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Letter to Karen from the NSA

In September of 2001, I wrote to the National Spiritual Assembly concerning the circumstances surrounding the Dialogue episode, feeling that since I was writing about it, it was only fair that I, at least, attempt to get their side of the story, even though the official outlook is already available in public statements and in the letters sent to the individuals involved. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t really expect a response. After all, I am known as a critic of the administration, both on the web and in my articles, and they knew that any response to me could easily wind up being made public or be quoted in an article. Another query to a Baha’i Counsellor concerning the Talisman Crackdown went unanswered. In fact, I was told by a defender of the administration that if I did write to the NSA that I should not tell them that the information was for a book or article, and indeed gave me a “sample” query that, if I had used it, would have left the strong impression that I was reconsidering my resignation. I found such an approach dishonest, and preferred to be straightforward about the reasons for my questions. In any case, whatever my disagreements with the NSA, I felt it was gracious of them to reply, and it is only fair to give them credit for that. I also did not feel it wise to attempt to argue with them concerning our differences in perspective. However, I do have some comments to make about their answer.

Here is a draft of my message -- I was unable to locate the original email:

Dear ladies and gentlemen:

I am a freelance writer currently writing a book tracing the conflict between Baha’i liberals and the Baha’i institutions, from the LA study class to Alison Marshall’s expulsion. While there is abundant information available on the web concerning these events, in the interest of fairness, it is important that I get the point of view of the Baha’i officials involved. My interest is in giving as accurate an account as I can.

With that in mind, I have the following questions concerning the public denunciation of the article “A Modest Proposal” and the editors of Dialogue magazine at the National Convention in 1988:

My information is that A Modest Proposal had been submitted for prepublication review, and that the members of the NSA had met with the editors and already made suggestions for alterations in that article. Is that correct? If so, what was the reason for the decision to denounce the article publicly instead of simply refusing to pass it through review?

Were the delegates at the 1988 National Convention ever polled to see how many of them had received a copy of the article A Modest Proposal before voting? What was the origin of the accusation that this article had been distributed?

While criticism of Baha’i institutions was discouraged by Shoghi Effendi, was there any precedent for the sanctions the Dialogue editors received?

I would be grateful for any documentation of these events that the Research Department could provide.


Karen Bacquet

May 24, 2002

Ms. Karen Bacquet

Dear Ms. Bacquet,

The National Spiritual Assembly received your letter of September 22, 2001 raising several questions concerning the publication of "A Modest Proposal," and we have been asked to convey its regret for the inordinate delay of its response and to provide the following reply.

You state that "there is abundant information available on the web" for a book you are writing about the events associated with "A Modest Proposal" but you wish to provide an accurate account of the "conflict between Baha'i liberals and Bahá'í institutions . . .", and, in the interest of fairness, you set forth questions so as to "get the point of view of the Bahá'í officials involved." Since for a period of years the Bahá'í institutions communicated directly and exhaustively with individuals primarily concerned with the matter, the National Assembly does not see that any useful purpose would be served by a fresh attempt to illuminate the issues you have raised through its response to specific questions. Indeed, the tenor of your inquiry suggests the contrary; for there are fundamental Bahá'í principles relevant to your concerns of which you are apparently unaware.

What strikes me here is that if a person such as myself, who has been a Baha’i for nearly seventeen years, is well-read both in the scriptures of the Faith and its authorized interpretations, and participated in the administration during the time I was enrolled is considered to be “unaware” of “fundamental Baha’i principles”, then they must be some sort of mystery hidden from the vast majority of adherents. Indeed, what so distressed me about the Dialogue episode was that the NSA’s actions in this case was that it seemed so opposed to Baha’i principles. Take, for example, just the simple practice of keeping individual cases private, mentioned later in this very letter. Dr. Firuz Kazemzadeh denounced theDialogue editors publicly, and even read from their own private letters to the UHJ at the 1988 Convention. As I understand Shoghi Effendi’s statements on the matter, privacy is meant to protect the honor and reputation of the individual, but it is clearly being used as a protection for the institutions here. In any case, I don’t see why the administrative provisions made by Shoghi Effendi, and which could be seen as temporary legislation and thus alterable, have been exalted to the level of “fundamental Baha’i principles”.

Suffice it to say, however, that the matter was not simply a question of whether or not "A Modest Proposal" passed prepublication review--the question of review was raised only after the statement had already been circulated to Bahá'ís.

I find this statement quite confusing. All of the articles published in Dialogue were submitted to review -- it couldn’t have just come up as a result of this particular article. (To those unfamiliar with the policy, all articles written by Baha'is about their religion are subject to prior vetting by Baha'i institutions, on pain of sanction.) In addition, I’m not entirely certain exactly what they mean by “circulated” here. At the time, the Dialogue editors were accused of circulating A Modest Proposal among the delegates at Convention. This charge is completely false. It never happened. However, it is also possible that the NSA is referring to the fact that the article was presented with seven co-authors -- an act which the UHJ has called “circulating a petition”. I tend to think it is the latter which is being referred to, since this type of “circulation” probably occurred before the article was submitted to review, and makes sense of their statement about review here.

