The Baha'i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience


From the talisman archive for April 1996.
The members of the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States of America
involved are #1 Henderson   #2 Judge James Nelson

From jrcole@umich.eduFri Apr 12 14:50:37 1996
Date: Thu, 11 Apr 1996 18:32:19 -0400 (EDT)
From: Juan R Cole
To: Rick Schaut
Cc: "''"
Subject: RE: criticism of NSA policies


I appreciate your measured response, and find myself in agreement with
much of what you say.

I brought the matter up only as an example. But for the record I have
evidence that at least two NSA members were very intimately involved in
supporting the Travel Agency monopoly that they set up. Moreover, if
they did in fact step over the line and break the law by using threats of
spiritual sanctions to reduce business competition, this would be a
serious matter. People have gone to jail for analogous infractions, and
public officials have resigned or been forced to resign over them. The
NSA actions also may have cost Baha'i travel agents and their customers
money, and subjected them to spiritual duress, which would be an arbitrary
use of power.

I enclose, so that others can judge for themselves, some passages from a
transcript of a taped conversation between two NSA members and a Baha'i
travel agent that took place the summer before the World Congress. Since
I am only interested in the rights and wrongs in an abstract way, I have
not included the names of the principals.

Cheers Juan Cole, History, Univ. of Michigan

NSA Member #1: We're calling, Mr. X, about your package offered for the
World Congress. We have some concerns about it. The National Spiritual
Assembly has asked X and me to consult with you--

Baha'i Travel Agent: --O.K.

NSA Member # 1: --about it and tell you what we think and make a few

Baha'i Travel Agent: Sure.

NSA Member # 1: First of all, we're concerned that there were some
misrepresentations made in your brochure or what looks like from the copy
I've got--

Baha'i TA: The recent one we sent out about our package? Hm hm.

NSA Member # 1: And there are some incomplete and inaccuracies stated in
yours compared to what you will be able to deliver at a guaranteed
price . . . [expresses concern about Baha'i Travel Agent's past refusal to
accept credit cards when arranging pilgrimages to Haifa, which has
sometimes left Baha'is unable actually to go, and left the NSA to pay for
their tickets) . . . We have a bit of concern that people are going to go
for price only and neglect the essentials that you don't mention that
they're going to get if they take the Logistics Office package. We are
concerned that you are not going to be in a position to deliver them the
airfares at the rate that you say. We will be, because we're locked into
a no-lose situation. That is, if the fares go down, we get the down, if
they go up, we get the guarantee. And . . .

Baha'i Travel Agent: The same thing is true here.

NSA Member # 1: We--You can do that?

Baha'i Travel Agent: I work directly through US Air. Uh huh.

NSA Member # 1: All right, then: I want you not to say, then, and you
are directed not to say that if airfare prices increase substantially we
will have to pass on the increase to the clients.

Baha'i Travel Agent: All right--we've sent out a second letter. This
was done while I was in Europe . . . I've made some corrections because
of that. And we do not say--we say we do guarantee it . . .

NSA Member # 1: Then we want you to spell out completely in your
brochure that you do not offer transportation from the airport to the
airport or between Jacob Javits Center and the hotel.

Baha'i Travel Agent: O.k. . . . It does say that . . . [reads new
brochure, which mentions that taxis can be taken to the Jacob Javitz
center and that it is walking distance in good weather]

NSA Member # 1: We want you to list the current price from the hotels to
Javits and back . . .

Baha'i Travel Agent: I'm not through, yet, sir . . .

NSA Member # 1: I'm doing this as we go through, because I tell you
this, when we get through we are going to publish in the American Baha'i
a direct comparison--

Baha'i Travel Agent: Hm, hm.

NSA Member # 1: And I want your comparison to agree with ours.

Baha'i Travel Agent: How can you do that with a business?

NSA Member # 1: We are not getting you out of business. We are simply

Baha'i Travel Agent: Oh, I know that sir. I didn't say that. I said,
how can you require that of a business? We're just, like, representing,
any other business.

NSA Member # 1: You don't have to do it, sir.

Baha'i Travel Agent: Oh, O.K.

NSA Member # 1: But I tell you, you will be in some peril if you don't.

