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The Bahai Faith in America. William Garlington.




William Garlington

William Garlington




The Bahai Faith in America. William Garlington. Praeger. 2005.

The American Bahai Mixture …. July 23, 2006

After becoming a Bahai in the 1960s, William Garlington moved to Australia, where he wrote his dissertation on Bahai mass teaching in Malwa, India, eventually returning to the United States. For over twenty-five years, he taught religious studies in Australia and the US. In the 1980s he withdrew his membership in the Bahai Faith, essentially he says over doctrinal issues relating to revelation and the infallibility of Bahai institutions.

Since the majority of available books on the Bahai Faith are written by members and must be officially “reviewed” and approved by Bahai institutions, Garlington’s book is important as a rare attempt at an objective appraisal of the Bahai Faith and its actual history and practice. Life as it is lived, versus theory. The last few decades have been crucial years for revealing much that has hitherto been largely kept hidden from public knowledge. Garlington’s experience as both a believer and a scholar of religion serves him well in his often insightful treatment of the major conflicts and disagreements over theological issues.

More than any other book to date, Garlington reveals the extent to which people have been harassed and hounded out of the Bahai Faith for the slightest deviation of thought and belief, even to the extent of having to spurn their own family, with the roots of such treatment extending back into the earliest years of Bahai history in the United States. While he discusses or mentions the incidents surrounding Ruth White, Ahmad Sohrab, Julie Chanler, and Mason Remey, among others, I do believe he fails to adequately investigate the circumstances of their individual beliefs and basically repeats the usual official line that dismisses all of them as heretics or “covenant breakers.” For instance, Lewis Chanler was the Lieutenant Governor of the State of New York, a fact always conveniently left out of “reviewed” Bahai publications. Neither he nor his wife were fringe elements as they are so often portrayed. Ruth White has routinely been falsely discredited as the later devotee of an Indian guru, as though nothing more need be said, playing on both Islamic and Western prejudices, which nevertheless entirely evades answering her charge that the leading British handwriting expert of the day, Charles Ainsworth Mitchell, judged Abdu’l-Baha’s will and testament a fraud. Garlington brings no new material, archival or documentary, to the understanding of such incidents of excommunication (takfir). Sohrab’s own book Broken Silence raises many profound issues that neither Garlington nor any other researcher has made sufficient effort to address or understand. Other scholars might very well want to start by independently examining what actually happened in such cases.

Of even more interest to me is Garlington’s discussion of the many incidents that have developed in connection with the rise of the Internet during the mid and late ‘90s since I participated in the long battle to create what is still the only uncensored forum for the discussion of the Bahai Faith, talk.religion.bahai on Usenet. As with China, the Bahai Faith found itself confronted for the first time with a means of communication it couldn’t entirely control and silence. Like China, the Bahai Faith has developed an apologetical cadre for monitoring, influencing and controlling discussion on the Internet. Yet the early atmosphere of the talisman mailing list, as with other online forums, was euphoric with new found liberty and freedom for Bahais to speak honestly about the Bahai Faith, setting off paroxysms of outrage and self-righteous allegations by fundamentalists that others were “tending toward covenant breaking,” “divisive,” “not Bahai,” and so on. Much of it, along with other incidents touching on religious freedom, can still be found documented on the Internet through University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole’s website, my own, www.fglaysher.com/bahaicensorship, and the Google archive for talk.religion.bahai.

Another shortcoming in Garlington’s book is that while his Conclusion acknowledges that “vocal and liberal Bahais” are becoming “an ever-decreasing minority,” he fails to examine sufficiently why that is, namely, the extreme and alarming tactics used to drive liberals out of the Bahai Faith, exemplified in the attacks on Ruth White and Ahmad Sohrab–the most vicious shunning and slandering techniques used by perhaps any religion in America today. Official Bahai sources and the Internet abound with examples. Garlington barely scratches the surface of the extent to which “hikmat,” so-called wisdom, operates in Bahai history, as do “taqlid,” blind obedience, and “takfir,” excommunication. Much more needs to be said in this regard.

The real test of any religious ethic is not the treatment of those who keep their mouths closed, never thinking or questioning anything (taqlid), but rather the treatment of those writers and scholars of capacity, deeply grounded in the intellectual history and traditions of their culture. The Bahai Faith has so thoroughly failed that test, especially during the last few decades, that no individual or country should take its claims at face value without reading and reflecting on such books as William Garlington’s. It should be noted that the December 2005 Library Journal review of Garlington’s book, by William P. Collins, a conservative apologist for Bahai orthodoxy, employs the usual Bahai tactic of discrediting and slandering any dissident opinion, while recommending books that have passed “Bahai review,” in reality, censorship. The reader might want to reflect on the fact that William P. Collins is a librarian at the Library of Congress, yet readily uses his position to defend a system of administration regularly attacking the liberal values that make a library worthy of the name possible and to discourage acquisition librarians from ordering Garlington’s book.

