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Enemies Within: Conflict and Control in the Baha'i Community

Author's Note: This article was originally published in Cultic Studies Journal,Volume 18, pp.109-140. CSJ is the academic research publication of American Family Foundation, a professional organization that studies psychological manipulation, cult groups, sects, and new religious movements. This electronic version may not include certain last-minute editorial changes, and is therefore not completely identical to the print-published journal article. -- khb

Abstract: The Baha’i Faith, best-known for its liberal social teachings and tolerance towards other religions, has an authoritarian governing structure that has caused a high level of disillusionment among adherents. Because of the religion’s stress on unity, there is considerable insecurity about the expression of dissent and a fear of internal enemies. Conformity is enforced by sanctions, excommunication, and shunning, and information is controlled through a system of censorship. Although the religion is governed by elected institutions, they are not held accountable to the electorate. Moreover, the supreme governing institution is believed to be infallible. While the spread of the Internet in the 1990s has weakened the administration’s control of information, the Baha’i leadership has threatened and sanctioned liberal intellectuals for the expression of their opinions on email forums.

While other movements that swelled with converts in the 1970s were exposed as cults, using unethical tactics to recruit and control members, the Baha’i Faith has maintained a remarkably positive public image since it was first established in the U.S. in the 1890s. The religion’s publicity campaigns have left the impression, even among detractors, that its beliefs are socially progressive and without a strong doctrinal core, somewhat akin to Unitarian-Universalists. However, Baha’i, like other religions in the Abrahamic tradition, is based on a set of texts that are believed to be divinely revealed. Liberal principles are contained in these scriptures, but so are authoritarian elements. Baha’is, then, can be as fundamentalist as the adherents of any other Western religion.

While these authoritarian elements can perhaps be called “cult-like” it would be wrong to regard the Baha’i Faith entirely as a cult. In any case, the line between “cult” and “non-cult” is far from absolute. Many, perhaps most, religious groups have various requirements that adherents are subject to, and control mechanisms to enforce them. Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth (2000), in a recent Cultic Studies Journal article, described religions as falling on a “continuum” rather than simply on one side or another of a “cult” definition:

At one end stand healthy well functioning groups, in which dissent is respected, people participate in decision making, and members at all times retain a foot in the real world. At the other end we find totalitarian enclaves in which conformity is prized above all else and people are frequently manipulated against their will for the greater good of the cult leader. People and organizations can move back and forth on this continuum depending on events. Organizations are not necessarily either cults or non-cults. They can be both at different times. [1]

So, on the extreme end one could place a destructive cult such as the Branch Davidians, which is clearly quite totalitarian compared with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who in turn more strictly control their members than does the Roman Catholic Church, which has more control mechanisms than the Unitarian-Universalists do. Even within a single religion, the application of disciplinary measures can vary over time and circumstances, and individual experience of pressure and manipulation can differ, with some adherents more vulnerable than others.

The Baha’i Faith clearly lacks many of the features that are usually associated with dangerous cults. It does, however, include some doctrines and practices that put it closer on the “cult-like” end of that continuum than even most conservative religious groups, and that are starkly at variance with its tolerant public image. It does not, for example, have a living, charismatic leader, but it is governed by an elected body that is believed to be endowed with divine guidance and that cannot be challenged. While outright exploitation is rare, Baha’is are encouraged to make considerable voluntary personal sacrifices for the good of their faith. Unlike cults that insulate their members from outside influences, Baha’is do not consider the rest of the world evil, and in fact are encouraged to mix among people of various faiths. However, the existing governmental systems of the world, including Western democracy are considered inferior to the system of Baha’i governance and doomed to eventually go by the wayside. Baha’i institutions also express fears over external threats, especially those that might endanger the religion’s reputation. This is often given as a reason for the careful screening of publicly-available information. More marked, however, and perhaps the most “cult-like” aspect of Baha’i belief and practice is the fear of internal enemies that threaten to disrupt the religion’s unity and undermine its self-definition as the agent of mankind’s salvation.

The Baha’i Faith views the establishment of world unity as its primary mission, and this is believed to be dependent on the Baha’i Faith’s remaining united as a single religion that completely avoids the schisms that other world religions have experienced in their history. This has created anxiety about the articulation of dissent which, in turn, has resulted in severe limits imposed on individual free expression concerning Baha’i beliefs, community affairs, and institutional decisions. Hence, the Baha’i Faith places adherents in a psychological bind by simultaneously upholding liberal ideals, which attract intelligent and creative people, while at the same time exerting pressure towards obedience and conformity. This conformity is enforced by the attitudes of fellow adherents, intimidation by Baha’i officials, and sanctions, including excommunication and shunning, limitation of participation in community affairs, and most recently, simply dropping nonconformists from the membership rolls. At the same time, Baha’i leaders deny that censorship exists or that individual opinions are stifled, describing its position as upholding moderate freedom in this area.[2]

Historical Background

The Baha’i Faith was founded in the nineteenth century by the Iranian nobleman, Mirza Husayn ’Ali Baha’u’llah. He had been part of the millenarian Babi movement, established by the prophet known in the West as the Bab, meaning “gate“. This young merchant from the southern Persian city of Shiraz proclaimed himself the Qa’im, the messianic figure expected by Shi’ih Islam. After a short, dramatic mission of six years, the Bab was executed and thousands of his followers were massacred, driving the movement underground. Baha’u’llah had been beaten, imprisoned, and sent into exile. In 1863, Baha’u’llah declared that he was the Manifestation of God promised by the Bab, and while there are strong theological continuities between the two faiths, the Baha’i Faith is far less militant and radical, promoting ideals of tolerance and peace. The religion was brought to America in the 1890s by a Syrian Christian convert and experienced slow steady growth through most of the twentieth century, with the exception of the “Youth Boom” of the early 70s. Missionary efforts have established Baha’i communities in most countries of the world.

The initial appeal of the religion lies in these progressive social principles: religious tolerance, the elimination of racial prejudice, equality of the sexes, free inquiry, the harmony of reason and religion, and the promotion of world peace.[3] However, for those that actually convert and become members, the impact of the writings of Baha’u’llah is usually the deciding factor. These writings, along with promoting the principles just mentioned, are also rich in spiritual imagery, akin to that found in Sufi literature, which has a strong emotional attraction. It is not uncommon for converts to describe having “mystical experiences” while reading or reciting these scriptures. Baha’u’llah is the central figure for Baha‘i devotion, holding much the same place in a believer‘s affections that Jesus does for Christians.[4]

However, belief in the founder of the Baha’i Faith is held to be inseparable from faith in and obedience to a divinely-ordained administrative system. Key to the understanding of this is the doctrine of the Covenant: In order to prevent his religion from falling into schism after his death, Baha’u’llah appointed his eldest surviving son, ‘Abdu’l-Baha as the leader of the Faith (1892-1921) and authorized interpreter of his writings. This scriptural provision is considered to be a covenant between Baha’u’llah and his followers, who were expected to turn to this appointed center. A younger son disputed ‘Abdu‘l-Baha‘s claim to leadership, causing a family rift which threatened to tear the new faith apart. ‘Abdu’l-Baha excommunicated these family members, called their followers “covenant-breakers,” and ordered that they be shunned. The term “covenant-breaker” has been applied to any opponent of the successive heads of the Baha’i Faith, and the strategy has actually been quite successful at marginalizing and discouraging schismatics and dissidents. While Baha’i splinter groups exist, none has ever seriously threatened the mainstream, and most have withered away over time.