[What is going on here is that the NSA has discovered that its Logistics
Office prices are very high and can be easily undercut by Baha'i travel
agents. This puts in doubt whether they can arrange enough reservations
to receive the $50,000 in free suites from the official travel agency. The
first tack it takes is that these are fly by night
operations that don't guarantee the airfares. But this does not prove
true. Then they want to push the idea that the competing packages are
not full service, and don't include taxi fare (as if that could account
for a $300 difference). At this point, the travel agent begins to
realize that the NSA Logistics Office is trying to *compete* with him and
trying to put conditions on how he can compete with it. He realizes that
this is an anti-Trust violation, and questions how the NSA can place
conditions on economic competitors. The NSA member, aware of the fine
line he is treading, denies he is trying to prevent a competitor from
doing business. The travel agent presses the point that NSA actions
could nevertheless be perceived as attempting to place conditions on an
economic competitor, which is still illegal. The NSA member realizes
where this is going, and backs down. "You don't have to do it, sir."
The travel agent is relieved. Then the NSA member appears to lose his
temper. "But I tell you you will be in some peril if you don't," he
adds. At this point I think he has stepped over the line into an illegal
anti-trust violation. He is attempting to browbeat a competitor with the
NSA Logistics Office, and to put conditions on the nature of the
competition between them.)

Baha'i Travel Agent: . . . We've had a number of people contact us and
all we've tried to do is provide people who say they just cannot go with
a way they can go. And we're not trying in any way to cut into your
program, because we only have space for 550 . . . And all we're trying to
do is help those like the ones in South Carolina, whole assemblies, that
just say they could not go unless they had the less price.

NSA Member # 1: You don't think our package includes the lesser price?

Baha'i Travel Agent: No, sir.

[NSA member # 2 alleges that the only safe way to have the World Congress
travel accommodations taken care of is to have one Travel Agency handle
everyone; and he intimates that the Universal House of Justice wanted the
NSA to do it that way, though he says this in an ambiguous manner).

NSA Member # 2: . . . One of our urgent concerns is that your material
creates the impression you can provide a lower price. That is false. As
you know, our materials indicate that the friends are guaranteed the
lowest available price from any source at they time they travel . . .
Your materials suggest that you can beat our prices. In fact, that is
not true. One of the things the National Assembly wants you to address
is the perception that you have created deliberately through your
materials that you provide a lower cost. This suggests that the
Institution has cheated the friends . . .

[In fact, virtually any travel agent could have gotten a Baha'i a better
price than than most Logistics Office packages afforded. This NSA member
is either wholly uninformed or is being, uh, disingenuous. His
suggestion that offering a lower price is forbidden because it makes the
NSA look like it is cheating the friends is outrageous; it is an attempt
to bully this individual into not offering competing, lower packages.
Again, I think these statements border on illegality under anti-trust

[This conversation went on for some time more, with much browbeating of
the poor travel agent, and a final plea for him to withdraw his competing
package, on the grounds that he could simply not provide a better price
than did the Logistics Office. It is hard not to conclude that all
parties here knew that the travel agent could in fact substantially
undercut Logistics Office prices, but that putting things this way was a
polite cover for bullying a competitor.\}

Please note that I don't think the NSA members were personally profiting
from the arrangements that had been made. I think their concerns are as
they repeatedly stated them. They liked the idea of a centralized Travel
Agency with a standardized package that cut down on the likelihood of
out-of-town Baha'is wandering around New York (one caller inquired about
camping facilities in New Jersey from the Logistics Office or their
Travel Agent, and were told that there *were none!* When a complaint was
lodged, Wilmette replied that they hadn't wanted people camping out).
The official Travel Agency was offering the sweetener of $50,000 in free
rooms if a certain number of Baha'is used them, and the NSA for some
reason was fixated on getting this bonus (which, it is true, benefitted
the Fund in a small way, not individuals). And since the NSA had
made this unwise and untrue claim that their package was guaranteed the
cheapest, they minded that being demonstrated to be untrue (were they
afraid they might become responsible for the difference, themselves? Or
just that someone would think they were taking profits or a kickback?
There is no evidence of the latter).

The fact remains that their solution to these problems, of bullying
Baha'i Travel Agents (there were others) into cancelling competing
reservations was at the least unethical and an arbitrary use of the
spiritual authority they have; and was possibly even illegal. Along with
their earlier bullying of the Dialogue editors, and their recent attempt
to coerce the speech of one of our Talismanians, all this amounts to a
worrisome *pattern* of behavior which I myself have difficulty seeing as
very Baha'i-like. The naivete of the general run of Baha'is and their
refusal to accept that any irregularities could occur in Wilmette by
virtue of divine grace have perhaps deprived the NSA of useful community
feedback on these sorts of problem.