The Baha'i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience


"Critics chafe at Baha'i conservatism" By IRA RIFKIN
February 27, 1997, Religion News Service

For Dr. Linda Walbridge, a prominent anthropologist of Islam, an authority on Shi`ite Islam, and former associate director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University, also see the following links

"Critics chafe at Baha'i conservatism" By IRA RIFKIN
February 27, 1997, Religion News Service Obituary 2002 by Juan Cole

Juan Cole - Menu

NEWS FEATURE: "Critics chafe at Baha'i conservatism." By IRA RIFKIN
February 27, 1997, Religion News Service

Eds: RNS Online,, printed this with color photos of Cole,
Henderson and the Baha'i Worship Center in Wilmette, Ill, accompanying this

UNDATED - The first 19 days of March are a special time for Baha'is, members of
a worldwide religion with a liberal reputation based on its vision of the
underlying unity of all faiths, the oneness of humanity and the harmony of
science and religion.

The Baha'i faith grew out of Islam, and like the Muslim month of Ramadan, Baha
is set aside 19 days - the month of Ala according to the Baha'i calendar - as a
period of dawn-to-sunset fasting and spiritual reflection. The month ends with
the Feast of Nawruz, the Baha'i new year. It's a festive time of community
gatherings featuring prayers, spiritual readings, socializing and lots of food.
For ex-Baha'i Juan Cole, though, this year's feast will be anything but festive.
Cole, a professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan, is among
the nation's leading experts on the faith. Until last May, when he formally
resigned from the movement, he had been a Baha'i for 25 years. Now, however, he
counts himself among a small but influential group of past and present liberal
Baha'is angry over what they say is the hijacking of the faith by a cadre of
conservative leaders more interested in preserving their authority than the
Baha'i principle of "independent investigation of reality. "

That principle is among the core tenets of the Baha'i faith first articulated by
its founder, the l9th-century Persian prophet known as Baha'u'llah (the Glory of
God) and who is revered by the faithful as an incarnation of God akin to Jesus.
According to the critics, the National Spiritual Assembly (NSA), which oversees
the American Baha'i movement, is dominated by a tight-knit group of
authoritarian officials who keep the lid on free expression by threatening
dissidents with excommunication and by manipulating the process by which. NSA
members are elected.

In the Baha' i faith, excommunication includes total shunning by family
members and friends.

Spreading their message via the Internet, the dissidents - many of whom, like
Cole, once were members of the faith's intellectual elite - say the nine-member
NSA also hides the truth about the faith's shrinking American following.
"Baha'is are not open - repeat, not open - about how controlling this
organization is, " said Cole. ``Virtually no one who comes into this faith
realizes that by becoming a Baha'i you are making your individual conscience
hostage to the dictates of the leadership.

"The Baha' is started out Unitarian and ended up Calvinist. "

For their part, American Baha'i leaders, headquartered in the Chicago suburb of
Wilmette, I11., dismiss the critics as an inconsequential group of disgruntled
elitists who - blinded by their attraction to the faith's more liberal aspects -
overlooked its deeply conservative side.

This includes an emphasis on " administrative order" as a prime religious goal.
Baha'u'llah taught that religions fail in large part because, of the disunity
that tears them apart following their initial burst of spiritual energy.
As a result, tight controls are placed on all public statements made by Baha'is
-- including the works of scholars, who are required to submit their writings
for pre-publication review.

"The Baha'i community as a whole does not encourage antagonistic confrontation,
" said Firuz Kazemzadeh, an NSA-member and its secretary for external affairs.
"We always seek consensus. But if there is no unanimity then the majority must

Not all Baha'i scholars find fault with this.
"I personally don't buy 'the totalitarian argument, " said Canadian Baha'i B.
Todd Lawson, an assistant professor of Islamic studies at Montreal's McGill

"The Baha'i faith posits a non-confrontation version of problem solving. My view
is if you opt out of that mode, that's your prerogative. But there are others
who take a longer view of things. ... Baha'i ideals are extremely demanding. "
Michael McMullen, an assistant professor of Sociology at the University of
Houston at Clear Lake, said prior review "makes sense" because much of the
writings of Baha'u'llah and his successors remain untranslated from their
original Persian and Arabic, and are therefore inaccessible to the majority of
American Baha'is.

