The Baha'i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience

From - Tue Feb 04 07:21:29 1997
Approved: (Rick Boatright)
From: (Juan R. I. Cole)
Subject: Re: (Fwd) Administrative and Spiritual Expulsion
Newsgroups: soc.religion.bahai
Message-ID: <"cUTn5C.A.6sE.O6A8y"@bounty>
Distribution: world
Organization: ----
Date: Wed, 29 Jan 1997 21:15:55 -0600
Lines: 171
Bill Collins wrote:
>The implication that mere criticism of the National Spiritual Assembly
>leads to inevitably to administrative expulsion is both demonstrably
>false and missing a larger context.  
What I said was that believers can have their administrative rights taken
away for publicly criticizing the National Spiritual Assembly or its
policies or actions.  Some believers have been publicly sanctioned for such
speech during the past five years.  That public criticism of the NSA does
not always and inevitably lead to sanctions would only suggest that the
system is arbitrary, and that the NSA punishes those it wishes to.
Just to keep things in the real world, imagine if the leadership of the
Methodist church promulgated a rule that any Methodist who publicly
disagrees with the Church leadership or criticizes the actions of any priest
or bishop will be excommunicated immediately!  This is the equivalent of
what the Baha'i leadership is saying.
>I have known many Baha'is who have,
>within the structures provided in the Baha'i writings, queried decisions
>of Baha'i institutions.  Many of those decisions were modified. 
That is, if a believer objects to an NSA decision, the only acceptable way
to criticize it is to write to the secretary of the NSA that made the
decision, and ask that it be reconsidered.  If the NSA refuses to reconsider
it, the objecting believer must accept the decision silently and never bring
it up again in public.  
It would be like saying that if you did not like a law your congressman
passed, and wrote him objecting, and he stuck by his guns, you were
forbidden from publicly criticizing the law or the congressman forevermore.
I fail to see the difference between such a system and totalitarianism.
>However, when one or more believers embark on a campaign in public
>forums (either by letter-writing, electronic mail, telephoning, or from
>a podium) to call into question the honesty and integrity of a Baha'i
>institution and its members, or indeed of another individual believer,
>sanctions are possible.
It is not only calling into question the honesty or integrity of the members
of a Baha'i institution that is forbidden.  It is criticizing any aspect of
the policies enacted by Baha'i institutions.  Speaking publicly is confused
with "launching a campaign."  Attempting to suggest better ways of doing
things on an e-mail network is lambasted as "negative campaigning."
And what if NSA or LSA members did engage in questionable practices?  How
could these ever be discovered or outed?  What mechanisms of accountability
are there?
>"Spiritual Expulsion" is certainly a defense against schismatics.  It
>also serves as a protection from those who would wield an axe against
>the root principles of the Baha'i Faith.  One set of root principles
>involves the divine origin of the Baha'i administrative order, the
>legitimate authority of its institutions, and the love, support and
>loyalty that is due them from Baha'is.  When one or more believers
>repeatedly engage in challenges to the legitimacy of the structure
>itself, it is a departure from the covenant, and is as disruptive and
>schismatic as any conscious attempt to create a break in the unity of
>the Faith.  
In other words, if the Baha'i administration makes a set of decisions,
Baha'is must unquestioningly acquiesce to them in public or else they will
be accused of disrupting the Covenant.
Think about this in other contexts.  It would be like saying that no Shi`ite
Muslim had the right to disagree publicly with anything that Ayotollah Ali
Khamenei, the Supreme Jurisprudent in Iran, said or did.  A newspaper
editorial disagreeing with one of his rulings, say, on the need to suppress
the Baha'i faith, would result in the author's expulsion from Shi`ism, or
perhaps in other punishments.  (Actually, this is the case; do Baha'is
really wish to be so much like Khomeinists?)