Even dissidents can harbor strong internal inhibitions about creating a breakaway denomination, leaving them no option other than to submit to the expectations of Baha’i authorities or abandon any hope of interacting in a religious community unless they convert to an entirely different religion.[5] In a quite recent phenomenon, alienated Baha’is have found a sense of community on the Internet, which allows them to maintain private belief while either resigning membership or remaining inactive within the Baha’i organization. The Universal House of Justice, in response to this, has called the position of leaving the organization while still claiming to be a believer in Baha’u’llah “self-contradictory,” and it does not recognize such people as Baha’is. [6]

Abdu’l-Baha painted a vivid and fearful picture of the opponents he faced: Covenant-breakers are regarded as spiritually sick and perverse; knowing that they are in error yet persisting out of pride and a quest for power. They are tricky and smooth-talking, and can easily lure the unsuspecting into spiritual darkness. The only way to be spiritually safe is to be “firm in the Covenant,” that is, to obey the central authority and to shun those who have “broken the Covenant.”[7] This image has carried over to later schismatics and dissidents, creating a sense, at least among conservatives, that an adherent’s spiritual well-being can be measured by loyalty to the House of Justice. This attitude is found in letters from the UHJ itself where dissent is termed a “spiritual problem” and association with dissidents is called a “spiritual danger” and “corrosive.”[8]

In a radical departure from its Islamic background and in stark contrast to destructive cults, the Baha’i Faith invokes no censure upon those who give up belief in their religion. It is Baha’is who create or join an alternative to the main organization, or who refuse to stop associating with them, that are condemned as spiritually dangerous. According to Baha’i law, only the UHJ can excommunicate and give the order to shun, but on a popular level, internal dissenters and critical former members can be regarded as covenant-breakers.

Baha’u’llah envisioned his religion as being governed by elected bodies rather than professional clerics, and ‘Abdu’l-Baha further refined this system in his own Will & Testament. In that document, he appointed his eldest grandson Shoghi Effendi Rabbani as Guardian (1921-1957), a hereditary position granted executive power and the authority to interpret scripture.[9] Since this first Guardian had no heirs, there can be no further authorized interpretations and it is largely Shoghi Effendi’s vision of Baha’i teaching that prevails. The majority of the breakaway sects that Baha’is call covenant-breakers in existence today are followers of a claimant to the Guardianship after Shoghi Effendi’s death, Charles Mason Remey, and are split into several groups, each led by a different Remeyite successor. [10]

The administration now consists of both elected and appointed officials. Local affairs are governed by nine-member Local Spiritual Assemblies. Countries are divided up into electoral units, where delegates are elected, which in turn elect the National Spiritual Assemblies (NSA). The members of the world’s NSAs function as delegates every five years for the election of the Universal House of Justice (UHJ) in Haifa, Israel. This supreme governing body is regarded by Baha’is as infallible. While the meaning and scope of this infallibility is a matter of much debate in intellectual circles, the UHJ is popularly perceived as incapable of making any wrong decision.

The ideological spectrum within the Faith that runs from liberal to extreme fundamentalism largely centers around attitudes toward the House of Justice and its infallibility. Liberals point to scriptural limits on its authority, especially the fact that it was intended as a legislative body without license to interpret or impose orthodoxy.[11] Fundamentalists regard it as being completely and unquestionably infallible in all its statements and decisions. Most mainstream Baha’is can be fairly described as conservative in this respect and will generally deny that any ideological differences exist at all. In online discussions, fundamentalists can be provoked into a rage at the mere mention of the terms “liberal” and “conservative“ in connection with Baha’is since this seems to belie the religion‘s unity. Besides being the common position of most mainstream Baha’is, the conservative view also prevails in the administration, so that liberals are at risk of being investigated and/or sanctioned if they become too vocal.

Baha’is often describe their system of elected governing bodies as being more democratic than those prevalent in the wider society, since voters may choose any member in good standing. However, the election practices outlined by Shoghi Effendi prohibit campaigning of any kind, and assembly decisions are presented as unified without recording dissenting votes, so that it is impossible to know which policies any individual candidate supports. With so little information as a basis for decision, a Baha’i votes primarily on reputation and name recognition rather than on any particular issue or agenda. This, of course, gives incumbents a tremendous advantage, and suggestions have been made that current office-holders deliberately control who becomes visible enough within the community to become elected on the national level.[12] The ban on campaigning also inhibits any formation of reform movements from the grassroots. Even though they are elected bodies, Baha’i institutions are not considered to be accountable to the electorate, but only to God.

The appointed officials in Baha’i governance consist of the Continental Board of Counsellors, chosen by the UHJ. They, in turn, choose, Auxiliary Board Members (ABMs), who appoint local Assistants. In theory, none of these are supposed to have any independent authority, but act at the behest of the elected bodies. However, these officials are responsible for the “propagation and protection” of the Faith, and the “protection” aspect includes keeping a watchful eye out for any signs of covenant-breaking. Since the reports they make to the NSA or UHJ are often the basis for decisions to sanction members, they wield considerable power.[13]

Disillusionment with Baha’i Life

The Baha’i Faith in the U.S. claims to have 140,000 members, but it is axiomatic among Baha’is that half of these on the rolls are permanently inactive and have lost contact with the community. The inactivity rate may well be higher; one independent poll estimated the number of Americans identifying themselves as Baha’is to be only 28,000.[14] There has, until now, been a remarkable lack of concern about these many disillusioned. The common attitude towards the complaints raised by former members is that their inability to conform to the expectations and demands of the administration is indicative of spiritual inadequacy. As one House member put it:

In your community you may be aware of the fact that people are drifting away from the Faith. Why? Because they have neglected that sense of heightened spiritual consciousness. They’re becoming bitter, they’re becoming disillusioned, they’re becoming frustrated, they’re giving up on the Baha’i community - not because there is anything wrong with the Baha’i community or the Baha’i Faith, because they have failed in their primary duty as Baha’is to develop this sense of heightened spiritual consciousness. [15]

The House of Justice, however, has recently announced, as one of its goals, that the community begin reaching out to alienated Baha’is, so a change in this attitude is in the air.[16]

There is a real sense, among those Baha’is that experience this disillusionment, of being hoodwinked or betrayed. They believe they are joining a broad-minded and tolerant religion and become actively involved in its promotion, only to run up against authoritarian expectations that they find insupportable. Since individual experience and tolerance towards authority figures vary, it sometimes takes years for that limit to be reached, leaving former members expressing bitterness and loss for the portion of their lives they spent promoting the religion and serving the needs of the administration.

The dynamic of life in the Baha’i community and particularly the central role of administration are often hidden from prospective converts. Non-Baha’is are not allowed at any administrative event, including the main worship service, the Nineteen Day Feast, since this includes time set aside for the discussion of community business. Those who defend the status quo within the Faith expect that once persons have faith in Baha’u’llah, they will quite naturally become “deepened” (i.e., more knowledgeable) in the religion and accept the authority claims of the administration. In a talk on scholarship, Baha’i notable John Hatcher referred to a resignation letter of a prominent Baha’i academic, who renounced belief in Baha’u’llah based on institutional action against Baha‘i intellectuals. Hatcher responds this way:

The individual has wonderful credentials...what's the problem in this reasoning? Answer: it is illogical, because if you accept Baha'u'llah, then "He doeth what He willeth" and His promise is: "I will perplex you". If you judge the infallibility of an institution by its decisions, this is backwards. It presumes that the individual is infallible and can make such a judgment!

The logic _should_ go like this: first establish Baha'u'llah is who He says He is; after that you do not question `Abdu'l-Baha's infallibility. Without the links of the Covenant it all comes crashing down.[17]

Since the administration derives its authority primarily from the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, acceptance of UHJ infallibility is expected to automatically follow belief in his authority. As a practical matter this means that once converts are emotionally attached to the Faith by belief in Baha’u’llah, they can be led to accept less palatable aspects of Baha’i life. Or, if they can’t, they are free to leave. However, there is little awareness of or sympathy for the experience of the convert who believes he has found the enlightened religion he is looking for, only to find one aspect or another intolerable.

