Rebels Within the Cause?

Although the Baha'i Faith has been part of the American religious scene since the turn of the last century, its numbers have remained small and growth has been slow. The only exception to this pattern has been the late 1960s and early 70s when large numbers of idealistic Baby Boomers became Baha'is. Besides the spiritual seeking that was characteristic of young people during that period, the social ideals promoted by Baha'i teachings resonated with many of their concerns, such as racial harmony, sexual equality, and world peace. Baha'i scriptures, written by the faith's founder, Baha'u'llah, also promote the individual investigation of truth, freedom of expression, and the harmony of religion and reason, making the faith appealing to the intelligent and well-educated. The baby-boom influx created a class of bright young people who went into academic fields such as Middle Eastern history and other studies that were related to this religion with its origins in nineteenth century Iran.

Some of these young, idealistic Baha'is in the Los Angeles area during the late 1970s ran afoul of the Baha'i institutions by forming a study group independent of the religion's administrative structure and circulating a small newsletter that recorded their discussions. The actions taken by Baha'i authorities to review and limit circulation of the LA study class notes can be seen as the beginning of an ongoing conflict with intellectuals within the Baha'i community. Baha'i conservatives often point to the activities of the "LA group" as the origin of a "campaign of internal opposition" that can can be traced from the study class, Dialogue magazine, certain books from independent Baha'i publisher Kalimat Press, to Talisman and other forums created on the Internet in the nineties.

The first newsletter of the LA study class is dated Nov. 9, 1976, and it outlines the goals and guidelines for the classes. From the first, the newsletter was sent to Baha'is who had expressed an interest in the project, but did not attend the meetings. The newsletter reports that "It was noted that in most circumstances(such as ordinary firesides and deepening classes) Baha'is are forced to edit their comments and avoid discussion of certain topics for fear of giving non-Baha'is an unbalanced or unfavorable impression of the Faith or to avoid confusing new believers who may not be well-grounded in the teaching." So a need was felt for an open forum for "knowledgeable Baha'is". The basic ground rules for discussion were (1)No topic was taboo (2)It was considered improper to question another member's faith or commitment (3)Participants were expected to support their views with evidence (4)The discussion would be intellectual.

The meeting consisted of presentations by group members, and occasional guests, followed by focused discussions, then a more open, informal discussion period. This second portion was characterized in one of the newsletters as "The closest thing we have to an exorcism ritual", although some members complained about it degenerating into a gripe session. The impression given here is that the class provided members with an opportunity to voice frustrations that could not be easily expressed in more conventional Baha'i venues.

Presentations and discussions included a variety of topics related to Baha'i history and teachings. However, since the stated purpose of the study group was to discuss things that members were often not free to discuss elsewhere, controversial ideas inevitably came up, including criticisms of Baha'i administration.

In April 1979, the Baha'i Faith's supreme governing body, the Universal House of Justice (UHJ)with its seat in Haifa, Israel sent the American National Spiritual Assembly (NSA) in Wilmette, Illinois a letter expressing concerns that the study class newsletter "displayed an ignorance of the basic teachings of the Faith", "poor taste", and contained comments which could cause "severe tests to a believer." The letter included the request that the NSA send one of its members to talk to the class.

The NSA member chosen as its representative was then-Vice Chairman Firuz Kazemzadeh. In the May 1979 meeting, Kazemzadeh emphasized that the class was a "highly legitimate activity" and outlined that the administration's concerns had to do with language and tone, the "lack of distinction" between discussion of scholarly issues and those concerning policy, the fact that some newsletters "shocked and confused" certain Baha'is. There was also some fear that the class was becoming a forum for "harping on defects" in the administration, and that it was perceived as an "alternative organization".

While Kazemzadeh noted that discussion was appropriate, there was no room for "dissent" in the Baha'i community, since that implied separation from the whole that was contrary to Baha'i practice. Policy issues should be addressed through community consultation and other appropriate channels.

Class members responded that the very purpose of the class was to discuss ideas that were not appropriate to normal Baha'i forums; that the newsletter contained "an element of honesty not apparent in other Baha'i publications" which often presented a bland and rosy picture of the community; that people who have tried to address issues through usual channels have "broken their hearts." Some of the young intellectuals complained of feeling "not welcome" in the Baha'i community, and that it would be impossible to have meaningful discussion if limited only to "inoffensive" topics.

It was also pointed out that the class was not intended to be an alternative to the administration and that many participants actually served within the administration as local assembly members.