Or it would be like a Catholic saying that the least criticism of anything
the Pope says or does is equivalent to rank heresy and the critic must be
immediately expelled from the Church and damned to hell.  No public
discussion could occur in Catholicism of women priests, social justice, or
birth control.  Every Catholic would have to toe the party line exactly or
be expelled.  Now, there are people in Roman Catholicism who think like
this--perhaps Opus Dei, e.g.  However, they are generally considered
right-wing wackos.  That this line is becoming the *official* line of the
Baha'i administration should help to situate it ideologically.
>We may see from a history of covenant-breaking that those
>who were spiritually expelled did not necessarily start off to become
They also started off drinking milk.  I think this fact should alert us to
the real danger that all Baha'is are secretly covenant breakers, since they
began life drinking milk, just as did Ahmad Sohrab.
> There is a similar issue evolving now:  Is it
>within the authority of the Universal House of Justice to define the
>scope of appropriate behavior, and to call to account those Baha'is who
>refuse to understand its requests for a modification in tone, a review
>of basic principles, a loyalty to legitimately-elected institutions? 
The Universal House of Justice in Haifa was ordained to lead the Baha'i
community by Baha'u'llah and is the ultimate legitimate authority in the
religion.  I say this as a historian who has studied the texts and history
of the movement for a quarter of a century.  The Universal House of Justice
can therefore set any policy it wishes for the Baha'is, and Baha'is must
obey those policies.
However, Americans, thank God, still have freedom of religion and
conscience, and if we don't like those policies we are not obliged to be
Baha'is.  I have chosen not to be, because I believe the current Baha'i
leadership, in seeking to impose blind obedience and public silence on all
Baha'is and in libelling some of its devoted followers as verbal breakers of
the covenant, is overstepping its scriptural mandate and has betrayed the
spirit and promise of Baha'i universalism and liberal principles.  It is
confusing constructive criticism with treason, confusing freedom of speech
with libel, confusing theological liberalism with heresy.  A religion that
is divided against itself cannot stand.  I believe that Unitarian
Universalism now best embodies the old Baha'i spirit, and that the Baha'i
community has been taken over by hardline fundamentalists. 
There is a difference between saying that the Universal House of Justice is
the only legitimate leader of the religion and saying that Baha'i leaders
always acts in accord with scriptural principles.  It is not within the
authority, by the explicit text of `Abdul-Baha, of Baha'i houses of justice
at any level to seek to control the mere speech (as opposed to behavior) of
Baha'is, about doctrinal or other issues
(  Contrast the current
situation in the Baha'i faith, in which all publications are censored, and
in which no independent magazine, and not so much as an independent,
unmoderated Baha'i email forum is permitted, to what `Abdul-Baha dreamed of:
At the Central Congregational Church in Brooklyn on 16 June 1912,
`Abdul-Baha said:  "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
At the Universalist Church Washington, D.C. on 6 Nov. 1912, he said:
"Praise be to God!  The standard of liberty is held aloft in this land.  You
enjoy political liberty; you enjoy liberty of thought and speech, religious
liberty, racial and personal liberty."   
Some of `Abdul-Baha's appreciation of American democracy was a reaction
against the royal absolutism of Qajar Iran.  `Abdul-Baha had complained in
1875 that in Iran, "Not a soul could speak out, because the governor was in
absolute control."   
I'm afraid that with the best of intentions and with the purest of souls, my
good friends among the Baha'is who have adopted the new hard line, have
transformed the beautiful Garden of which `Abdul-Baha dreamed into a dingy
dungeon in which consciences are coerced, innocents are falsely accused with
impunity, administrative rights are revoked for constructive criticism, and
shunning is threatened or imposed for academic analysis.  A good analysis of
all this is found in the current issue of *Gnosis* magazine (Winter 1997).
And you wonder why there are only about 25,000 active Baha'is in this
country.  There are some things most Americans just won't put up with.
Your Unitarian-Universalist friend, 
Juan Cole
Department of History
University of Michigan