Some of these disillusioning aspects are simple and straightforward. For example, some converts do not discover until after they are members that women are excluded from service on the UHJ, in spite of the religion’s clear teaching on the equality of the sexes. This ruling is based upon interpretations made by Shoghi Effendi, and so it is deemed impossible to change. However, since this particular policy does not touch the average Baha’i’s life directly, it is usually accepted without much complaint. (Although the issue has caused controversy on the Internet, and support for a change in this exclusion has been a contributing factor for punitive action.)

A more important factor, however, is the central place administration holds in Baha’i life. It is not considered a mere church, or a convenient arrangement for governing the religion, but an evolving world theocracy that is the ultimate salvation of mankind. The position that Baha’u’llah meant to create a theocratic world state has been questioned by prominent Baha’i scholars, who insist that the founder of the Baha’i Faith supported the separation of church and state[18], an idea that has been condemned by the House of Justice.[19]

The Baha’i Faith’s public position is that it does no proselytizing, but active efforts at bringing in converts are essential to fulfill the theocratic mission. Some Baha’is feel, quite literally, that the problems of the world are on their shoulders, and can only be eliminated by spreading the religion and its institutions. The convert will find himself pressured to participate in “teaching” and discovers that the word “proselytize” has been redefined to mean either conversion by force or door-to-door recruiting. There are, in fact, constant appeals for Baha’is to teach the Faith, and it is considered to be the primary job of spiritual assemblies to create plans for teaching, so a good deal of time and energy is spent on them.

Ironically, though, there are limits to the kinds of individual teaching projects that the Baha’i leadership will tolerate. For example, a Baha’i of my acquaintance put a lot of time and effort into a regional teaching project only to be told “We can’t give you a blank check,” i.e., the project was scrapped because it was not under institutional control. A Baha’i in Albuquerque was ordered to cancel her successful television show promoting the Baha‘i Faith, and was told that her teaching “would have no effect” because she was “not in unity with the assembly”; in other words, she was perceived as being a trouble-maker and too independent.[20] This leaves a talented teacher in a bind: He or she is constantly told to “arise” and convert others to the religion, but will be restrained by the perceived need for institutional direction. Also, serving the religion in this way is no protection against being threatened over the circulation of liberal ideas. Indeed, some of the scholars and intellectuals attracting official disapproval have been overseas missionaries in dangerous and difficult assignments.

Another aspect of this emphasis on spreading the religion is that great importance is attached to forming Local Spiritual Assemblies, regardless of their level of functioning. These bodies are not elected in response to the religion’s growth, but are created in any locality where nine or more Baha’is reside. “Homefront pioneers,” or missionaries, deliberately relocate in order to establish LSAs, even though the move is sometimes a few miles or just over a city limit. Even inactive believers and new converts can be elected to serve, if they are needed to make up the nine necessary to form the assembly. The religion’s stress on the importance of maintaining these fragile assemblies is also a strong incentive for proselytizing. It is not uncommon to see these marginal communities, which make up the majority, collapse entirely if these efforts are not successful. [21]

Once formed, these assemblies are generally left to develop a viable community life without outside support. The NSA has on occasion directly intervened in the working of LSAs, even to the point of dissolving the assembly itself. The criteria for when this intervention occurs seem to be uncertain, and no clear pattern emerges, except where there is concern over “covenant-breakers.”[22] Members can be left at the mercy of dictatorial or even abusive local leaders, with higher levels of administration quite slow to act on complaints. In one extreme case, an ex-Baha’i recounts how as a young man in the 70s he fell under the influence of a leader who had virtually his own cult within the Baha’i structure and who used drugs and punishments, such as locking his disciples in closets in order to control them. By the time the NSA intervened the cult leader had moved out of state. This young follower was subjected to a two-hour interrogation in which he was accused of conspiring with his former mentor.[23] The possibility of tyrannical local leadership also seems to be revealed in a number of allegations that emerged during the course of a lawsuit against the LSA of Albuquerque. According to some reports, the Chairman of the LSA claimed to be “the Voice of God” in his community, and thus was to be obeyed without question. [24]

While this extreme level of high-handedness is unusual, strong-minded and pushy local leaders are not uncommon, and many disgruntled Baha‘is report that they feel powerless to influence local affairs, even though in theory problems are supposed to be solved through community consultation.

The emphasis on building a millenarian future through converting others to the religion and creating local assemblies has caused the Baha’i communities to sacrifice certain qualitative aspects of their collective life. Since most Baha’i communities are quite small, they do not have the resources to offer services that most Americans would take for granted from their churches. Only the largest even have a public building to meet in, with most Baha’i communities meeting in private homes. Pastoral care can be inadequate and amateurish. While the larger communities are fairly well-run, the scheduling of meetings can often be slipshod and irregular in small communities where members are working Baha’i activities around other personal commitments. Baha’is are often exhorted to be patient with these things and told that the administrative order is “embryonic” and that the quality of community life will get better as the Faith grows. In this emphasis on future expectations, rather than serving the needs of the membership, the Baha’i Faith can be fairly compared with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, another strongly missionary group with a high turnover in membership.[25]

Consultation and Baha’i Culture

Because Baha’i scriptures give great importance to consultation as a method of problem-solving, making plans and discussions of community affairs are a regular feature of Baha’i life. In theory, any individual may raise any issue or question at Feast, Convention, or with any Baha’i official or institution. However, once a decision is made, the community is expected to unite behind it, with any individual objections stifled. Backbiting is strongly condemned in Baha’i scripture, and this prohibition is also extended to mean not only individuals, but institutions, so voicing complaints or criticisms is difficult, and may meet with disapproval. Also, some members simply feel intimidated by stronger personalities in the community, and have trouble expressing themselves to a group. Public dissent is not at all tolerated, although the rise of cyberspace in the ‘90s has weakened the administration’s ability to control this. In a revealing talk in 1988, then-Secretary of External Affairs Firuz Kazemzadeh made these remarks:

It also must be stated that, within the Baha’i community, there are individuals, and sometimes they even become groups, who do question the activities of the Baha’i institution. They are welcome to raise those questions in Nineteen Day Feasts. They are welcome to take those questions, objections, wishes, to higher institutions. If somebody is dissatisfied with a local assembly, he is not prevented from appealing to the NSA and actions of the NSA can be appealed to the Universal House of Justice. It is something else when whispering campaigns or petitions are sent around for signatures objecting to the activities of the institutions. That also may be something which is countenanced by American democracy but has nothing to do with the Baha’i Faith. We must always remember that our institutions are an unusual and unique combination of theocracy in the best sense of the term with democracy. The institutions of the Baha’i Faith have not been created by us, the institutions have been created by God. The membership is filled by us. We have the privilege of assigning who is going to be on the institutions, but the institutions themselves are the expression of God’s will, communicated to the world through a divine manifestation.[26]

However, Baha’is who take their concerns through these channels often find that the process is slow and unproductive. It may even brand them as trouble-makers, if such complaints are not expressed in extremely deferential terms. For example, the UHJ’s response to an appeal letter written by the editor of the short-lived independent Baha’i magazine dialogue, then under investigation by the American NSA, said:

. . . you seem to assume that all is due to machinations of certain individuals in positions of responsibility. One can only deduce that you do not register the significance of what you are saying. An example of this is your letter of 26 April 1988. This was not, as you describe it, just a "rather strong letter" "not meant to be offensive or disrespectful". Already in the second paragraph you indirectly accuse the Universal House of Justice of arriving at an erroneous and unjust conclusion by failing to acquaint itself with the facts. . .