"My experience has been that what is corrected are factual errors not
interpretation, " said McMullen, who is also a local Baha'i leader in League
City, Texas.

The dissidents also claim the Baha'i prohibition against public campaigning or
nominating candidates for spots on the nine-member NSA serves to keep it a
closed body controlled by the American Baha'i establishment.
Baha'i leaders say they are only following an orthodoxy established by
Baha'u'llah and his successors - his son Abdul-Baha and his great-grandson,
Shoghi Effendi, who died in 1957.

"It is extremely deprecated if anyone even talks about how the voted " said
Kazemzadeh. "Voting is supposed to be a very spiritual act."

Assembly members are elected annually by a fixed number of 171 delegates who
represent local Baha'i assemblies across the continental United States.
Robert C. Henderson, a former Atlanta businessman who is the NSA's
secretary-general, making him the highest ranking American Baha'i (the faith has
no ordained clergy), said there have been 12 changes in the NSA' s membership
over the past 15 years.

"That's not indicative of a closed group ," he said.

However, Cole said each change resulted from retirement, death or a member
moving out of the country. No incumbent who has sought re-election has been
defeated since 1961, he said.

Cole also noted that family and other close associations are common among
American Baha'i leaders. Six of the nine current NSA members have family or
professional connections.

For example, Henderson's mother, Wilma Ellis, is married to Kazemzadeh. Ellis
herself is a former NSA member who has held d a variety of prominent Baha'i' i
positions. Currently she is a member of the Continental Board of Counselors of
the Americas, which provides advice and other services to elected Baha'i bodies
throughout the hemisphere.

Two other current NSA members are husband and wife James arid Dorothy Nelson. He
is a former presiding judge of the Los Angeles Municipal Court. She is a judge
of California's Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. '

Two other members are Juana Conrad, a retired administrator for the Los Angeles
Municipal Courts, and William Davis, former administrative executive of the
Ninth Circuit Court.

Yet another current assembly member is South Dakotan Patricia Locke, the first
American-Indian woman to serve on the NSA. She replaced her son Kevin: Locke.
McMullen, the University of Houston sociologist, acknowledged that the
prohibition against nominations and campaigning has made it hard for those
outside the Baha'i establishment to win election to the NSA.

But on the local level, he added, there is a much higher leadership turnover.
Moreover, on this level of authority, he said, issues, even controversial ones,
are freely debated without fear of official disapproval.

Henderson also said that "Baha'is are specifically asked to air their
grievances" at local and national conventions. "There are specific channels for
such expression, but it must remain within these established channels."
"The Baha'i faith is outwardly liberal but inwardly conservative, " he
continued. " It's a matter of scripture."

Baha'is claim a worldwide membership of more than 5 million people living in
more than 200 nations and territories. About 2.5 million Baha'is live in India.
In Iran - where the faith first emerged in the 1840s when Baha'u'llah proclaimed
himself to be the divine manifestation for the modern era there are about
300,000 Baha'is. Considered heretics by the Muslim authorities, the live as a
persecuted minority.

The heresy charge stems from Baha'u'llah's claim to prophet status some l,200
years after Muhammad, the founder of Islam, proclaimed himself God's final

In the United States, Baha'is claim some l30,000 members - a third of whom are
African-Americans. About 2l,000 live in California, with the largest
concentration - more than 6,000 - in greater Los Angeles.

Baha'is are also relatively strong in South Carolina, Texas, Florida, Georgia,
North Carolina, Illinois, Arizona and Washington state.

However, Baha'i critics say the religion's membership numbers are wildly
inflated. Citing friendly but unnamed sources at Baha'i headquarters 1n
Wilmette, the dissidents say no more than 30,000 names represent active Baha'is
with verifiable addresses.

"Wilmette has no idea who most of these so-called 130,000 Baha'is are,"said
Steven Scholl, a Baha'i for 27 years until he withdrew his membership last

"The large number of inactive members on the roles speaks to the number of
people who have simply walked away from the faith out of their upset with the
leadership, " said Scholl, a publisher of spiritual books based in Ashland Ore.

