote a commentary on the deliberations of the US
national convention that he first posted on Talisman and then sent to
the NSA.  The NSA published this letter without David's permission
with what was, to my mind, a rather lame and unconvincing rebuttal.
Second, David has in the past received a significant number of votes
at national convention.  Given the way Baha'i elections work, he might
well have been elected to a vacant NSA seat.  The process by which his
rights were removed was a travesty that has, in my opinion, besmirched
the honor of the Universal House of Justice and the American NSA.
	2) Juan Cole left the Faith because he believed--with justification, I
think--that there was a significant risk of his being declared a
covenant-breaker.  Juan was the best-known advocate of the Faith in
the field of Middle Eastern and Iranian studies.  He has written
extensively on the Faith and was seen by his non-Baha'i peers as a
spokesman for the Faith.  His recantation is a deep shock to other
Baha'is in related academic fields.  I think it will have a
significant deletorious effect on the reputation of the Faith in
academic circles.
	3) Other people, myself included, have received phone calls from
Stephen Birkland, wanting to talk to us about what we have written
that the International Teaching Committee considers "against the
Covenant." What these things might be is not specified (although I now
read in *The American Baha'i* that I and others have "crossed the line
into questioning the authority of institutions"), but the threat is
clear.  The fact that he is very clear that a *group* of people is
being contacted only sharpens the point of the threat.  I think it is
inevitable that others will lose their administrative rights, be
declared covenant-breakers, or be forced to leave the Faith.  I do not
wish to be the occasion of others being implicated in imaginary
	4) Baha'i administrative institutions have been led to act in ways
counter to their own honor and integrity.  David Langness' case is the
clearest example, but there has also be a haze of rumormongering,
veiled threats, etc., that have no rightful place in Baha'i
administration.  The speeches of Birkland and Kazemzadeh at national
convention is the clearest example.
	5) Talisman itself has clearly ceased to function well.  
Discussion for weeks has been little more than namecalling,
accusations, and belittling of the characters of others.  It is not
worth reading and is no credit to the Faith.
	6) Finally, the net effect seems to have been only to discredit the
ideas and standards that I stand for.  The House and many other people
now seem to consider academic intellectuals to be simply
I fear that serious intellectual life is doomed in the Faith for at
least a generation.  The Universal House of Justice has become
increasingly suspicious of academic scholarship and Western notions of
open discourse.  Almost all the people who went into Middle Eastern
studies in the 1970s have now been driven out of the Faith or
marginalized.  But these are the people who can read the Writings in
their original form, who understand their original context, and who
are both trained and inclined to look at the Faith and the Writings in
new ways grounded in history and the original texts.  They are not the
only people who can say important things about the Writings, but their
particular contribution cannot be made by others.  They and others who
do not think about the Faith in the usual way will continue to be
condemned, if only by whispers, for deviating from the usual way of
talking about the Faith and will be seen as threats and enemies,
potential or actual.  Baha'i intellectual life will wither without
sources of new ideas, and a generation of administrators will conclude
that new ideas are a threat rather than an opportunity.  Though the
Faith may continue to grow in the Third World, it will stagnate in
Europe and America, becoming even more an intellectually-isolated
cult--benign, perhaps, but also ineffectual.  With time this may
change, but the process will take a generation or more and great
opportunities will have been lost.  I don't like this, since I have
devoted half my life to the intellectual development of the Faith, but
I see no way that it can be avoided.  I hope that I am wrong, but I do
not think so.
>Again, the missing passage is as follows: 
>"The nature of the problem which your activities were creating for 
>the Baha'i community were clarified when you accidentally posted 
>to the Talisman forum a private message apparently intended for a 
>smaller group of participants, identified by you as "Majnun."  You 
>cannot be unaware of the sense of betrayal experienced by your 
>fellow Baha'is, who had believed themselves engaged in a scholarly 
>exploration of Baha'u'llah's purpose, when they read a statement 
>which appeared to lay out a cynical "winning strategy" designed to 
>use the Talisman forum to spread disinformation, attack the United 
>States National Spiritual Assembly, and bring the administrative 
>processes of the Cause into discredit.  Nor should you be 
>surprised at the dismay caused by your readiness, in this same 
>statement, to recognize a parallel between the activities of this 
>inner group and those of the notorious Covenant-breaker Ahmad 
>Sohrab.  It was keenly disappointing to all of us who respected 
>both your adherence to the Cause and your professional 
>credentials, that you failed to immediately explain what seemed a 
>disturbing departure from standards which participants in such a 
>forum had every right to expect."