The Baha'i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience


Susan Maneck, Baha'i scholar 

See also Susan Maneck, Baha'i scholar: 


From: Juan Cole <>
To: <>
Subject: [bahai-faith] mutilation theology and Dr. Maneck
Date: Monday, October 05, 1998 12:39 PM

Someone forwarded to me the below.  I'm not on AOL and have no idea how to
post there; my reply may be freely forwarded.

I wish Susan Maneck well.  We became friends in the early 1980s and I
supported her, speaking well of her in the Middle East and South Asia
fields where she was attempting to make a career.  I have never harmed her
in any way, and have until now practiced a sin-covering eye in her regard.

However, she has behaved toward me in an academic setting with dishonesty
and deceit in such a way as deprives her of the right to debate me
publicly.  She spied on me and lied about it.  She betrayed confidences in
such a way as to cause her academic colleagues to demand and get her
resignation from a position she had held.

I sympathize with her devotion to the Universal House of Justice.  This is
after all the body that called upon American Baha'is to pioneer in Lebanon
during the Five Year Plan of 1974-1979, a call that I myself, an idealistic
new Baha'i, answered in part because of a desire to serve that institution,
and despite the danger involved in trying to be there during the beginnings
of the Lebanese Civil War.  All who become Baha'is wish to believe that the
Universal House of Justice is a better sort of institution than the ones we
deal with in ordinary life.  I am sorry to report, however, that the more I
learned of its modus operandi the more it became clear to me that there is
something cult-like about its operations.  It depends upon
behind-the-scenes manipulation and coercion of consciences through using
the threat of declaring 'prominent' people covenant breakers merely for
expressing views at variance with whatever the orthodoxy happens to be in
Haifa at that time.
The current nine members are claiming all sorts of
powers and prerogatives that are not theirs according to the explicit
scriptural texts (as Dr. Maneck herself admitted to me privately), and have
acted in a shamelessly dictatorial way toward people like John Walbridge
and Steven Scholl, who tried actually to accomplish something with regard
to Baha'i intellectual life.  I came to the conclusion with the greatest
reluctance that the current Universal House of Justice is behaving as a
tyrant.  As late as 1995 I was arguing that that body was morally
infallible.  But the evidence of my own eyes cannot be denied.  The Baha'i
Universal House of Justice differs from the Ayatollahs in Iran only in
refraining from using violence to suppress freedom of thought and
expression, employing instead threats of excommunication and shunning that
can sometimes be just as effective.  The UHJ is committed to a vast global
apparatus of prepublication censorship that stifles and kills Baha'i
intellectual life,
and has stunted the growth of what should have been a
beautiful and upbuilding new religion.

I do not agree that coming to this conclusion means we should 'walk away.'
The Universal House of Justice was ordained by Baha'u'llah himself.  It is
necessary to the Baha'i faith.  Even those of us who do not feel we can
remain within the Baha'i framework given the current system of tyranny must
hope that it can be perfected even if it does not start out perfect.  The
Universal House of Justice needs to be better than it is, to get back on
track, to begin operating more democraticaly, as Baha'u'llah himself
envisaged.  I do not criticize it to condemn it, but in hopes of drawing
its attention to deficiencies in the way things are currently done.  Just
as good writing is produced by critique and re-writing, good administration
is produced by public critique and rethinking of processes.  The Universal
House of Justice is not beyond redemption.  It can yet contribute to
tolerance and loving-kindness in the way Baha'u'llah intended.  I myself
have felt nothing from it but hatred, threats of shunning, and bullying.
But it can be better than that.  Knee-jerk defenses of its intolerable
actions such as those of Dr. Maneck only impede that improvement process.

Dr. Maneck's message below is full of misrepresentations which I believe
are willful.  All the academics I listed who left the faith have in fact
left, as she well knows and has proclaimed loudly in the past, and the
weird way in which some people are entered and kept on the rolls without
their initiative (and even simultaneously declared 'not Baha'is' by the
UHJ) while others, like Michael McKenny, are thrown off the rolls against
their wills because of their private email correspondence, only underscores
how arbitrary and even cult-like contemporary Baha'i administrative
practice is.

All the academics who left, left because they were at one time or another
victims of administrative repression.  The person Maneck claims simply lost
his faith in God was once reported to his National Spiritual Assembly by an
ABM for protection because of an academic talk he gave on the faith, and
this began his disillusionment with the Baha'i administration.  Baha'i
intellectuals don't just 'lose their faith in God' or 'lose their faith in
Baha'u'llah' all on their own.  They are pushed out by the narrow-minded
and authoritarian personalities who so dominate the Baha'i administrative
machinery.  People are sensitive, especially about their private religious
beliefs, and what the hate-filled Baha'i rightwingers have discovered, to
their delight, is that it is pretty easy to so injure the feelings of a
liberal-minded person that you drive him or her out of the faith and
destroy his or her belief.  No one who hasn't felt the betrayal of having
one's own religious officials suddenly turn on one and put a knife in one's
back can imagine what it feels like.

I have never censored anyone.  The lists I set up on my own, such as and, are unmoderated and there is no
mechanism whereby anyone can be prevented from sending messages to those
addresses.  We were also involved a purely academic list, where messages
are sometimes rejected because they are not formulated according to the
norms of academic discourse as opposed to statements of personal faith.
The Baha'i covenant can be and is discussed by the academics (who include
many non-Baha'i professors of many faiths from a number of countries) on
this list, but only if it is studied, not if it is proclaimed as a method
of silencing some voices or foreclosing some avenues of
investigation--which is precisely the way Dr. Maneck sometimes did wish to
use it. 

The person Dr. Maneck claims was censored for pro-Nixonian views was in
fact declined the opportunity to post because he was not a member of the
list and did not have the credentials to become a member of the list.  That
he continued to support the innocence of Richard M. Nixon after all the
impeachment proceedings had begun and the Woodward and Bernstein
investigations were published, however, also did suggest to me that he may
be a crank. I'm afraid Dr. Maneck's formulation of these issues is such as
to suggest the same thing to me about her.

I did not remove Dr. Maneck from her position at the academic email list in
question, although it is true that I took her to its Editorial Board over
her disruptive behavior at the insistence of the other editors.  It is also
true that at the same time she attempted to have *me* fired.  In the end,
she voluntarily resigned her position after she accidentally let a major
indiscretion be known to its editorial board.  It is monstrous that she
should accuse me now falsely in this regard.


Juan R. I. Cole
Department of History
University of Michigan