The Baha'i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience


Alison Marshall - "How the Baha'i administration behaves"

After reading Alison Marshall's discussion of review in the Baha'i Faith,
consider also Steven Scholl's "A Crisis of Faith," which covers other significant
issues, as do many other articles available through the Homepage:

From: "Ron House" <>
Subject: Review as censorship
Date: Tuesday, March 28, 2000 5:34 AM

The attached articles were posted by Alison Marshall to Talisman, and I
post them here with her permission.

Ron House  

Never fear the truth.

--------------------------- Part 1 ------------------------------

In early 1998, I was approached by the editors of the Baha'i Studies
Review (ABS-ESE) and asked to write a review of two volumes of The Baha'i
World. I spent the next several months reading the volumes and putting together
the review. I approached the exercise in much the same way as I do when my
company is asked to review publications for organisations. The review
passed without comment the first vetting process, in which the item is read by
a group of peer reviewers, and was then sent to the association's
institutional panel for review. Its members had a number of difficulties
with the review. The editors made various changes to the text in order
to accommodate the panel's concerns, but the panel was nevertheless unable
to come to a decision and so the editors appealed to the UK NSA for a final
decision. The NSA sent the review to the House of Justice, who decided
that it would be "inadvisable" to publish the review because of its generally
critical tone.

I have posted the book review in a second e-mail message. The message I
relieved from the secretary of the ABS ESE states:

As you might have guessed with our long delay in getting back to you, we
have had many discussions with the UK Bahá'í reviewing panel about your
book review. Unfortunately, the piece did not pass institutional review. The
UK reviewing panel was unable to make a decision. They referred the matter
to the UK NSA, who, in turn, sought advice from the Universal House of

In a letter to the National Spiritual Assembly dated 22 August 1999, the
Department of the Secretariat replied that the publication of your
review was considered inadvisable, because of the generally critical tone.

Since then, the executive committee of the Association for Bahá'í
Studies-ESE has further reflected on the implications of this decision.
The committee is aware that Bahá'í scholarship is a developing field and
striking the right tone and balance when critically reviewing any
publication is one of its more difficult challenges.


Although the letter says that the issue is a general one of criticising
any publication, we need only open any issue of the Baha'i Studies Review to
find book reviews equally as critical about publications not produced by
the World Centre. This decision shows just how sensitive the House of
Justice is to criticism of its own publications. The review is critical, yes, but
it is constructive, containing practical suggestions as to how the publication
might be improved. In my work, I am *paid* by companies to give them
this sort of feedback.

To me, this decision is a good example of how review acts as censorship.
Baha'i review is used by the Baha'i administration to further its own
agenda. This agenda is focussed on creating and maintaining a particular
public image, which can be gleaned from The Baha'i Worlds themselves.
The administration will not tolerate any speech that might blemish that
carefully crafted persona. The Baha's Studies Associations are not
independent of the Baha'i organisation and therefore cannot publish any
material contrary to these purposes.

As we can see from the above letter, the Baha'i administration assumes
the right to define "scholarship" for its members and to set it within very
narrow parameters, placing emphasis on intangibles like tone. This
decision highlights the fact that those parameters are used to serve the purposes
of the administration, but are masked here as objective criteria for
acceptable scholarship.


--------------------------- Part 2 ------------------------------

"The Bahá'í World" 1992-93 and 1993-94
Published by the Bahá'í World Centre
Reviewed by Alison Marshall

In her essay on the efforts of the Bahá'í community to realise equality
between the sexes, Ann Boyles tells us that "Bahá'ís see their community
life as a workshop rather than as a perfect model..." (1993-94 p. 273).
After reading these two volumes, I cannot point to anything in them that
would prove this statement true. The books are largely filled with
public relations material, and their portrayal of the community is sterile and

Purpose and audience
Beginning with the holy year in 1992, the World Centre has started a
new, annual, series of The Bahá'í World. In an effort to return to Shoghi
Effendi's original purpose, "to disclose to others something of the
significance of the world-wide movement called into being by the Message
of Bahá'u'lláh" (1992-93 p. 7), the World Centre has redesigned the volumes
for non-Bahá'í readers (1992-93 p. 8), who are described as serious
researchers and general students (back cover). The stated purpose seems to be
twofold: firstly, to be a yearbook that reproduces major statements and provides
statistical data and information on the Faith's activities; and
secondly, to "offer readers general information on the Bahá'í Faith, its concerns,
and its teachings" (1993-94 p. 1).