I should add here that circulation of position papers to convention delegates has occurred before. Glenford Mitchell distributed a statement concerning race relations in 1967, with no reprisals.

Rather it was that the manner in which the statement was introduced to the Bahá'ís employed a partisan spirit at variance with Baha'i principles.

This statement, again, is very confusing. This article was examined by two NSA members before it was submitted, and these two apparently viewed it in a positive light. It was never published in Dialogue magazine, or even distributed to the delegates as charged. Only Baha’is who were associated with Dialogue were even aware of this article or its contents. The “manner” A Modest Proposal was “introduced” was that the editors extensively consulted with the NSA about it, and they submitted it to prepublication review, and it’s difficult, even from a conservative standpoint, to see how Baha’i principles were violated here.

The restraint of the National Assembly also derives from a reluctance to give details involving the disclosure of names,

Again, they weren’t too concerned about privacy when the magazine was denounced.

an act that would surely embroil Bahá'í institutions in the very commotion of partisan controversy they have scrupulously striven to avoid, in accordance with the principles of our Faith. Such principles include the consultative approach to the clarification of matters which stands in contrast to the adversarial approach of the wider society, reflected in the desire to create factions given labels such as "liberals" and "fundamentalists" resembling the contending elements in a partisan political setting.

The fact that liberals and conservatives exist within the Baha’i community has nothing to do with the “desire to create factions” -- they are simply existing, definable viewpoints. When I use the terms, it is not is a political sense, but in the sense they can be applied to any religious group. The NSA can, if it wishes deny that these viewpoints exist within the Baha'i community, but that is not the reality.

This is antithetical to the spirit of the Baha'i Faith. Other such principles include adherence to the guidance of `Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi concerning the Bahá'í Administrative Order that provides the methods and channels for the voicing of grievances or disagreements and lead to the resolution of problems;

A Modest Proposal was not a list of grievances; it was a draft article expressing concern about slowing growth of the Baha'i community, and recommendations to address the problem. As for channels, the Dialogue editors worked with the Institutions in several instances in an attempt to address their concerns and reconcile differences.

the assignment to the institutions of the Faith of the duty to preserve the integrity and sanctity of the Bahá'í community from attempts to create division within it;

There is no evidence whatsoever that the Dialogue editors were “attempting to create division” -- this is simply an assumption on their part that Baha’is with more liberal views are the aggressors simply for having liberal views, and expressing them.

and the right of the elected institutions to determine whether any individual satisfies the conditions for membership in the Bahá'í community.

I can’t see the relevance of this statement here, except that I mentioned that I was writing a book that would include telling the story of the disenrollment of Alison Marshall.

The National Spiritual Assembly appreciates your courtesy and hopes that your review of the methods of the Bahá'í administrative system will enable you to obtain a good understanding of the process by which Bahá'ís address situations in which doubts and disagreements arise.

My understanding of the “methods” of the Baha’i administrative system is that if a person is suspected of wrongdoing, a thorough investigation should be done; that a such a person who feels he is wrongly accused has the right to appeal; that due concern for the honor and well-being of the accused should be considered; that he or she has the right to defend himself; that sanctions should be imposed only as a last resort.

The Dialogue editors broke no Baha’i law. It is not against either Baha’i law or principle to publish an independent magazine. In fact, Shoghi Effendi clearly said individuals had the right to do so, calling such an effort "praiseworthy". It is also not against Baha’i law to offer opinions to the community for consideration, since Shoghi Effendi clearly maintained that the individual’s right to free expression was upheld in the teachings. However they felt about the policy of prepublication review, the Dialogue editors cooperated with it, and the article A Modest Proposal was no exception. The initial response, at least of some NSA members was positive. However, conservatives hostile to free expression within the Baha'i community prevailed and launched an investigation where Dialogue editors and staff were questioned one by one. This harrowing experience caused these people to write appeal letters to the UHJ -- appeal letters which were used as evidence against them and publicly read at the 1988 National Convention. After this public denunciation,Dialogue quietly closed up shop, and did not continue to fight the NSA’s hostility. Four editors were sanctioned. The “methods” used here have nothing to do with any Baha’i principle at all, but only the unscriptural “principle” that a Baha’i may never present a challenging idea to the community, (or even *consider* doing so) and that Baha’i institutions may treat believers in as cruel and oppressive a fashion as they like.

With sincere good wishes,

Office of the Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States

From "Principles of Baha'i Administration" concerning the relations of the NSA with the community:

"Theirs is the duty to investigate and acquaint themselves with the considered views, the prevailing sentiments, the personal convictions of those whose welfare it is their solemn obligation to promote. Theirs is the duty to purge once for all their deliberations and the general conduct of their affairs from that air of self-contained aloofness, from the suspicion of secrecy, the stifling atmosphere of dictatorial assertiveness, in short, from every word and deed that might savour of partiality, self-centeredness, and prejudice. Theirs is the duty, while retaining the sacred and exclusive right of final decision in their hands, to invite discussion, provide information, ventilate grievances, welcome advice from even the most humble and insignificant members of the Baha'i family, expose their motives, set forth their plans, justify their actions, revise if necessary their verdict . . . [p.81]

Return to my home page.
The Dialogue Story, from the founding editor, Steve Scholl
A Modest Proposal