Read her poems and it's clear that Alison Marshall has not been cut off from the faith that is the source of her inspiration. However, this New Zealander's personal devotion was not enough to prevent her from being separated from her religious community, the Baha'i Faith. In March of this year, Alison received the unexpected news that the leaders of her religion feel that she does not "meet the requirements for membership in the Baha'i community."
The Baha'i Faith was founded in 1863 by the Iranian prophet known as Baha'u'llah. His teachings include the essential unity of the world's religions, the individual's responsibility to seek out truth for himself, and the abolition of racial and national prejudices. He left his followers a vast body of writings, only a tiny fraction of which has been translated. With the rise of the Internet, many of his more mystical works have become available to English-speaking Baha'is for the first time, in unofficial translations. These works, especially, have captured Alison's spiritual imagination and some of these translations appear on her website.
Alison Marshall became a Baha'i in 1980, when she was introduced to it by a Maori couple. She settled in her South Island hometown, Dunedin, serving on its Local Spiritual Assembly for several years. In 1994, she began subscribing to the email forum, Talisman, which was started by University of Indiana Professor John Walbridge for the academic discussion of the Baha'i Faith. The Baha'i leadership, accustomed to carefully controlling information concerning their religion, soon became alarmed at the freewheeling discourse on Talisman and cracked down in 1996, threatening prominent posters with being shunned as "covenant-breakers". (This is the Baha'i term of schismatics. The creation of alternative sects is anathema to a religion that sees world unity as its mission.)
Alison, who had until then been quietly learning from the active Talisman posters began speaking out against what she felt was the unjust treatment of her fellow-believers. She also began seeing the teachings of Baha'u'llah in decidedly mystical terms, recognizing the similarity they have with Sufism, or Islamic mysticism. Poems called "ghazals" that Alison has written in the style of the Sufi poet Rumi are available on her website, and have also been published onGene Doty's Ghazal Page
In March 2000, Alison was suddenly expelled from membership in the Baha'i community on the instructions of the Universal House of Justice, the religion's governing body with its seat in Haifa, Israel. The only explanation given her was that her "behavior and attitude" disqualified her for Baha'i membership. However, Marshall was able to obtain an explanatory email message from Haifa to the New Zealand National Spiritual Assembly from acquaintences who were given copies when they inquired about her case.
This message claimed that in spite of "prolonged efforts" to correct her "misconceptions" Marshall's beliefs were "totally in contradiction to the authoritative texts of the Baha'i writings, and that while this in itself would not be a problem, she was disseminating her views to "an international audience". That is, the Baha'i governing body objected to her email messages on Talisman. (Walbridge shut down the original Talisman list in 1996 under pressure from Baha'i officials, but it was almost immediately started up again by ex-Baha'i Professor Juan Cole at the University of Michigan and moved to eGroups in December 1999.
The Universal House of Justice has not specified which of Alison Marshall's "misconceptions" leaves her unfit for Baha'i membership other than the vague statement that she does not understand "the foundations of the Baha'i Administrative Order". From her archived email messages, it is clear that she accepts the authority bestowed on these institutions by Baha'i scripture, but challenges the centrality of administration in Baha'i belief and practice. This over-emphasis on the religion's bureaucratic hierarchy, believed to be a pattern for a future society, is a common source of complaint for Baha'is and ex-Baha'is who are initially attracted by Baha'u'llah's tolerant principles and uplifting writings.
According to Marshall, the House of Justice's claim that "prolonged efforts" were made in her case were incorrect. "I had no idea this was coming," she said. "I had never been contacted by a Baha'i institution about concerns they had over my comments or behavior." In fact, she insisted that the New Zealand Spiritual Assembly correct the false claim that she was counseled before her explusion, which was circulated to local assemblies in her area. When it refused to do so, she filed an offical complaint with the Privacy Commission, where her case is pending.
Because this supreme governing body is popularly believed to be divinely guided in all its decisions, many of Marshall's co-religionists will simply not believe her. However, some New Zealand Baha'is have written to Haifa to protest the disenrollment, resulting in a scolding lecture to the New Zealand community from House member Peter Khan insisting on the need for "obedience" and acceptance of the House's verdict.
In spite of her struggle for justice, Alison's outlook remains serene. "Baha'u'llah was considered a heretic by the religious leaders of his day," she said. "So I think I'm in good company."
To express your concerns over the Alison Marshall case email the Baha'i World Center or the New Zealand National Center.
Author's note: This article was originally published in the online magazine Themestream on 11/26/00, which is now defunct. The article was published 4/12/01 on the online magazine IAMValley.
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