Content and organisation
The 1993-94 volume has an accessible structure, with the content
organised into the following categories (in this order):
· "Introduction to the Bahá'í Community", containing chapters on
Bahá'u'lláh, Shoghi Effendi and the community.
· "Writings and Messages", containing excerpts from the sacred writings
and an overview of House of Justice messages.
· "Events 1993-94", containing chapters on events such as international
convention and the conference of Bahá'í counsellors.
· "Essays and Statements", containing essays on topics such as
postmodernism, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, and statements from the Bahá'í
International Community.
· "Information and Resources", containing obituaries, statistics, a
directory, a short list of new publications, a Bahá'í reading list and a

The 1992-93 volume is similar in content type, but is not as well
organised. It appears more as a collection of various pieces of writing - some
written for the volume, others not - and lacks an overall framework to bring it
together. Topics are not categorised, and the result is a list of
contents in no apparent order and with no indication as to the kind of
information the reader is to expect. For example, the chapter "Bahá'u'lláh", which
on its face could be just about anything, is a reproduction of a statement
by the Bahá'í International Community, written for the holy year and not
for this volume and its audience. One chapter is titled "The Bahá'í
Community Today", which is not informative given that this is surely the topic to
be covered by the book as a whole. It consists of a five-page piece
focusing on the expansion of the community and the spread of its teachings. It is
placed near the end of the book, and is laid out differently from the rest of
the text, indicating that it may be a quote from somewhere. But there is no
indication as to its author, purpose and audience.

There is just one significant oversight in the organisation of the
1993-94 volume. The chapter "Bahá'í Sacred Writings" contains two sections of
quotes, headed "Writings of Bahá'u'lláh" and "Writings of 'Abdul-Baha".
Unfortunately, the quotes have no quote marks and no references. There
is sufficient context for non-Bahá'í readers to work out that they are
reading actual quotes from the writings, but confusion sets in when you read on
to the next chapter, which is headed "From the Universal House of Justice".
You immediately assume you are getting quotes from the House of Justice.
However, the chapter starts with "The Universal House of Justice was
ordained..." and immediately you ask yourself, is this the House of
Justice talking about itself in the third person? Second page in, you are told
that "This section of The Bahá'í World features excerpts from a selection of
major letters" (p. 40), so it begins to dawn on you that the author is
not the House of Justice as the title implies. In fact, the chapter is a
short piece with an introduction on how the House of Justice communicates with
the community and a summary of what the House of Justice wrote for the
1993-94 year, with indented quotes.

Dealing with two purposes
As stated earlier, the purposes of the volumes are to be a yearbook and
to give general information about the Faith.

A yearbook is an annual publication that updates information on a given
subject. However, in order to fulfil the second purpose of giving
general information about the Faith, the publications also contain a great deal
of information that has nothing to do with the current year. This
dissipates their focus and leaves the reader wondering what is going to come next.
For example, both articles about the Mount Carmel projects (1993-94 pp.
67-69) begin with pages of background before detailing progress for the year
(1992-93 pp. 169-175).

The same problem also reveals itself on a micro level, within sections
of articles. In the section "Year in Review" (1993-94 p. 128), the Houses
of Worship section starts with an explanation of what Houses of Worship
are, what Bahá'ís do in them and how many there are, before discussing Houses
of Worship for the year. And in the middle of an article on social and
economic development, there is a paragraph that outlines assembly functions and
explains the election process at all levels of the administrative order
(1992-93 p. 234).

