In the 1986 statement from the Universal House of Justice (UHJ) called The Promise of World Peace the Baha'i world community and administrative system was held up as a model for study. The Baha'i Faith was supposed to be a shining example of how the vast diversity existing in the human family could live in harmony under a just order. However, in those pre-Internet days, the world, and most of the Baha'i community knew only what the Baha'i institutions chose to reveal, and any person who had a complaint was isolated and unheard. With the rise of the Internet, however, several debates concerning the justice and workability of the Baha'i system have become highly visible.
The Founder of the Baha'i Faith, Baha'u'llah, spoke highly of the democratic process and, in fact, took the rather radical step of ordaining that his religion would be governed by democratically-elected institutions instead of trained clergy. His son and successor, 'Abdu'l-Baha, also upheld freedom of conscience and instructed Western Baha'is to hold elections in the manner customary in their own countries. However, current election and administrative procedures were established by 'Abdu'l-Baha's grandson, Shoghi Effendi, who had concerns about the excesses of Western democracy and left behind a system that, while elected, is not responsive the the needs of the ordinary believer.
Baha'i elections are held to be above politics. No campaigning is allowed, and all adult members of the community in good standing are held to be eligible. It is also not allowable to expose any individual's voting record on an Assembly. In such a situation, where reputation is virtually the only basis on which to make a judgment, incumbents are at a tremendous advantage and are almost never unseated. So, while Baha'i institutions can be thought of as "democratic" inasmuch as they are freely elected, they are decidedly undemocratic in the sense that the voters are denied any information on which to make an intelligent decision. There is no free press since all Baha'i publication must pass "prepublication review" run by the institutions themselves. In fact, these institutions are not considered to be answerable to the voters at all, but accountable only to God. In such a system, an election is little more than a popularity contest.
On the local level, communities are often so small that there is no meaningful choice to be made, and voting is often a matter of simply weeding out the inactive, if the active community is even large enough where that can be done. On occasion, a Baha'i "election" simply consists of a single person writing nine names on a list -- this is considered to be legitimate as long as the election was announced two weeks ahead of time. If only one or two voters show up at election time, then the Local Spiritual Assembly can be elected anyway, provided there are more than nine names on the membership rolls for that locality. The existence of these "paper assemblies" demonstrates just how much importance is attached to the creation of these institutions, whether they are functioning entities or not.
While liberal criticism can be accused, with some justification, of wanting to introduce politics into the Baha'i system, the current system leaves the ordinary believer without any real voice in how his community is run. A Baha'i is free to make suggestions to his assembly at Feast, but his effectiveness there depends upon the forcefulness of his personality.
However, the mildest suggestions at election reform, such as those in the unpublished articleA Modest Proposal cause the conservative Baha'is in control of the institutions to react as if the Baha'i Faith itself were under attack. In fact, the superiority of the Baha'i electoral system, compared to the prevailing political order is often asserted.
Another concern is the complete lack of due process that occurs when a Baha'i is accused of some sort of wrongdoing that could result in community sanction. When it comes to the breach of Baha'i law, matters are usually left to often inexperienced Local Spiritual Assemblies.(LSA) In fact, many times whether or not a particular violation results in a sanction varies enormously upon local circumstances such as: the activity level of the believer in question, the local attitudes towards the violation, whether or not someone is willing to "turn in" the violator, and how well the LSA is functioning. (In my own locality, for example, attitudes are pretty lax, and the barely-functional institutions unwilling to address moral lapses.)
Another more serious occasion for investigation is the type done by the appointed officials for "Protection", usually an Auxiliary Board Member. This occurs when the situation is held to concern "the Covenant", or challenges to the religion's governing hierarchy, typically involving one of the breakaway Baha'i splinter groups. The penalty for being named a "covenant-breaker" by the UHJ is shunning.
While written reports are made during the course of such investigations, the individuals involved do not have access to them, even though they are the basis for serious decisions concerning a person's standing in the community. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Counselors and Auxiliary Board Members sometimes use bullying and threats in order to get the miscreant back "in line." Such accounts are difficult to prove or disprove because the secrecy involved means there is no publicly available record of the investigation. This secrecy is explained as concern for the privacy of the individuals involved, but it is difficult to believe that there is also some concern for the protection of the investigating official. For example, in the course of the Talisman crackdown, Steven Scholl agreed to meet with Counselor Stephen Birkland on the condition that the meeting be tape-recorded; Birkland refused and instead wrote about his concerns in a letter.
The final sort of investigation can result in a Baha'i simply being dropped from the rolls, in effect, declaring the person to be a non-Baha'i. This is not considered by Baha'i institutions to be a sanction, but simply the declaration of a fact that already exists. However, it is difficult to see how the loss of membership in a religious community that one has been part of for many years is not a punishment. In the case of Alison Marshall, she publicly proclaims her belief in Baha'u'llah and allegiance to the Baha'i Faith in spite of her removal from the rolls. The vague statement that the UHJ has made on the matter suggests that the decision to disenroll her was based upon opinions Marshall expressed in email discussions, although that body did not see fit to reveal which of these it thought disturbing enough to deprive her of membership. According to Marshall, she was not even warned that her status was in danger.
According to Baha'i judicial procedure, members do have the right to appeal assembly decisions, all the way up to the Universal House of Justice, if they wish to do so. However, it is difficult to make a case for appeal when evidence is held in secret reports and decisions regarding a person's status are made behind closed doors. The impression one gets is that such appeals are rarely successful.
If the ruling was made by the Universal House of Justice, there is no appeal. On a popular level, the UHJ is thought to be infallible and inspired by God in all its decisions, so that a person who has been wronged will simply not be believed by most co-religionists, no matter what the merits of his case.
Author's note: This article first appeared in Themestream December 24, 2000.
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