Following the meeting, the group's secretary, Anthony Lee, wrote to the NSA thanking them for sending Dr. Kazemzadeh and welcoming any further guidance concerning the newsletter, and reminding them that the opinions expressed there did not necessarily reflect those of the group as a whole.

In a letter dated July 26, 1979, the NSA asked that the class newsletter no longer be circulated, citing the "great tests to which individuals have been put after having received and read its contents". Lee sent a letter of appeal, noting that the class had accepted some of the NSA recommendations and that the newsletter was circulated by subscription only, so that no one had to be exposed to it that didn't wish to be. The appeal also asked for clarification of the charges that the newsletters contained "destructive criticism" and showed evidence of "partisanship."

There was no response until February 1980, when then-Chairman James Nelson came to talk to class members. While no decision had been made about the appeal, it was expected in the meantime that the newsletter would only circulate among those who had attended the classes. (In fact, circulation was suspended for nearly a year.) One of the biggest concerns of the NSA was some comments regarding associations some Persian Baha'is had with the Shah. In the wake of the Iranian Revolution, when Baha'is were in very real danger because of their beliefs, it was felt that the newsletter had given "fodder to the enemies of the Faith." Another, rather vague, worry was that there was no way to predict the newsletter's "effect" on the community.

Concerning the other charges against the newsletter, Nelson claimed that the terms "destructive criticism" and "partisanship" would become "clear upon reflection". This sort of imprecision would become the hallmark of communications from the Baha'i institutions concerning the limits of acceptable discourse. It seems a sort of self-censorship was expected by authorities unwilling to clearly "lay down the law" in Kazemzadeh's phrase, but equally unwilling to allow uncontrolled free expression.

In March 1981, the class received "sketchy" guidelines from Wilmette, and the order that the newsletter be reviewed by a Local Spiritual Assembly. It is usual practice for all Baha'i publications to be reviewed for "dignity and accuracy", usually at the National level, so the NSA was simply including the study class notes in this policy. When the "pitifully shrunken remnant" of the class met in June 1981, it voted to appeal the decision, all the way to Haifa, if necessary.

The National Spiritual Assembly answered the October 1981 appeal in a letter dated May 4, 1982, maintaining its decision to forbid the circulation of the study class notes. Since the letter claimed "our advice has not been followed so far", it seems that the six newsletters published in 1981-82 were circulated without review. While the NSA insists that the decision "has nothing to do with a desire to censor or suppress your discussions" it had several complaints about the content of the newsletters, especially concerning criticisms of Baha'i administration.

There is no record of any further appeals. The last newsletter from the LA study class is dated March 1983. However, the feelings of unease and mistrust that was sown during this conflict would continue and color interactions between Baha'i institutions and liberal intellectuals from this time on.

At the root of the problem lies the administration's insistence that the only appropriate forum for expressing concerns about community functioning is within certain limited arenas: the consultation portion of Feast(the regular worship service/business meeting of the Baha'i community), Unit and National Conventions (which are part of the process for electing the NSA), and in consultation with Baha'i institutions. The Baha'i ideal of consultation aims for consensus and unanimity; while discussion is supposed to be "free and unfettered", the final decision is expected to be supported and implemented by all community members. It is especially expected that Baha'is will show unanimity in public.

So, while in theory Baha'i intellectuals were free to express any concern they chose, they often found that their ideas were met with suspicion, outright hostility, or simple incomprehension on the part of their fellow believers. To be limited only to "appropriate" channels amounted to a kind of silencing, leading to a frustration that was one of the motivations behind the attempts, beginning with the LA study class, to create a place where Baha'i intellectuals could express themselves freely. That every free forum, from the study class newsletter in the 70s to the Talisman newsgroup twenty years later should have become the target of official concern reflects the same sort of fear and hostility that these intellectuals faced on the local level. Conservative critics regard them as people who are promoting ideas "against the teachings" and who may, therefore, legitimately be investigated or sanctioned.

Later official communications to and about liberal intellectuals show an increasingly hard line. In a June 1989 letter to one of the editors of Dialogue magazine, for example, it is clear that an "independent" publication was not considered legitimate and that the voice of the administration was the only one allowable in public Baha'i discourse. This anti-intellectualism has grown to the point where modern academic methods have been characterized by the UHJ in its April 7, 1999 letter as "materialistic" and some scholars once associated with the LA group have been accused of an "attempt to impose an ideology" on the Baha'i community. Many of the LA study group's original participants are no longer members of that community today, having never been able to find a place for themselves in the religion that promised to be the fulfillment of their ideals.

Author's note: This article first appeared in Themestream on February 4, 2001. It was posted on IAMValley April 14,2001, where it was chosen "Editor's Pick".

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