The letter as a whole is largely an attack on what you perceive to be the failure and injustices of the National Spiritual Assembly without any indication of an awareness that there may have been faults on your side; indeed, to the contrary, you say "we knew we had done nothing wrong" and characterize yourselves as "Baha'is who are innocent of any wrongdoing".[27]

Also, since the Universal House of Justice is considered to be infallible, Baha’is are expected to accept its decisions. It is fairly common for the House of Justice to give explanations for its policies to individual Baha’is who ask, but public opposition to a decision can be considered a cause for action.

Another aspect of Baha’i culture that inhibits freedom in community consultation is the tendency for the consciousness of the need to “protect” the Faith to create an ethic in which community members report on one another to Baha’i officials and institutions.[28] This may have to do with breaking Baha’i laws concerning personal morality - sexual chastity, abstaining from alcohol etc - but it is also not uncommon for Baha’is to be “turned in” for having unorthodox views. Openly raising questions that reflect the concerns raised in the literature of the various “covenant-breaker” splinter groups will bring a very swift response, and such a curious Baha’i will certainly find himself answering the rather stern questions of an ABM. A Baha’i investigated in this fashion will have no access to the reports made on him, nor is there an organized system of due process.

Based on accounts Baha’is and former Baha’is have given of these investigations, it seems that ABMs vary considerably in their approach: some are threatening to the point of being abusive; other Baha’is, even one later sanctioned, report the meetings as relatively stress-free. In one case, a Baha’i was subjected to an intimidating interview by two ABMs, only to receive an official and personal apology from the higher official, a Counsellor.[29] However, since such meetings are arranged when an individual is suspect, they generally tend to be tense, and some former Baha‘is cite them as the prelude to their resignation of membership.

This monitoring of internal enemies can continue even after an adherent has left the organization:

The need to protect the Faith from the attacks of its enemies may not be generally appreciated by the friends, particularly in places where attacks have been infrequent. However, it is certain that such opposition will increase, become concerted, and eventually universal. The writings clearly foreshadow not only an intensification of the machinations of internal enemies, but a rise in the hostility and opposition of its external enemies, whether religious or secular, as the Cause pursues its onward march towards ultimate victory. Therefore, in the light of the warnings of the Guardian, the Auxiliary Boards for Protection should keep "constantly" a "watchful eye" on those "who are known to be enemies, or to have been put out of the Faith", discreetly investigate their activities, alert intelligently the friends to the opposition inevitably to come, explain how each crisis in God's Faith has always proved to be a blessing in disguise, and prepare them for the "dire contest which is destined to range the Army of Light against the forces of darkness". [30]

Censorship and Restraints on Baha’i Scholarship

Before the rise of cyberspace, the Baha’i administration exercised almost complete control over both the public image of the Faith and information available to adherents.

One reason it has been exempt from outside scrutiny is that it has never captured the attention of the academic world or of the press. The religion has avoided becoming publicly offensive in the way many NRMs have. Nearly all scholars who have published academic work on the Baha’i Faith are either Baha’is or ex-Baha’is, and they have tended to focus on the religion’s early history in the Middle East, or on its sacred literature, so that research on the contemporary community is relatively rare.

The main avenue of information control is that anything written by a Baha’i about the Baha’i Faith, even if submitted to an academic or other non-Baha’i publisher, must pass “prepublication review.” It is claimed that this does not involve censorship, but is in place only to preserve the “dignity and accuracy” of the Faith. Shielding the religion from external enemies is also given as a reason for reviewing public material about the Faith.[31] In theory, the review requirement could be enforced by the loss of administrative rights (voting, holding office, participation in community consultation etc.), but there is no record of such a penalty ever being imposed.[32]

This policy was first set in place during ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s ministry, and both he and Shoghi Effendi described it as “temporary.” It did not cause controversy through most of the century, but the influx of young Baby Boomers in the early 70s created a class of bright, intellectually-inclined Baha’is, some of whom studied fields related to the Faith, such as Middle Eastern History or Religious Studies at top universities. These young intellectuals naturally chafed at the restrictions placed upon written ideas. One Baha’i academic who complained to the UHJ about this policy was told that Baha’i scholars must “accept unreservedly” that this policy is “in accordance with the Divine Will” and to present it as “a species of peer review that they welcome” to skeptical non-Baha’i colleagues.[33]

In answer to those who want to end this restriction, the UHJ also points to predictions by ‘Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi concerning the opposition the religion is expected to face as it grows in numbers and influence:

The Faith is as yet in its infancy. Despite its emergence from obscurity, even now the vast majority of the human race remains ignorant of its existence; moreover, the vast majority of its adherents are relatively new Baha'is. The change implied by this new stage in its evolution is that whereas heretofore this tender plant was protected in its obscurity from the attention of external elements, it has now become exposed. This exposure invites close observation, and that observation will eventually lead to opposition in various quarters. So far from adopting a carefree attitude, the community must be conscious of the necessity to present a correct view of itself and an accurate understanding of its purpose to a largely skeptical public. A greater effort, a greater care must now be exercised to ensure its protection against the malice of the ignorant and the unwisdom of its friends.[34]

The fear of external enemies has also been fed by the Baha’i Faith’s history of persecution in Iran. Concern over the safety of the Baha’is in that country has been cited by defenders of the administration as a reason for being cautious in its public presentations.

Besides the policy of prepublication review, Baha’i scholars have also complained about lack of access to primary materials, the discouragement of and interference with academic projects,[35] and, in one particular case, the deletion of passages from an important primary source prior to publication[36]. While Baha’i scriptures ostensibly support scholarship, and the UHJ itself has made several statements about its importance, it has also has condemned academic methods in current use as “materialistic” and “designed to ignore the truths that make religion what it is”[37] Rank-and-file Baha’is tend to be anti-intellectual, with little understanding or sympathy for the problems academics face within the Baha’i structure. The nature of academic writing is also misunderstood, and Baha’i scholars have attracted criticism for failing to attribute events in Baha’i history to divine intervention, or taking into account contextual influences on the Faith’s central figures. [38]

Another problem for those who study the Faith, but are unable to read Persian or Arabic is that Haifa has been slow in producing English translations of Baha’u’llah’s voluminous writings. Unofficial translations are becoming increasingly available on the Internet, however, and the UHJ has recently announced that more official versions will be forthcoming.[39]

The Youth Influx and Baha’i Intellectuals

The composition of the Baha’i Faith underwent a massive demographic shift during the decade of the 70s. About 13,000 Baha’is were on the rolls in 1969 compared to 75,000 ten years later, with the bulk of the converts being young.[40] Anecdotal evidence suggests that the older generation viewed these newcomers with dismay and some suspicion, since they brought with them a youth culture that was alien and threatening to them. Baby Boom Baha’is remember this time with fondness, however, and some of their drives toward reform stem from disappointment that this energetic expansion could not be maintained.[41]

One of the first aspects of Baha’i life that disillusioned the newcomers was that, although the Baha’i Faith proclaims several social concerns among its principles, any sort of political involvement is completely forbidden to members. This left these young activists no outlet to work towards achieving their ideals in any practical way, other than serving the goals of the administration for the long-term Baha‘i future, One Baby Boom-era convert put it this way:

For Baha'is of my generation, we became believers during the exciting and turbulent Vietnam War years because we saw that Baha'u'llah offers humanity the clearest direction for our inner spiritual growth and our work for saving the planet. Most of my Baha'i friends of my youth have left the Faith. Not because they lost faith in Baha'u'llah or the teachings, but because they were not allowed to express their ideals and activism as Baha'is. And today, over and over again, I hear from friends who are quietly leaving the Faith to pursue their ideals in the peace movement, in the women's movement, in the field of ecology, in music and dance, in religious discipline, because they are not allowed to express their commitment to social change, artistic expression, or a mystical path within a Baha'i context.[42]

The UHJ replied:

It is not unusual for people to be drawn to the Faith because they see in it the fulfilment of the ideals which are dear to their hearts. But, if a soul truly recognizes Baha'u'llah, and his understanding of the teachings deepens, he will gradually see how his own ideals are but facets in the all-embracing Purpose of God, and will be willing to endure all manner of suffering and frustration for the sake of the fulfillment of that divine Purpose. If, however, the believer allows his own ideals and purposes to retain their pre-eminence in his thinking, and he finds he cannot pursue them as he wishes, it may result in his leaving the Faith to pursue them in other ways. This is what would seem to have happened to the friends you speak of.