A 1993 book on Americans' religious affiliations, " One Nation Under God" by
demographers Barry Kosmin and Seymour Lachman, estimated the number of adult
Baha'is in the United States at about 28,000.

"Every new religious movement that is in a missionary phase tends to
overestimate its members," Kosmin, currently at the Institute for Jewish Policy
Research in London, said in an interview. "They count people coming in, but
never count those who leave."

Kazemzadeh, the Baha'i official, insisted that the 130,000 figure is
"essentially accurate." But he also said that "if active means contributing
funds and serving locally, it's probably about half the names on the list."
Sizable Baha'i communities in the South are traceable to the influx of mostly
rural African-Americans who joined the faith in the 1960s and `70s, drawn by its
strong rejection of racial prejudice. Jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie is probably
the best-known African-American Baha'i.

During those same years, relatively large numbers of white liberals, attracted
by the faith's emphasis on a society free of social injustice, also joined. It
is mostly members of this group - many of them scholars of Baha'i texts, the
Middle East and its languages - that today lead the dissident movement.
Linda Walbridge, an anthropologist at the University of Indiana specializing in
the growth of Islam in America, became a Baha'i in l966 when she was a
19-year-old VISTA volunteer on the Navajo Reservation. Despite her anger at the
hierarchy, she remains a Baha'i.

Raised Roman Catholic, Walbridge said she was attracted to the Baha'i faith by
its promise of a universalist vision. "It was far more open than anything I had
experienced. "

Walbridge's public dissent has prompted Baha'i officials to threaten to label
her a "covenant breaker" - a form of excommunication that would require her
Baha'i husband to divorce her or risk his own excommunication.

"It was supposed to be the most liberal, broad-based religion on the face of the
earth, " said Walbridge. " Instead, it turned out to be a straight jacket."
For liberal academics like Walbridge, the lack of free expression is a prime
bone of contention. However, they also take issue with the Baha'i claim of
inclusiveness when only men can serve on the Universal House of Justice the
faith's international authority based in Haifa, Israel, near Baha'u'llah's,
burial place. Established in l963 in accordance with Baha'u'llah's dictates, the
Universal House of Justice is considered an infallible body by Baha'is.

The critics also take issue with the harsh attitude taken by Baha'i leadership
toward sexually active gay and lesbian members, who are subject to official
sanction under the faith's general prohibition against all forms of
extra-marital sex.

"I understand that this conforms to understanding of Baha'i orthodoxy that the
leadership shares, but how is this inclusive? " said Walbridge. " For heaven's
sake, let's at least discuss it. Things have changed since the l9th century."
To members of the Baha'i establishment, Walbridge's challenge to some of the
faith's basic tenets are indicative of the critics' misreading of the movement's
conservative side.

"These so-called dissident Baha'is like to be among Baha'is because they were
liberal and we appear liberal,'' said Kazemzadeh. "But they did not y believe in
God as Baha'is define it. That raises the question of hypocrisy.

"This is a religious community united by a set of beliefs," he said. " So if a
person says he does not believe in these beliefs, why is he a member of the


  [Note: A sidebar introduction, plus corrections to the article submitted by
  two Baha'is, and finally a Baha'i report on the article, including a list of
  the newspapers which ran it, all follow. Some Baha'is interpreted these
  articles as excessively critical; see for example the NSA response at "Attacks
  on the Faith". -J.W.]

Sidebar: Thumbnail guide to the beliefs of the Baha'is
by Ira Rifkin
c. 1997 Religion News Service

UNDATED -- A cornerstone of Baha'i beliefs is the principle of progressive
relvelation, which holds that God repeatedly sends divine messengers to Earth
and that the latest in a line running from Abraham to Jesus and Muhammad was the
19th-century Persian prophet known as Baha'u'llah. Missionary-minded and
pacifist-oriented, the Baha'i faith teaches the unity of mankind and the
commonality of all religions. It also emphasizes the harmony of science and
religion, rejection of all prejudice, independent investigation of truth,
equality of the sexes and compulsory education. "The Baha'i Faith's progressive
approach to human society originates with Baha'u'llah's emphasis on unity," said
a 1992 official profile of the movement. "Indeed, if one were to characterize
His teachings in a single word, that word would be unity."