I recommend the editors commit themselves to making The Bahá'í World a
yearbook. This would mean putting all the yearbook-related information
first- House of Justice statements, events, statistics - and all background
information into appendices - explanations of Bahá'í administration and
teachings, quotes from the writings, and information on matters such as
the persecution of the Bahá'ís in Iran. The editors should definitely resist
the urge to put the sacred writings first just because Bahá'ís like it that
way! And they should also resist putting information together just because it
is about the same topic. Information should be grouped according to time
not subject; so, for example, the article on what's currently happening in
Iran would come in the yearbook section, and then the reader can be referred
to the appendices and other publications for further information.

The 1993-94 volume contains a glossary that explains and gives
background on some basic Bahá'í terms such as "Universal House of Justice". Using a
glossary stops the information in the main part of the publication from
being cluttered with background detail. Unfortunately, this has not been
heeded by the various authors of the volume, and the reader is given
unnecessarily repeated explanations such as: "Every five years, a
three-stage process culminates in the election by the Bahá'ís of the
world of the supreme governing council of their community, the Universal House
of Justice" (p. 51); "... immediately following the Seventh International
Bahá'í Convention - the occasion every five years for the election of
the Universal House of Justice..." (p. 60); "Members of the Universal House
of Justice, the international governing body of the worldwide Bahá'í
community..." (p. 79).

Impressing the audience
The publications assume that a non-Bahá'í audience is not interested in
detail. The World Centre's review of the first series of The Bahá'í
World concluded that the series was a "detailed record" that resulted from the
tendency of the writers and editors to provide an "exhaustive treatment"
of community activities. These, it argues, were of intense interest to
Bahá'ís, many of whom were personally involved in the projects, but not to the
general reader (1992-93 pp. 9-10).

The result for the new series is a run of articles that give
uninteresting descriptions of events supported by very little detail. In the 1993-94
volume, the section "Year in Review" is 50 pages long and made up of
separate sections each focusing on a specific event, area of service or
topic. With little to relieve the tedium, most follow a formula: a
description of what happened, where it happened and who was there (those
considered important), with a brief description of what was discussed.
To take one paragraph at random: "Five Bahá'í singers and musicians were
among those who performed for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting
held in Cyprus in October. Alex Zografov directed the musical opening, Vic Salvo
played the piano, and three members of the Zografov family sang in the
choir. The performance moved many of the forty-eight leaders of
Commonwealth Nations so greatly that some of them commented on it in their speeches"
(p. 121). Be honest. Could you cope with that for 50 pages?

The article on the "Conference of Bahá'í Counsellors" tells us that:
"Issues concerning questions about the Faith raised by interested members of the
public and attacks launched by opponents, the role of the Teaching
Centre in encouraging systematic study of the Faith, the production and
dissemination of Bahá'í literature, and the flow of pioneers and travelling teachers
were also discussed" (1993-94 p. 66). No more detail is provided; there is no
attempt to describe, much less analyse, what was discussed, and no
attempt to clarify why the House of Justice considered the event "highly
significant". The reader is left to wonder what could be meant by such
phrases as "attacks launched by opponents".

Besides being uninteresting, I am at a loss to see how this information
is of use to a 'serious scholar'. Beyond the general documenting of events
for the year, the statistics, the obituaries and basic reference material, I
suggest that the most telling aspect of the publications is what they
don't say. Where is the heart and soul of the community? I could find almost
nothing that reflected the community's humanity - people with foibles,
people who make mistakes, people who are passionate.

Contrast this with the more than 100 pages devoted to the persecutions
of the Bahá'ís in Iran in The Bahá'í World 1979-83. Although some of it
would be excluded if the selection was restricted, as suggested, to material
relating to the relevant years, most of what is included is relevant. As
discovered in the review of the old series, the pages reveal a careful
and loving attention to detail, with all sorts of useful material:
photographs of those killed, personal accounts of persecution, reproductions of key
documentation, maps, and exhaustive detail in the text. I cannot
understand why this kind of information "will have a diminished importance in the
eyes of general readers" (1992-93 p. 10). It is precisely this kind of detail
that makes the publication useful and interesting. Although the editors
state that their intention was to retain the positive aspects
characteristic of the old series (1992-93 p. 12), I cannot see any evidence of this;
for example, the obituaries have been reduced from the short biographies of
the earlier series to a few cursory remarks.