This Baha’i is then scolded for continuing to pursue his ideals within the Baha’i Faith, but independently of the institutional structure.[43]

A number of young intellectuals found themselves together in the Los Angeles area during the mid-70s. They became a distinct subgroup there in the nation’s largest Baha’i community, separated both by the generation gap from the Faith’s leadership, and from the rest of the community by their training and critical discourse. They began a series of study classes, where no topic was to be off-limits and the discussion would be rational and intellectual. The LA Study Class also began circulating to those who were interested in these discussions but unable to attend a small, local newsletter, consisting mostly of discussions of aspects of Baha’i history and scripture. While the LA study class notes were available by subscription only, they inevitably fell into the hands of those who were disturbed by their content, and turned them in to Baha’i authorities. In April 1979, the Universal House of Justice sent the American National Spiritual Assembly a letter expressing concerns that the study class newsletter “displayed an ignorance of the basic teachings of the Faith,” was in “poor taste,” and contained comments which could cause “severe tests to a believer.” NSA members were sent to talk to the study class participants, complaining about the content while contradictorily asserting that it was not the Assembly’s intent to censor the discussions. For example, it was alleged that the newsletter contained “destructive criticism” and displayed “partisanship.” These charges puzzled class members, who were told that these objectionable aspects of their publication would become “clear upon reflection.” This sort of vague disapproval and the expectation that Baha’is should instinctively know where the lines are and exercise self-censorship would become standard for the Baha’i administration in dealing with public discourse. Eventually, the NSA demanded that the newsletter be subject to review. While there were plans to appeal, the class gradually disbanded and the matter dropped.[44]

In 1985, a few of the remnants of the study class met to launch a more substantial quarterly magazine, called dialogue, which was aimed at Baha’is with social concerns and intellectual interests. There was tension between the editors and the National Spiritual Assembly almost from the outset, including objections over plans to use the subtitle, “A Baha’i Journal of Commentary and Opinion,” since the use of the word “Baha’i” was thought to imply that the magazine reflected official views. The prepublication review requirement caused serious difficulties in the publication schedule, and a dozen articles were censored outright, with several others being allowed to appear only after revisions had been made. In May 1987 the editors were summoned to meet with the National Spiritual Assembly and were accused of “undermining the authority of the NSA.” Even more sympathetic members said the “tone” of the magazine “was not right.” However, dialogue rapidly grew popular, becoming the largest paid subscription Baha’i periodical in North America. Since it had a somewhat liberal bent, this indicates that a fair number of Baha’is are open to this perspective.[45] It is important to note, that not all members of the NSA or UHJ supported the crackdown on the magazine, and the editors have reported receiving private expressions of sympathy from this out-voted minority.[46]

The final crisis was precipitated by the submission of the article A Modest Proposal that outlined reform proposals for the “revitalization of the American Baha’i community.“ Most of these reforms were fairly mild, with the most controversial from the Baha‘i perspective being the abolition of prepublication review and the imposition of term limits on National Assembly members.[47] In response NSA conducted an investigation in which twelve people associated with the magazine were questioned one by one. This so threatened the editors and staff that they wrote frantic appeal letters to the UHJ. NSA member Firuz Kazemzadeh denounced both A Modest Proposal and the dialogue editors on the floor of the 1988 National Convention and read aloud from these letters as proof of their disrespect for the Institutions. This forced the closure of the magazine, since the Baha’i community, with its history of shunning internal enemies, would not support anything run by a group openly named as dissidents by the NSA. Four of the editors were sanctioned, an unprecedented move since none of them had broken any well-established Baha’i law. [48]

By this time, those associated with “the LA group” were clearly perceived by the Baha’i administration as dangerous subversives, with a political agenda. In a letter to one of the editors the UHJ commented:

This incident was merely the latest episode in a history of problems going back some twelve years, originating with the study groups in Los Angeles and its promotion of the wide circulation of the records of its discussions, continuing through some of the publications . . . and being developed through certain of the articles appearing in "dialogue."

It is clear that many different individuals were involved over the years in the study group, . . . . and "dialogue." However, certain believers have been prominently associated with all three and form a connecting link in the minds of many of the friends.

In the Baha'i community methods and mechanisms are provided within the Administrative Order to elicit and make the best use of the ideas and hopes of individual believers in ways that enrich the pattern of Baha'i life without disrupting the community. There may be many occasions on which individual believers are permitted or even encouraged by their Assembly to promote their ideas, but independent attempts by individual Baha'is to canvass support for their views among their fellow believers are destructive of the unity of the Cause. To attempt, in opposition to the institutions of the Faith, to form constituencies for certain proposals and programmes may not necessarily lead to Covenant-breaking, but it is a societal factor for disruption against which the Covenant is designed to protect the Faith. It is the process by which parties are formed and by which a religion is riven into contending sects.

. . .we have highlighted two aspects which lie at the root of the problem: the un-Baha'i marshalling of a group working to bring pressure on the institutions of the Cause, and the intemperate criticism employed. [49]

It is difficult to locate, in either the LA study class notes or dialogue exactly where or how the “criticism” becomes “intemperate” or even how they put “pressure” on the Institutions. There was no campaign in the ordinary political sense, although the dialogue editors were falsely charged with distributing A Modest Proposal to the delegates at the National Convention.[50] They were also accused, because the article was presented as a group effort, with seven co-authors, of “circulating a petition”. [51] The fact that a magazine, which never published a single article that did not pass through the review system, and an unpublished article concerning reform could arouse such a reaction from Baha’i authorities reveals a deep fear over the loss of control of the membership.

Talisman and the Rise of Baha’i Cyberspace

With the exception of these brief experiments in free expression, most Baha’is gain their knowledge of the wider Baha’i world through institutional letters shared at Feast, or the NSA’s newspaper, The American Baha’i, both of which tend to be cheerleading efforts to encourage members to meet the goals of the current teaching plan and to financially support the institutions’ various building projects.[52] With such a history of information control, it is no exaggeration to say that the spread of the Internet in the 1990s had a staggering impact on the quality of Baha’i discourse. However, while the Baha’i institutions cannot control what ideas are expressed on online forums, they have taken punitive action against individuals who are perceived as threatening.

The Talisman email forum was created in 1994 by Professor John Walbridge of the University of Indiana as an academic project. Many participants were delighted at the kind of freewheeling, even contentious, intellectual discussions that took place there and that had hitherto been so rare in Baha’i community life.[53] However, as in the earlier cases mentioned above, more conservative Baha’is were disturbed by the opinions expressed there and turned in e-mails to Baha’i authorities. In late 1995, the NSA contacted David Langness, demanding that he make a retraction for a post he had made in October comparing Baha’i judicial proceedings to “kangaroo courts” and complaining about the secretive way these cases are handled.[54] The primary focus of their concern was his statement that the NSA had initially acted against dialogue without approval from the House. Langness had been one of those sanctioned for his association with dialogue and had been the primary author of A Modest Proposal. The NSA threatened to take away Langness’s voting rights if he did not comply.[55] However, when Langness eventually posted a retraction, it was deemed insufficient, and he was sanctioned anyway.[56]

On a smaller, more specialized forum called Majnun, a Talisman subscriber was outraged at Langness’s treatment and proposed an organized protest. A responding message, somewhat snide and humorous in tone, batted down the idea as unnecessary and unworkable within the Baha’i system.[57] This email, later dubbed simply “the Majnun post,” was accidentally sent to Talisman and was then seized upon as evidence of a conspiracy.[58] This was the catalyst for an investigation of Talisman’s prominent posters in spring 1996.

