The Baha'i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience

From: Juan R. I. Cole <>
To: <>; <>
Subject: Re: Control of media?
Date: Saturday, February 07, 1998 3:43 PM
The true story of Abbas Amanat is as follows.  He was brought up a Baha'i,
in a Kashan family that had traditionally been Jewish but that had converted
to the Baha'i faith in the previous generation.  His brother Husayn designed
the monument at Azadi square in Tehran, and also the seat of the universal
house of justice.  His father is an accomplished historian and is writing a
mult-volume history of the Kashan Baha'i community.  His brother Mehrdad is
also a historian and co-authored the section on Qajar Iran in the
prestigious Cambridge History of Iran.  As a young intellectual at Tehran
University and then later at Oxford, Abbas noticed that there was an
authoritarian and anti-intellectual streak to the Baha'i organization, as
exemplified in bigots such as Furutan (who had played a very sinister role
in the attack on and suppression of Mazandarani's scholarship back in the
1930s and 1940s).  Abbas therefore very wisely decided rather early on that
he wanted nothing to do with the Baha'i organization.  However, he has said
repeatedly and publicly that he is "in love with the Bab."
Abbas wrote his dissertation on the Babi movement at Oxford under the
direction of Albert Hourani and Roger Owen, two of the magisterial
historians of the Middle East in our times.  He then came to the United
States to teach at Yale.  He did not ask to be transferred from the UK to
the US Baha'i community, but some helpful person in Wilmette heard of his
advent and entered him into the US rolls.  Abbas, naturally, declined to
submit his major historical study of the Babis for their approval or
censoring to the motley assemblage of insurance salesmen, electrical
engineers, bit part actors and failed businessmen who staff the upper
echelons of the Baha'i administration.  His book was published by Cornell
University Press in 1989.
The Baha'i Distribution Service, to its credit, felt that Abbas's book would
be of interest to the Baha'is, and therefore contracted with Cornell
University Press to buy 500 copies.  
When the book was distributed to the Baha'is, it generated large numbers of
angry letters from the fundamentalists in the community who have the
impression that they own the religion and can tell people what they may or
may not say.  They were upset that it departs from the details of Nabil's
Narrative (which many have elevated to the status of infallible scripture)
and Shoghi Effendi's God Passes By (ditto).  Moreover, some religious
bureaucrats in Wilmette became uneasy about carrying a book by an author who
was on the rolls but who had declined to have it reviewed.  A dispute
therefore broke out in Wilmette as to whether the Baha'i Distribution
Service should continue to carry the book.
This dispute was ultimately submitted to the universal house of justice,
which in reply declared that Abbas Amanat was not a Baha'i, and therefore
the Baha'i Distribution Service was welcome to distribute his book, as it
would be to distribute the book of any non-Baha'i author.  I have a copy of
this letter, but it is in my file cabinets somewhere and I am not going to
spend time digging it out just to satisfy Susan Maneck, who may believe it
or not as she likes.
In the good old days before the universal house of justice's membership
began being stacked with former counselors (who tend to have an
Inquisitorial mindset, since part of their job is Inquisition), the only way
to be removed from the rolls of Baha'i membership once you were entered on
them was to write a letter explicitly renouncing belief in Baha'u'llah.
Professor Amanat has never done so, although it is no secret that he long
ago dissociated himself from the Baha'i organization and its authoritarian
practices. I find Susan Maneck's speculation about his internal, private,
existential beliefs, based on nothing more than hearsay, to be extremely
rude and the height of slander (since she is bringing up slander).  Has she
ever had so much as a private conversation with Professor Amanat?  I find
her, and her organization's, willingness to expel Baha'is from their own
religion by haughty and arrogant fiat, to be not only offensive but
indicative of a quite dangerous mindset.
In any case, the US Baha'i authorities have slightly more integrity about
these things than do the Canadian ones, since they declined to remove
Professor Amanat from the rolls simply on the say-so of the universal house
of justice.  They have sought from him a clarification of his views, but he
maintains that his views are nobody's business.
However, I will indulge in a little speculation.  I think that if the Baha'i
religious authorities really desire to make themselves so odious that they
succeed in chasing out of the religion all the major Baha'i professors at
major universities, that they will succeed in this.  Apparently the real
purpose of these intellectual pogroms is to ensure that it may be said that
learned persons such as Denis MacEoin, Abbas Amanat and Linda Walbridge are
not Baha'is, but the real Baha'is are ignoramuses who know no Middle Eastern
languages, know nothing serious about Baha'i history, and adhere to a
fundamentalist and intolerant point of view on the Baha'i faith, and who
have managed to get themselves elected to high office (often through the
most shameful campaigning and manipulation).
cheers   Juan