William Garlington. The Bahai Faith in America. Praeger.
2005. c.221p. bibliog. index. ISBN 0-275-98413-3. $39.95.
The American Bahai Mixture
After becoming a Bahai in the 1960s, William Garlington moved to
Australia, where he wrote his dissertation on Bahai mass teaching in
Malwa, India, eventually returning to the United States. For over
twenty-five years, he taught religious studies in Australia and the US.
In the 1980s he withdrew his membership in the Bahai Faith, essentially
he says over doctrinal issues relating to revelation and the
infallibility of Bahai institutions.
Since the majority of available books on the Bahai Faith are written by
members and must be officially “reviewed” and approved by Bahai
institutions, Garlington’s book is important as a rare attempt at an
objective appraisal of the Bahai Faith and its actual history and
practice. Life as it is lived, versus theory. The last few decades have
been crucial years for revealing much that has hitherto been largely
kept hidden from public knowledge. Garlington’s experience as both a
believer and a scholar of religion serves him well in his often
insightful treatment of the major conflicts and disagreements over
More than any other book to date, Garlington reveals the extent to which
people have been harassed and hounded out of the Bahai Faith for the
slightest deviation of thought and belief, even to the extent of having
to spurn their own family, with the roots of such treatment extending
back into the earliest years of Bahai history in the United States.
While he discusses or mentions the incidents surrounding Ruth White,
Ahmad Sohrab, Mrs. Chanler, and Mason Remey, among others, I do believe
he fails to adequately investigate the circumstances of their individual
beliefs and basically repeats the usual official line that dismisses all
of them as heretics or “covenant breakers.” For instance, Lewis Chanler
was the Lieutenant Governor of the State of New York, a fact always
conveniently left out of “reviewed” Bahai publications. Neither he nor
his wife were fringe elements as they are so often portrayed. Ruth White
has routinely been discredited as the later devotee of an Indian guru,
as though nothing more need be said, playing on both Islamic and Western
prejudices, which nevertheless entirely evades answering her charge that
the leading British handwriting expert of the day, Charles Ainsworth
Mitchell, judged Abdu’l-Baha’s will and testament a fraud. Garlington
brings no new material, archival or documentary, to the understanding of
such incidents of excommunication (takfir). Sohrab’s own book
Silence raises many profound issues that neither Garlington nor any
other researcher has made sufficient effort to address or understand.
Other scholars might very well want to start by independently examining
what actually happened in such cases.
Of even more interest to me is Garlington’s discussion of the many
incidents that have developed in connection with the rise of the
Internet during the mid and late ‘90s since I participated in the long
battle to create what is still the only uncensored forum for the
discussion of the Bahai Faith, talk.religion.bahai on Usenet. As with
China, the Bahai Faith found itself confronted for the first time with a
means of communication it couldn’t entirely control and silence. Like
China, the Bahai Faith has developed an apologetical cadre for
monitoring, influencing and controlling discussion on the Internet. Yet
the early atmosphere of the talisman mailing list, as with other online
forums, was euphoric with new found liberty and freedom for Bahais to
speak honestly about the Bahai Faith, setting off paroxysms of outrage
and self-righteous allegations by fundamentalists that others were
“tending toward covenant breaking,” “divisive,” “not Bahai,” and so on.
Much of it, along with other incidents touching on religious freedom,
can still be found documented on the Internet through University of
Michigan Professor Juan Cole’s website, my own, www.FG.com/bahaicensorship,
and the Google archive for talk.religion.bahai.
Another shortcoming in Garlington’s book is that while his Conclusion
acknowledges that “vocal and liberal Bahais” are becoming “an
ever-decreasing minority,” he fails to examine sufficiently why that is,
namely, the extreme and alarming tactics used to drive liberals out of
the Bahai Faith, exemplified in the attacks on Ruth White and Ahmad
Sohrab--the most vicious shunning and slandering techniques used by
perhaps any religion in America today. Official Bahai sources and the
Internet abound with examples. Garlington barely scratches the surface
of the extent to which “hikmat,” so-called wisdom, operates in Bahai
history, as do “taqlid,” blind obedience, and “takfir,” excommunication.
Much more needs to be said in this regard.
The real test of any religious ethic is not the treatment of those who
keep their mouths closed, never thinking or questioning anything (taqlid),
but rather the treatment of those writers and scholars of capacity,
deeply grounded in the intellectual history and traditions of their
culture. The Bahai Faith has so thoroughly failed that test, especially
during the last few decades, that no individual or country should take
its claims at face value without reading and reflecting on such books as
William Garlington’s. It should be noted that the December 2005 Library
Journal review of Garlington’s book, by William P. Collins, a
conservative apologist for Bahai orthodoxy, employs the usual Bahai
tactic of discrediting and slandering any dissident opinion, while
recommending books that have passed “Bahai review,” in reality,
censorship. The reader might want to reflect on the fact that William P.
Collins is a librarian at the Library of Congress, yet readily uses his
position to defend a system of administration regularly attacking the
liberal values that make a library worthy of the name possible and to
discourage acquisition librarians from ordering Garlington’s book.
In his closing paragraph Garlington urges the Bahai leadership to
manifest a higher degree of wisdom, echoing all too much for me the
practices of “hikmat” that resulted, in the Western world, often in the
most cynical manipulation of the “rank and file.” Rather, I would say,
what’s required is a higher level of normal decency, humility, and
respect for the individual’s freedom and liberty of conscience, along
the lines of Isaiah Berlin. It doesn’t take much wisdom to realize what
kind of world the present arrogant and utopian administration would
create. One needs only to look at American Bahai history and the abuse
of now countless individuals and families.
In addition to Garlington’s book, the serious student of Bahai history
should also read Professor Juan Cole’s Modernity and the Millennium, and
Peter Smith’s Babi and Bahai Religions. The few Christian polemical
writers, who have bothered to write anything, can’t hold a match to
those who have been burned by the shunning and slander of Bahai
fundamentalism. Yet all three authors merely touch the surface of too
many incidents that raise serious questions for any American concerned
about preserving religious freedom and liberty. There is a very real
need for fresh research and excavation of any surviving original
material that might throw more light on the major conflicts of American
Bahai history. While Garlington seldom moves very far beyond the
received version of American Bahai history, his book is at least the
first written by a scholar trying to discover essentially what Edward
Gibbon called the “inevitable mixture of error and corruption” that a
religion contracts “in a long residence upon earth,” versus the
predictably self-serving propaganda of the converted. The publisher
Praeger is to be applauded for its commitment to free speech and