Six people, including David Langness, were contacted by Counsellor Stephen Birkland and, according to their accounts, were threatened with being named covenant-breakers for their cyberspace activities.[59] All of them were long-time Baha’is of the Baby Boom generation, highly educated and intellectual, who had connections to the LA study group and/or dialogue. Four of the six eventually resigned their membership from the Baha’i Faith.

That these Baha’is were under intense psychological pressure is evident from their stories. One example:

When I received a letter from a Baha'i Cont. Counsellor indicating that I was under threat of being declared a Covenant-breaker, the impact on me personally was less than on my family. My wife is a Baha'i as are many of her family members, . . . The very real threat of being declared a Covenant breaker meant my wife had to face the decision of joining me as a heretic or divorcing me so that she could maintain her relationships with her family and other lifelong friends. Since [my wife] had no intention of divorcing me, the choices then extended out to her family. Her sister would not refuse to socialize with us so she would automatically be declared a covenant breaker along with her husband and children. Many of my close Baha'i friends would also be faced with the decision of maintaining friendships or joining me as a heretic. The whole thing is absurd and quite medieval. But it does raise the issue which you point out so well; how anyone would want to belong to a group which is willing to act this way and be so cruel is beyond me. That is why I voluntarily left the religion. Not in order to escape punishment but because the Baha'i community had become such an unhealthy place spiritually. I was terribly saddened that my spiritual home of 25 years had turned into a prison and nightmare. [60]

David Langness also expressed concerns about the potential effect on his family and reported being more afraid of the prospect of being named a covenant-breaker than he had ever been during his experience as a medic in Vietnam.[61]

If the intent of the Baha’i institutions was to silence dissent, the effort backfired. One of those investigated, Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, became far more vocal and critical after his resignation than he had been before. Freed from the restraints imposed by Baha’i membership, he not only went public with the story of how he had been coerced into renouncing his religion, but also put previously-suppressed documents, such as A Modest Proposal, on the web and wrote articles about the administration’s internal control mechanisms.[62] It is fair to say that, while conservative Baha’is continue to defend the administration’s actions, the crackdown created more online critics than it silenced.

In a letter dated April 7, 1999, the Universal House of Justice describes this as “a campaign of internal opposition to the Teachings.” Specifically, it accuses those involved of trying to impose a political ideology on Baha’i teaching and condemns the “materialistic” scholarship on which this “scheme“ rests. The letter dismisses any complaints concerning human rights violations, since Baha’i membership is voluntary.[63]

Since the Talisman investigation, there have been no further threats to name online dissidents as covenant-breakers. Instead, three such critics have been summarily dropped from the membership rolls, with the explanation that their “behavior and attitude” disqualifies them. The UHJ has further explained to inquirers about these cases that had these people not been expressing their views publicly, their “misconceptions” would have remained their “personal spiritual problem,” but since they decided to disseminate them on the Internet they had to be removed from the rolls for the sake of the Faith’s unity.[64] According to the accounts of those expelled from the Faith this way, the announcements have come without prior warning that their membership status was in jeopardy.[65] The UHJ, however, has claimed that such actions have only been taken after extensive counseling.[66]. In the case of Alison Marshall of New Zealand members of her national community wrote letters of protest, provoking this scolding response from House member Peter Khan:

But the point is that here it is an indication that something is fundamentally wrong with the Baha'i community in this country in terms of its depth of understanding of the covenant and the authority of the institutions of the Faith. What you take as normal is not normal, but abnormal. What is normal is to have in a Baha'i community a number of Baha'is who are very knowledgable about the covenant who can share their insights with others so that the entire community has a good knowledge of the covenant and follows it. And if that is not done, then what I foresee in the future in New Zealand is more of the same - more vitriol, more foulness, more people rebelling against that crowd of kill-joys in Haifa who call themselves the Universal House of Justice and what do they know and this kind of stuff. That is what I see in the future in this country unless there is sharp, urgent and prolonged attention to a far greater deepening and understanding of the covenant. [67]

That is, the New Zealanders’ sense of injustice at their countrywoman’s sudden expulsion is seen as wrong and abnormal, and that loyalty to the supreme governing body entails seeing all of its decisions as right and just. Unlike those excommunicated as covenant-breakers, adherents dropped from membership are not shunned, but are to be treated as any other non-Baha’i.

Outside the world of Baha’i cyberspace, the information available to adherents is still controlled, and these conflicts have garnered little attention from the non-Baha’i media.[68] Newcomers to Baha’i forums online frequently express shock and dismay at the often strident criticisms leveled at the Baha’i administration; others are appalled at the punitive actions taken against their co-religionists in what they had always believed to be a tolerant faith. Those disturbed by the actions of the UHJ can be thrown into a crisis of faith where they either have to adjust their values to find such harsh measures acceptable or abandon belief in Baha’u’llah. A few find the nontraditional path where Baha’u’llah is still the center of their spiritual focus, but infallibility of the UHJ is seen as limited or even nonexistent.

While the Baha’i Faith is not a cult, it does have an authoritarian structure and conformist culture that many of those attracted to the liberal ideals and inspiring writings of Baha’u’llah find intolerably restrictive. It remains to be seen whether the new openness afforded by Internet discourse will push the administration towards the tolerant ideals contained in its scriptures or cause it to retreat ever further into defensive fear.