In his closing paragraph Garlington urges the Bahai leadership to manifest a higher degree of wisdom, echoing all too much for me the practices of “hikmat” that resulted, in the Western world, often in the most cynical manipulation of the “rank and file.” Rather, I would say, what’s required is a higher level of normal decency, humility, and respect for the individual’s freedom and liberty of conscience, along the lines of Isaiah Berlin. It doesn’t take much wisdom to realize what kind of world the present arrogant and utopian Baha’i administration would create. One needs only to look at American Bahai history and the abuse of now countless individuals and families.

In addition to Garlington’s book, the serious student of Bahai history should also read Professor Juan Cole’s Modernity and the Millennium, and Peter Smith’s Babi and Bahai Religions. The few Christian polemical writers, who have bothered to write anything, can’t hold a match to those who have been burned by the shunning and slander of Bahai fundamentalism. Yet all three authors merely touch the surface of too many incidents that raise serious questions for any American concerned about preserving religious freedom and liberty. There is a very real need for fresh research and excavation of any surviving original material that might throw more light on the major conflicts of American Bahai history. While Garlington seldom moves very far beyond the received version of American Bahai history, his book is at least the first written by a scholar trying to discover essentially what Edward Gibbon called the “inevitable mixture of error and corruption” that a religion contracts “in a long residence upon earth,” versus the predictably self-serving propaganda of the converted. The publisher Praeger is to be applauded for its commitment to free speech and discussion.

Frederick Glaysher


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Modernity and the Millennium. Juan R. I. Cole.






Juan Cole

Juan Cole





Modernity and the Millennium : The Genesis of the Baha’i Faith in the Nineteenth-Century Middle East. Columbia University Press, 1998.

Respecting the Conscience of Man…. June 27, 2000

In his conclusion, which would never have passed the system of censorship, “Bahai review,” that the Haifan Baha’i governing body  imposes on all publications brought out under its tight control, Professor Cole, of the Department of History at the University of Michigan, quite accurately identifies the distortions that have been wreaked upon Baha’u’llah’s Teachings:

“Some contemporary leaders of the Baha’i Faith have given answers increasingly similar to those of fundamentalists, stressing scriptural literalism, patriarchy, theocracy, censorship, intellectual intolerance, and denying key democratic values. While the values of the nineteenth-century Baha’i movement, which was far more tolerant, continue to exist as a minority view, by the late 1990s a different set of emphases prevailed” (196).

Cole himself and many others have suffered at the hands of the fundamentalists who have taken control of the religion:

“The rise of academic Baha’i scholarship has caused tension in the community, whose present-day leadership tends to be fundamentalist and antiliberal in orientation, and this has led to pressure on a number of prominent academics to resign or dissociate themselves from the movement” (201).

These same forces of fundamentalist orthodoxy are evident on talk.religion.bahai and alt.religion.bahai on Usenet for impartial viewers to witness. They will be evident to all perceptive observers of whatever forum Bahais may be trying to control and influence. Both my and Cole’s websites provide essential documentation along these lines. It should be noted that the Universal House of Justice has actively worked through the BCCA (Bahai Computer and Communications Association) to suppress all links to websites with other than its own “comprehensive” point of view on such major portals as Yahoo.com, Excite.com, and other search engines. The UHJ has reportedly gone even further by advising Bahais to remove any link whatsoever to Professor Cole’s website.

As a Bahai since 1976, I myself have always found especially repulsive the manner in which Bahai fundamentalists attempt to manipulate the institutions and leaders of government, the United Nations, and public opinion, while pretending to values they deride in private or at Bahai-only meetings.

Ultimately, it is the Bahai Universal House of Justice that is responsible for the perversion and corruption of such clear and elevating teachings of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha as the following:

“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 the contingent world” (Abdu’l-Baha, A Traveler’s Narrative, 91).

The Universal House of Justice, in Haifa, Israel,  is also in the end responsible for inciting Baha’i fanatics and fundamentalists to attack other Bahais and non-Bahais merely for their views expressed on and off line in free forums of public discussion.

Professor Cole’s Modernity and the Millennium will remain, for many years to come, the most important book available on the Baha’i Faith. His discussion of its historical development within the intellectual milieu of progressive 19th Century thought is particularly brilliant and insightful.

Frederick Glaysher

For further documentation of Bahai censorship, see
The Baha’i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience

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