There is one important exception. The article by William Collins, "The
Bahá'í Faith in the Eyes of the World: What the Print Media Report About
the Bahá'í Faith" is interesting and informative, being crammed full of
actual examples and detail. It has been put together by someone who knows the
subject well and is able to analyse it and make intelligent comments
about it. He describes the trends in the media's coverage of the Faith,
explains events that sparked changes, and isolates themes that the media has
taken up about the community. The article even mentions, albeit briefly, possible
*challenges* for the Bahá'ís with regard to its relationship with the
media (1992-93 p. 167). Another article in the same volume that held my
interest was "The Case of the Bahá'í Minority in Iran", by Douglas Martin. It was
informative, and written in a style that kept the story moving.

Language and style
The volumes are verbose, with an overuse of passive sentences and
nominal phrases, and have an impersonal, dry PR quality:

"Among these are the aspiration that development activities will
contribute to a rehabilitation of human society and will eliminate extremes of
povertyand wealth, a belief that a desire to serve others is ultimately the
mostoutstanding motivation for participation in development activities, and
the conviction that high standards of morality can and should be
intentionally cultivated by every person." (1992-93 p. 231)

At some difficult points, unsupported generalisations fill the gaps:

"One of the principle [sic] teachings of Bahá'u'lláh is the equality of
the sexes, and throughout its brief history, the Bahá'í community has
achievedan extraordinary record in this area." (1993-94 p. 83)

In some sections, the authors are clearly writing for an external
audience of policy-makers or academics and use language that they think would be
usual in these circles, without themselves mastering or perhaps
understanding it. The results are verbose, giving the appearance of
analysis, without the substance:

"The development activities of the Bahá'í community express a
well-articulated alternative paradigm of development, of interest in its
unusual approaches to the dilemmas of sustainability, of meaningful
project design, and equitable North/South interaction." (1992-93 p. 229)

Other sections are written without any apparent thought for an external
audience; preachy, but preaching only to the converted:

"They [the letters of the House of Justice] show how the supreme elected
institution ordained by Bahá'u'lláh in His writings functions,
protecting the Bahá'í community from persecution and division, applying the Bahá'í
teachings for the current situation, guiding the Bahá'í community in its
course of development, and sharing news of both crisis and victory in
the Bahá'í world." (1993-94 p. 47)

Essays and statements
As mentioned earlier, the publications contain essays and statements. In
keeping with the purpose of The Bahá'í World as a yearbook, I think that
essays should be included only if they are linked to some event that
occurs during the year and needs extended comment. For example, the essay on
The Kitab-i-Aqdas in the 1992-93 issue is justified, given that the release
of that book during the year was a big event for the community. On the
other hand, the essay on The Kitab-i-Aqdas included in the subsequent issue
has nothing to do with the 1993-94 year. Worse, it is 47 pages long and,
along with other essays, placed in the middle of the issue, breaking up the
flow of information for the year.

Apart from this, I see no reason to include essays. The role of The
Bahá'í World is to report what the Bahá'ís are doing in scholarship, not enter
the arena of scholarship itself. It is striking how little space is actually
devoted to Bahá'í scholarship: the 1992-93 volume makes no reference to
it whatsoever, and the 1993-94 volume devotes just three pages to it.

With regard to statements, if a particularly important statement comes
out for the year, there may be reason to include it as an appendix.
Otherwise, I recommend listing the statements for the year - perhaps with summaries -
and providing references or contact details for those wanting copies.

I recommend that the editors of The Bahá'í World focus on producing a
yearbook that describes and analyses in detail the events of the year,
with references to sources where readers can obtain further information. All
background information on the Faith and any statements that must be
included belong in appendices.

The editors should revisit the whole issue of content, bearing in mind
that the 'human' element of our experience is attractive to readers, who will
be looking for glimpses of themselves in the pages - evidence of people on
real spiritual journeys, not reports of administrative meetings and events
involving famous people.

I strongly advise the editors to abandon the impersonal,
self-congratulating language in favour of a personal, straightforward tone and style.