Notes

[1] Tourish, Dennis and Wohlforth, Tim.(2000). Prophets of the apocalypse: White supremacy and the theology of Christian Identity. Cultic Studies Journal ,17,17.
[2] Universal House of Justice.(1988). Individual rights and freedoms in the world order of Baha’u’llah. Electronic version retrieved January 9, 2002, from Baha’i Academics Resource Library: http://bahai-library.org/published.uhj/irf.html [3] Smith, Peter. (1987). The Babi and Baha’i religions: From messianic Shi’ism to world religion Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p.189.
[4] My observations on this and other aspects of Baha’i culture are based upon thirteen years as an enrolled member of the Baha’i Faith, and extensive online conversations with Baha’is across the ideological spectrum over the past two years. I also run an online support group for alienated and former Baha’is.
[5] For one example of this attitude from a prominent Baha’i dissident, see Cole, Juan R.I. (1999). Personal statement on Baha’u’llah, 3 years on. Retrieved January 9, 2002 from Juan R.I. Cole website: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/bahai/1999/persdec.htm
[6] Universal House of Justice. (2001). April 4 letter to National Spiritual Assemblies.
[7] ‘Abdu’l-Baha. (1971) Will and testament of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’. Wilmette, Ill.: Baha’i Publishing Trust.
[8] Documents related to the expulsion by the Universal House of Justice of Michael McKenny from the Baha’i Faith. (1997) Retrieved January 9, 2002 from Juan R.I. Cole website: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/bahai/1999/mckenny.htm. See UHJ letter dated September 27, 1997 to Catherine Woodgold. Universal House of Justice. (1999) April 7 letter to National Spiritual Assemblies Issues related to the study of the Baha’i Faith. Retrieved January 9, 2002 from Baha’i Academics Resource Library: http://bahai-library.org/compilations/issues.scholarship.html Explanation given by the House of Justice for Alison’s expulsion. (2000) Retrieved January 9, 2002 from Alison Marshall website: http://home.clear.net.nz/pages/alisonz/19-4-00.html
[9] ‘Abdu’l-Baha. Will and Testament p.11.
[10] The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance Baha’i page. Retrieved January 9, 2002 from The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance website: http://www.religioustolerance.org/bahai.htm The OCRT lists six organizations outside the Baha’i World Faith. Some of these are defunct or nearly so. A brief history of Baha’i splinter groups can be found in Momen, Moojan. Covenant. Retrieved January 9, 2002 from Baha’i Academics Resource Library: http://bahai-library.org/encyclopedia/covenant.html
[11] A description of the roles of the Guardianship and House of Justice can be found in Rabbani, Shoghi Effendi. (1974) The dispensation of Baha’u’llah. World order of Baha’u’llah. Wilmette, Ill.: Baha‘i Publishing Trust, pp.143-151.
[12] Cole, Juan R. I.(1998). Baha’i Faith as panopticon 1963-1997. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 37(2), 234-248. Electronic version retrieved January 9, 2002 from Juan R.I. Cole website:http:// www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/bahai/1999/jssr/bhjssr.htm
[13] Concerning the protection duties of these appointed officials, the Universal House of Justice states : “The Board members must remain ever vigilant, monitoring the actions of those who, driven by the promptings of ego, seek to sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of the friends and undermine the Faith. In general, whenever believers become aware of such problems, they should immediately contact whatever institution they feel moved to turn to, whether it be a Counsellor, an Auxiliary Board member, the National Spiritual Assembly or their own Local Assembly. It then becomes the duty of that institution to ensure that the report is fed into the correct channels and that all the other institutions affected are promptly informed. Not infrequently, the responsibility will fall on an Auxiliary Board member, in coordination with the Assembly concerned, to take some form of action in response to the situation. This involvement will include counselling the believer in question; warning him, if necessary, of the consequences of his actions; and bringing to the attention of the Counsellors the gravity of the situation, which may call for their intervention. Naturally, the Board member has to exert every effort to counteract the schemes and arrest the spread of the influence of those few who, despite attempts to guide them, eventually break the Covenant.” Universal House of Justice. (2001) The institution of the counsellors. Retrieved January 9, 2002 from the Baha’i Studies List Archive: http://www.escribe.com/religion/bahaist/m24780.html
[14] Adherents.com Index.(n.d.). Retrieved January 9, 2002 from http://www.adherents.com/Na_41.html This cites Kosmin, B. & S. Lachman.(1993). One nation under God: Religion in contemporary American society. New York: Harmony Books, pp. 15-17. Kosmin and Lachman say on the issue of the Baha’i undercount: “... possible that our methodology [over 100,000 phone surveys] tended to undercount groups that live in communal settings... [This] was suggested to us by the Baha'i..., [which] claims 110,000 adherents nationwide... we found only 28,000 " Baha’is do not live “in communal settings“, however, the phone survey may have failed to take into account Baha’i family members living in the same household.
One reason for the highly inflated membership statistics is that members of the Baha’i Faith are only removed from the rolls if they write a letter of resignation to the National Spiritual Assembly; most former converts drift away without doing so. As Adherents.com reported “As is typical with a religious group made up primarily of converts, Baha'is who drift from active participation in the movement are less likely to retain nominal identification with the religion -- because it was not the religion of their parents or the majority religion of the surrounding culture.”
[15] Khan, Peter. (June 2000). Talk given by Peter Khan at the National Teaching Conference, Auckland, New Zealand, June 2000. Retrieved January 8, 2002 from Juan R.I. Cole website: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/bahai/2001/khannz.html
[16] Five Year Plan, published in The American Baha’i, 20 August 2001.
[17] Hatcher, John (1996)The New Role of the Scholar in Baha’i Society. Presented on 8 August 1996 at Green Acre Baha’i School. Retrieved January 9, 2002 from the Baha’i Academics Resource Library: http://bahai-library.org/conferences/role.scholar.html
[18] The anti-theocracy position can be found in Cole, Juan R.I. (1998). Modernity and the millennium: The genesis of the Baha’i Faith in the nineteenth century middle east . New York: Columbia University Press. See also McGlinn, Sen. Church and State in the World Order of Baha’u’llah. Retrieved January 9, 2002 from Baha’i Academics Resource Library: http://bahai-library.org/unpubl.articles/church.html.
[19] Universal House of Justice.(1999) April 7 letter to National Spiritual Assemblies. Issues related to the study of the Baha’i Faith.
[20] New Mexico lawsuit against Baha’i institutions for fraud and libel. Retrieved January 8, 2002 from Baha’i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience: http://members.fortunecity.com/bahaicensorship/NMLawsuit.htm
[21] As an example of this pattern of small, scattered communities: In my electoral unit in rural Northern California, there were approximately 300 adult Baha’is on the rolls in the late 1980s. These were divided between ten communities large enough to elect LSAs (i.e. having at least nine adults) and nine communities organized as “groups” where there were less than nine members. There were also a great number of “isolated believers” living in localities with no organized community. Of the ten communities that had LSAs, only three had more than fifteen adults, the level at which assemblies are encouraged to incorporate as non-profit agencies. There were no Baha’i communities in the unit with more than fifty adult members on the rolls.
[22] For an example of NSA intervention in local affairs, see Cole, Juan R.I.(2000). Race, Immorality, and Money in the American Baha’i Community: Impeaching the Los Angeles Spiritual Assembly. Religion,30(2), 109-125. Electronic version retrieved January 9, 2002 from Juan R.I. Cole website: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/bahai/2000/dialala2.htm
[23] Rogers, Dennis (2001). My experience as a member of the Baha’i Faith. Retrieved from Bahai Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience: http://www.angelfire.com/mi3/bahai/Ex16.htm
[24] New Mexico lawsuit against Baha’i institutions for fraud and libel. While this lawsuit was dismissed, the complaint paints a vivid portrait of a dysfunctional Baha’i community. The attitude of this chairman, and his claim to be the “Voice of God” was also confirmed by a former Baha’i who lived in that community during the 1980s. See Hazini, Nima (2001) My memories of the Albuquerque Baha’i community. Retrieved January 9, 2002 from talk.religion.bahai archives: http://groups.google.com
[25] Conkin, Paul K.(1997). American originals: Homemade varieties of Christianity. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press pp.157-159.
[26] Talk given by Firuz Kazemzadeh in March 1988 in Los Angeles, quoted in Cole’s Race, Immorality, and Money. [27] Universal House Justice. (1988). June 21 letter to Steven Scholl.
[28] Cole. (1998) The Baha’i Faith as Panopticon.
