The Baha'i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience


The importance of this email can not be overstated.

From: <>
Subject: Re: Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Freedom of Conscience
Date: Friday, February 05, 1999 12:45 AM
Schaut did not 'see' anything on Talisman because the repression did not
occur online.  Even Birkland wasn't that stupid.  And Maneck was not even
online till it was all over.
I don't know why Schaut seems to think I've been reticent about telling my
story.	From my point of view, I became a devoted Baha'i in 1972 at the age
of 19 at the Bashir fireside in Fairfax Virginia, having read the Kitab-i
Iqan and especially the Tablet of the True Seeker, which set my soul on fire.
 I read Advent of Divine Justice that summer and took the Guardian's advice
to study comparative religions, Islam, and Arabic even as an undergraduate at
When the five year plan goals were announced, they included a call for two
American Baha'is to go to Lebanon, and I went there as a pioneer slash
student.  Despite the outbreak of the civil war, I on and off attempted to be
at my pioneering post, putting my education on hold at one point to work as a
translator for a newspaper so as to be able to be in Beirut in 1978-79.  Some
have mean-spiritedly suggested that my being in Lebanon was for
career-building purposes.  I can only say that none of my colleagues who were
building careers in Middle East studies at the time stayed in or returned to
Beirut the way I did, mostly because I think they thought getting blown up
was a poor way to make a career.  I was there because of the UHJ's five year
plan.  While in the Middle East I carried out two tasks for the NSA, one of
going to a conference and doing travel teaching in India in 1976, the other
of helping local Baha'is with elections in Senegal and Gambia in spring,
In 1979 the NSA of the Near East let me know that the situation was
deteriorating and it was best if I left Lebanon.  So I went on to UCLA for
graduate work in Islamic Studies, again, in order to be able to study the
background of the faith and to serve it.  I worked there with Amin Banani,
professor of Persian and son of the Hand of the Cause.  In 1981-1983 I carried
out dissertation work on Shi`ism in India, and simultaneously pioneered, doing
traveling teaching work in Bengal and elsewhere.
In 1984 I came to Ann Arbor as a professor of history and have been here ever
since.  I translated two books by Mirza Abu'l-Fadl and published them.  I did
some translating for the house of justice at its request.  I published some
journal articles on the faith that reflected well on it.  In 1985 I attended a
conference at the State Department on human rights and religious minorities as
part of an NSA delegation, and did some lobbying for the Iranian Baha'is with
officials. As far as I knew I was a Baha'i in good standing.
In 1994 the listserv started up.  I had nothing to do
with its having been established, but I was an active poster there.  It is
now forgotten that I spent a lot of time doing things like helping with the
slow read of the Most Holy Book. I never questioned the legitimacy of the
house of justice, and always granted that its ruling were the law as long as
they stood.  I did occasionally suggest that some issues had been poorly
handled in the past by Baha'i institutions, and tried to make constructive
suggestions for improving the situation, in the spirit of consultation.  It
was never suggested to me that I was by my postings engaged in an illegal
activity in Baha'i law, nor was I ever accused of contravening any specific
Baha'i law.
In spring, 1996, Counselor Stephen Birkland came to my house for what he
represented as a friendly consultation, a sort of 'get to know you.'  In fact,
as usual, the meeting turned into a series of accusations.  These were largely
theological in nature.  He asked me how I could say I believed in Baha'u'llah
when I spoke of him as a historical personage.  He asked me if I believed all
Baha'i scripture needed to be contextualized to be properly understood.  He
asked me if the Baha'i faith had not done rather well out of histories like
Nabil's Narrative and was it really wise to question it.  He asked me if I
thought 'literature review' (prepublication censorship) was influenced by
Iranian cultural norms (yes).
It has been suggested that my thought crimes were not so much theological or
academic as 'political'.  However, this was never suggested to me by Mr.
Birkland and when someone inquired of the house of justice it also said that
interfering in administrative matters was not the main issue.  I appear to
have been seen as guilty of having a 'low theology' of Baha'u'llah and of
employing a contextualizing hermeneutic or interpretive apparatus.  Such
Two months later Birkland called me up rather late one weekday night and
ominously and informed me that the counselors resident at the international
teaching center in Haifa had concluded that I had made 'statements contrary
to the covenant' on  He said, "I'm sorry.  I had liked
you."  As though I were dead.
This was, in Baha'i-speak, a threat to have me shunned if I did not fall
silent.  It was obvious to me (and I had friends connected in Haifa who could
confirm) that this threat was coming not from the ITC (of which I had barely
heard), but from a subcommittee of the house of justice staffed by Farzam
Arbab, Doug Martin and Ian Semple.
Insofar as I had chosen a life of the mind and of free and unfettered
inquiry, as a college professor, I clearly could not allow myself to be
silenced in that way.  My email traffic on discussion lists is an extension
of my research and findings, and it would be ethically wrong for me to allow
a third party to dictate to me how or when or where I wrote history for the
public.  I am *paid* by the public, and must owe it my primary loyalty. 
Moreover, how could I teach my students to be ethically upright and
courageous in their research if I was not, myself?  Could I deduct points
from their term papers when they failed to cite relevant evidence, if I
myself allowed relevant evidence to be suppressed?
Moreover, the sort of charge launched at me was impossible to defend myself
from in the Baha'i system.  What could you say?  "No, I didn't"?  Not only
was I charged, but five of my dear friends received similar threats, some of
them prominent academics and publishers.  It seemed to me obvious that there
is only one kind of religious organization that treats its thinkers and
professors in this way, and that is a cult-like religious organization.
It later became clear to me that the Baha'i authorities use these threats of
shunning all the time to silence or chase out anyone who becomes 'prominent'
with whom they disagree.
Of course, it was necessary for me to dissociate myself from the Baha'i
administration, given that these were its techniques of control.  And as a
long-time, sincere Baha'i who knew he had done nothing wrong, I was at the
time very wounded to be treated in that summary fashion.  Finally, I did not
*want* to be in a position of fighting the house of justice as an enrolled
Baha'i.  I was a very sincere believe and horrified that I should be
considered by anyone on the wrong side of a covenant to which I had given my
life.  But I could not do as they were asking me to do and remain an ethical
person, and surely the Baha'i faith does not need any unethical members.
The one thing I regret is that when I withdrew, I disavowed Baha'u'llah in
terms I now think were too strong.  After all, I had found him in my heart at
the age of 19 via the Kitab-i Iqan, and Baha'i administrators were all quite
irrelevant to that mystical experience I had, nor could they invalidate it by
their actions.	I would now phrase things differently.	But I don't see how I
could agree to allow the Baha'i authorities to dictate to me how to write
history or or critiques of the situation or when and where I could share my
thoughts on such issues, and therefore it seems clear to me that I am by
temperament unsuited for membership in the current form of the Baha'i
Since I had loved the faith a great deal, and had made certain sacrifices for
it, and still have great admiration for its core values, all this was at one
time painful for me.  But I am a person of a naturally sunny disposition, and,
like Patch Adams, 'excessively happy,' and I am back to being quite joyful.
The thing I regret most of all is that I know as a historian that this
episode will forever besmirch the name of the Baha'i faith, just as the
Vatican's excesses or the Shi`ite excommunication of Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i
besmirch those religions.  The Baha'i faith deserved better from its leaders.
 But then, new leaders will eventually come along.
cheers   Juan
Juan Cole
History, U of Michigan
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