The Baha'i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience

In his book Modernity and the Millennium, published by Columbia University
Press in 1998, Professor Cole observes the Baha'i administration has
increasingly come under the control of fundamentalists, "stressing
scriptural literalism . . . theocracy, censorship, intellectual intolerance,
and denying key democratic values (196)." [Available on]

"I am reporting a major shift in the Baha'i faith similar to the
take-over of the Southern Baptist convention by fundamentalists
in the 1980s and 1990s...."


"While persons with a sectarian outlook certainly came into the faith in the 1970s, so too did many religious liberals from the youth culture. The latter for a time created many local liberal communities and contributed to liberal Baha’i publishing enterprises, but most eventually left the religion, out of frustration with the conservative national and international administration. At the turn of the twenty-first century, the tendency of the movement is less open. Fundamentalists in the international center and their appointees in the “institutions of the learned” dislike the democratic system of governance, are committed to establishing an ultimate Baha’i theocracy, and wish to prohibit academic modes of discourse about the core areas of the religion. All of these themes, if widely adopted, would bring the religion into greater tension with the surrounding U.S. society. (The U.S. is after all a democracy committed to the separation of religion and state where nearly half of citizens go on to some form of higher education). Demands that liberal members avoid discussing their personal views of the faith on public email lists, and threats or sanctions launched at those who demur from the fundamentalist orthodoxy and become “prominent,” all point to an increasing exclusivism more characteristic of the sect than of the church. Whereas `Abdu’l-Baha had forbidden in the tolerant Baha’i faith the Muslim custom of issuing rulings that a believer had departed into disbelief, and whereas Shoghi Effendi had insisted that believers be extensively counseled before being punished, the current leadership has initiated a new practice of summary expulsion from the rolls. The community is becoming more ready to exclude, impelled by developments in the religion’s world center, by the increasing influence of fundamentalism in American religion generally, and perhaps also by the influx of immigrants, especially some Iranians, from the Third World, as well as by the transparency and consequent open conflict introduced into community discourse by the internet. The community is small and needs its resources, and so the purges have centered on a few vocal individuals rather than being more general, apparently in hopes that the remaining liberals will take the hint and keep their silence in public. In a church, a member born into it might be punished but there would never be any question that he or she was a member. In a sectarian organization, membership is dependent on strict doctrinal and behavioral criteria. In the contemporary Baha’i community, those criteria increasingly consist of assent to, or at least avoiding public dissent from, the fundamentalist tenets discussed above."

Professor Juan R. I. Cole, University of Michigan,
"Fundamentalism in the Contemporary U.S. Baha'i Community,"
Religious Studies Review, Vol. 43, no. 3 (March, 2002):195-217:

Originally published in The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Volume 37, No. 2 (June 1998): 234-248. The Baha’i Faith in America as Panopticon, 1963-1997
Juan R. I. Cole


Baha’i authorities exercise a great deal of control over discourse in the community, maintaining a virtual monopoly on mass media with a Baha’i audience. This control is felt necessary in part to prevent electioneering and coalition-forming, which are formally barred (despite the informal campaigning discussed above). It is perhaps not incidental that the controls on electioneering and other forms of communication have the side effect of ensuring that criticism of those in power cannot achieve wide circulation, and that the incumbents who exercise that control are reelected every year. Incumbents act aggressively against Baha’i owners of media who demonstrate too much independence. They monitor the speech of individuals extensively through a system of informants, and intervene behind the scenes to silence dissidents with threats of sanctions. They require prepublication censorship of everything Baha’is write about their religion. They intervene in the private businesses of believers where they think the interests of the administration are at stake. They tell private Baha’i publishers what books and even what passages in books they may and may not publish. They employ the threats of loss of administrative rights, humiliation in the national Baha’i newspaper, and even of shunning, in order to control believers.

Having Baha’is inform on their co-believers allows the administration to discover nonconformists who might not toe the party line, and to monitor their activities. The system operates so as to maintain the “orthodox” ideology in power and prevent the election to that institution of dissenters through identifying them and ensuring that they do not become visible in the community. The practice of informing creates a panopticon, as described by Michel Foucault in his discussion of Jeremy Bentham's ideas on penal reform (Foucault 1979). Bentham argued that putting the criminal constantly under observation would deter him from further criminal acts, and would even cause him eventually to internalize the sense of constantly being watched, thus becoming permanently reformed. Conventional Baha’is often never discover the informant system, since they never trip the wire that would lead to their being informed on. The independent-minded, however, usually discover it fairly early in their Baha’i careers, and then have to decide whether they wish to live the rest of their lives in a panopticon. This practice, like many other control mechanisms, discourages spiritual entrepreneurship and keeps the religion from growing in the West.