[29] Culhane, Terry. (1999).My Case - A Letter to My Friends. Retrieved January 9, 2002 from Baha’i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience: http://members.fortunecity.com/bahaicensorship/Culhane.htm
[30] Universal House of Justice. (2001). Institution of the Counsellors.
[31] Universal House of Justice. (1988). Individual Rights and Freedoms in the world order of Baha‘u‘llah. Universal House of Justice. (1982). December 2 Letter to Juan Cole. Retrieved January 8, 2002 from the Baha’i Academics Resource Library: http://bahai-library.org/uhj/salmani.letters.html
[32] Some Baha’i academics have quietly declined to cooperate with review, something which seems to be tacitly tolerated, at least in some cases. However, one who openly announced to the NSA that he was not going to submit his work to review got a stern warning letter back that threatened to take his administrative rights away if he did not.
[33] Universal House of Justice. (1992) December10 letter to an individual Baha’i. Issues related to the Study of the Baha’i Faith.
[34] Universal House of Justice. (1988). Individual rights and freedoms in the world order of Baha’u’llah.
[35] Maneck, Susan (1992) September 21 letter to the Universal House of Justice. Retrieved January 9, 2002 from Susan Maneck’s Site: http://bahaistudies.net/susanmaneck/House_letter_academic_methodologies.html
[36] Universal House of Justice. (1982). December 2 letter to Juan Cole. This letter describes the UHJ’s motivation in ordering the deletion of passages in the published version of the memoirs of a close companion of Baha’u’llah, saying “. . . certain of Salmani’s accounts are misleading and unworthy and, apart from distorting the Faith for the average reader, can provide material for the enemies of the Faith who at the present time are seizing every opportunity to attack the Cause and blacken its reputation.”
[37] Universal House of Justice.(1999). April 7 letter to National Spiritual Assemblies.
[38] Letter of Douglas Martin via the Secretariat of the Baha’i World Center concerning Juan R.I. Cole’s book Modernity and the Millennium. (2000). Retrieved January 9, 2002 from Juan R.I. Cole website: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/1999/modernit.htm This web page contains excerpts from the Baha’i World Center, dated August 3, 2000 to an individual Baha’i, interspersed with Cole’s commentary. For further examples of criticisms of academic examinations of Baha’i history see The New Role of the Scholar in Baha’i Society mentioned above.
[39] Universal House of Justice. (2001). Five Year Plan.
[40] Stockman, Robert.(1995) The American Baha’i Community in the Nineties Electronic version retrieved January 9, 2002 from Baha’i Academics Resource Library: http://bahai-library.org/articles/american.community.html. Originally published in Dr. Timothy Miller (Ed.).(1995). America's Alternative Religions. Albany: SUNY Press.
[41] dialogue editors. (1988) A modest proposal: Nine recommendations for the revitalization of the Baha’i community. Retrieved January 9, 2002 from H-Bahai Discussion Network: http://www2.h-net.msu.edu/~bahai/docs/vol2/modest.htm
[42] Scholl, Steven. (1988). April 3 letter to the Universal House of Justice.
[43] Universal House of Justice. (1988). June 21 letter to Steven Scholl.
[44] Los Angeles Study Class on the Baha’i Faith. Newsletter. (1976-1983). Retrieved January 9, 2000 from H-Bahai Discussion Network: http://www2.h-net.msu.edu/~bahai/docs/vol2/lastudy/laclass.htm
[45] Cole, Juan R.I.(1999) Press Censorship in the Baha’i Faith and the dialogue Affair. Unpublished typescript.
[46] Langness, David. (1996). March 12 letter to the Universal House of Justice.
[47] dialogue editors. (1988.) A Modest Proposal.
[48] Scholl, Steven. (1997) Re: Dialogue thread on SRB. Retrieved January 8, 2002 from Soc. Religion. Bahai. archives: http://www.bcca.org/services/srb/archive/970101-970228/0992.html
[49] Universal House of Justice. (1988). June 21 letter to Steven Scholl.
[50] Scholl. Re: Dialogue thread on SRB. There has been some debate on whether the charge that A Modest Proposal was circulated among the delegates was based on misinformation, or whether it was a deliberate deception.
[51] Universal House of Justice. (1988). June 21 letter to Steven Scholl.
[52] Since Shoghi Effendi’s ministry the Baha’i Faith has put great importance on building shrines and administrative buildings on Mt. Carmel, and in building temples in various parts of the world. The big push in the 1990s was the completion of the administrative buildings and creating terraced gardens around the Shrine of the Bab, which were officially opened on May 22, 2001. Disillusioned and former Baha’is frequently refer with resentment to the continual appeals to support these projects financially.
[53] Partial archives to the Talisman@indiana.edu email forum can be found on Juan R.I. Cole website: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/tarc1196.htm. John Walbridge closed this forum down in May 1996, in the wake of the investigation, but the list was re-established a month later by Juan Cole as Talisman@umich.edu. The list moved to Yahoo! Groups in December 1999. The list’s home page is http://groups.yahoo.com/group/talisman9. Archives are available through subscription only. The archives to Talisman@umich.edu are not yet available online.
[54] Langness, David. (1995) Subject: Publicly Confronting Injustice. October 1 email posting to Talisman@indiana.edu.
[55] National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States. (1995). November 8 letter to David Langness.
[56] Universal House of Justice. (1996).April 10 letter to the Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States.
[57] Majnun Post. (1996). Retrieved January 9, 2002 from Baha’i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience: http://members.fortunecity.com/bahaicensorship/Majnunpost.htm. This misdirected email post was sent to Talisman@indiana.edu on 7 February 1996.
[58] Birkland, Stephen. (1996). Letter of Stephen Birkland to a Baha’i Academic. Retrieved January 9, 2002 from Juan R.I. Cole website: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/bahai/bhcouns.htm
[59] Online defenders of the administration consistently deny that the Talisman posters were threatened. However, two letters by Birkland to Talisman participants are posted on the World Wide Web on the Juan R.I. Cole website: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/bhdocs.htm Both letters contain the warning that the recipients would be “in direct conflict with the Covenant” if they continued with their cyberspace activities. The only public statement by the UHJ alluding to the crackdown said “Early in 1996, the deliberate nature of the plan was revealed in an accidental posting to an Internet list which Baha’i subscribers believed was dedicated to scholarly exploration of the Cause. Some of the people responsible resigned from the Faith when Counsellors pointed out to them the direction their activities were taking. A small number of others continue to promote the campaign within the Baha’i community.” From Universal House of Justice. (1999). April 7 letter to National Spiritual Assemblies.
[60] Scholl, Steven. (2000). April 26 post to talisman9@yahoogroups.com.
[61] Langness, David . (1996). May 17 post to Talisman@indiana.edu
[62] Juan R.I. Cole website, Baha’i Studies page http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/bahai.htm
[63] Universal House of Justice. (1999). April 7 letter to National Spiritual Assemblies.
[64] Documents Related to the Expulsion by the Universal House of Justice of Michael McKenny from the Baha’i Faith. (1997). Explanation given by the House of Justice for Alison’s Expulsion. (2000).
[65] McKenny, Michael. (1999). Re: One area in which liberty is limited in the Baha'i community. Retrieved January 9, 2002 from Baha’i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience: http://members.fortunecity.com/bahaicensorship/Mckenny17.htm Alison Marshall Home Page: http://home.clear.net.nz/pages/alisonz/ Alison Marshall has filed a lawsuit with the New Zealand Privacy Commission against the New Zealand National Spiritual Assembly for its refusal to correct a circulated statement that claims that she was counseled prior to her disenrollment.
[66] Documents Related to the Expulsion by the Universal House of Justice of Michael McKenny from the Baha’i Faith. (1997). Explanation given by the House of Justice for Alison’s Expulsion. (2000).
[67] Khan.(2000). ). Talk given by Peter Khan at the National Teaching Conference, Auckland, New Zealand, June 2000.
[68] Two articles were published in 1997 concerning the Talisman crackdown:
Johnson, K. Paul. (1997).Baha’i leaders vexed by on-line critics. Gnosis. Electronic version retrieved January 8, 2002 from Baha’i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience: http://members.fortunecity.com/bahaicensorship/Gnosis.html
Rifkin, Ira.(1997). Critics chafe at Baha’i conservatism. Religious News Service. Electronic version retrieved January 8, 2002 from Baha’i Academic Resource Library: http://bahai-library.org/newspapers/chafe.htm


Karen Bacquet was an enrolled Baha’i for thirteen years, and resigned her membership upon discovering what had happened to dialogue magazine. An elementary schoolteacher by profession, she has written several online articles about issues in the Baha’i community, which are available on her website at http://www.angelfire.com/ca3/bigquestions/themestream.html. Ms. Bacquet still considers herself a believing Baha’i, practicing her faith privately outside the administrative structure.

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Email: bacquet@tco.net