Baha'is have no ordained clergy and little ritual, and are led by elected
officials. Despite the declaration of sexual equality, the faith's international
authority, the Universal House of Justice based in Haifa, Israel, is doctrinally
an all-male body. Baha'is consider the House of Justice to be infallible.
National Spiritual Assemblies direct Baha'i affairs in individual countries.
U.S. Baha'i headquarters are in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, Ill., site of
one of seven Baha'i Houses of Worship scattered around the globe.

Baha'is believe the world is destined to have one government, which will be led
by Baha'is and will be based on the faith's administrative framework. The Baha'i
faith grew out of Shiite Islam, and like Muslims, Baha'is are not supposed to
consume alcohol and are to adhere to a strict moral code. They also believe in
the sharing of wealth and the adoption of a universal language.

Considered heretics by Muslims, Baha'is have long been persecuted by Islamic
leaders, particularly in Iran. Baha'u'llah spent much of his life in prison or
under house arrest. He died while under house arrest near Acre, just north of
Haifa, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. Since 1980, more than 200
Iranian Baha'is have been executed and thousands have been imprisoned, according
to reports, leading to frequent condemnations of Teheran by the U.S. State
Department. Because of this persecution, the recently organized, 20-member
Secretary of State's Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad has a Baha'i

-END RIFKIN AP - NY-02-26-97 1528 EST
Note: Here follow two corrections sent to a Baha'i academics listserv in March,

On Thursday, March 6, a Baha'i wrote:
"Mr. Henderson was misquoted. Actually, he said, "The Baha'i Faith is SOCIALLY
liberal and MORALLY conservative." Another factual error is that Linda Walbridge
remains a part of the American Baha'i community; as many of us may remember with
sadness, she withdrew from the Baha'i Faith almost a year ago."
Later, she added:

"I happened to be at the National Center last Friday, and Bob Henderson pointed
out to some Baha'is that he was misquoted. Actually, it is something that
happens all the time in journalism (in the rush of scribbling down notes and
all). My guess is that Linda Walbridge was also misunderstood, as she would have
no reason to believe that the institutions consider her to be a part of the
American Baha'i community."

The US Baha'i Office of Public Information recently mailed their PI NEWS, April
1997, a bi-monthly publication distributed to Baha'i Public Information Reps.
Here is the lead article regarding the RNS article: "News on Opposition National
News Wire Article Criticizes the NSA"

"On February 27, 1997, the Religion News Service carried a news article by Ira
Rifkin under the title "Critics Chafe at Baha'i Conservatism." The article
presented the views of a small group of of disaffected former Baha'is who left
the Faith because they rejected certain fundamental Baha'i teachings. The
individuals attacked Baha'i institutions and their members attributing to them
dictatorial attitudes, accusing them of controlling elections and claiming that
Baha'i institutions were dominated by a tight-knit group of authoritarian
officials. The article was published in the following US papers:

1) Muscatine, Iowa Journal
2) Akron, Ohio Beacon Journal
3) Kansas City, Missouri Star
4) North Carolina Times News
5) Charlotte, North Carolina Observer
6) Springfield, Massachusetts Republican
7) Mobile, Alabama Register

"Local communities responded to the article's publication in a variety if ways.
For example, the Baha'is of Springfield, MA, formed a delegation which visited
the executive editor of the Springfield, Massachusetts paper. The delegation
explained to the editor the Baha'is eighty-year history in the area and noted
its community service. During the hour long meeting, the executive editor's tone
was apologetic, He stated that he had not read the article before it was placed.
Additionally, he promised to feature a positive article on the Faith in the near
future. Although published in only seven newspapers, the article is an excellent
opportunity to identify issues and teachings to which American media might give
a negative interpretation: free speech, the Baha'i electoral process and
Covenant breaking to name a few. The Office of Public Information, in
consultation with the Research Office of the Baha'i National Center, is
developing educational materials for PI Reps which will address these issues.