The Talisman Crackdown

The Baha'i Faith is often described as an open and tolerant religion, classed with New Age groups or Unitarian Universalists because of its teachings concerning the unity of all religions, racial harmony, and world peace. What is little-known even within the Baha'i community is that the elected Baha'i institutions have historically kept strict control of any public information concerning the religion and has been willing to use threats and sanctions to silence members who have unorthodox views.

The Baha'i Faith was founded in 1863 by the Iranian prophet Baha'u'llah (1817-92). While this young religion within the milieu of Shi'ih Islam, it has been in the U.S. since the turn of the century. It has, however, experienced slow growth for most of that time. One exception to this trend was during the late '60s and early '70s when young baby-boomers were engaged in a great deal of spiritual seeking and began joining alternative religions in large numbers. Some of the young people who joined the Baha'i Faith during this period planned their lives in order to be of service to their new-found faith -- studying religion, Middle Eastern history, and learning Arabic and Persian.

When Baha'i scriptures support scholarship, conservative administrators were quite mistrustful of what has been called "the culture of critical discourse" of these young intellectuals. There had been a few clashes between the two, even before the rise of cyberspace. In the late '70s, some of them formed a study group in the Los Angeles area, putting out a small, local newsletter. This newsletter was effectively silenced when the National Spiritual Assembly insisted that it be subject to "prepublication review" -- a requirement for all publications by Baha'i writers when they address Baha'i subjects, even when the material is being sent to non-Baha'i publishers. This review process, which Baha'i officials insist is not censorship, is resented by many Baha'i writers and intellectuals. The effect on the community at large is that before the popularity of the Internet in the '90s, few Baha'is had ever heard anything but "official" views concerning Baha'i issues.

Another attempt at getting unofficial views published in the community was the magazine Dialogue, which was published briefly in the mid-1980s. Although the editors and staff cooperated with the often cumbersome review process, the magazine was viewed with great suspicion by the National Spiritual Assembly. At the 1988 National Convention, when delegates from around the country gathered to elect the next year's Assembly, External Affairs Secretary Firuz Kazemzadeh denounced a particular article slated for publication called A Modest Proposal and described those involved with the magazine as "dissidents". Faced with such hostility, and with their reputation thus ruined in the eyes of the community, the editors stopped publication. Several of those involved in the L.A. study group and Dialogue magazine were later active participants on the Talisman forum.

The nucleus of the email forum called "Talisman" began when two old friends, Professor Juan R.I. Cole of the University of Michigan and Professor John Walbridge of the University of Indiana began an intense email correspondence concerning some aspects of early Baha'i history. (The results of this research can be seen in Cole's book Modernity and the Millennium, available through Amazon.) Both men had been Baha'is for more than twenty years, and had been "pioneers" (Baha'i missionaries) in the Middle East during thier youth. In the early 1990s, these email discussions continued on a small forum called, somewhat whimsically, "Majnun"(this Arabic word means "crazy"). The members of Majnun were all scholars and specialists, and the forum was quite academic.

In 1994, Walbridge started up Talisman, a more open forum on a big listserv at the University of Indiana. While the stated purpose of the list was the academic study of the Baha'i Faith, a great majority of the participants were not specialists or college professors. Old-time members of Talisman describe those early days as a time of excitement and wonder. Because of the pattern of Baha'i missionary work, most Baha'is live in small, scattered communities of less than 30 people. While the Baha'i community prides itself on its ethnic diversity, many Talisman participants had never been exposed to such diverse views on Baha'i teachings. Outspoken feminists found themselves corresponding with old-fashioned Middle Eastern men; legalistic administrators talked to mystics; scriptural literalists went head-to-head with scholars using academic methods.

While Talisman was exciting, it also tended to be contentious, and Baha'is traditionally value "unity" and the harmony of the group. More conservative Baha'is, including those serving on Baha'i institutions, were deeply disturbed by Talisman's rather freewheeling and argumentative atmosphere.

Matters came to a head in late 1995, when David Langness was contacted by the National Spiritual Assembly(NSA)concerning an email he had written to Talisman about the Dialogue episode. He had been the main author of A Modest Proposal and gave vent to the secretive way Baha'i jurisprudence is handled. This post also made the statement that the Universal House of Justice had not approved of the NSAs action in the Dialogue case. The NSA called the statement a lie and insisted that he publicly apologize and retract the statement. (There seems to have been considerable difference between public and private statements on this issue, and I personally believe it to be a matter of confusion rather than dishonesty.)Langness posted a reluctant retraction but it was deemed unsatisfactory by the NSA. He was penalized by the loss of his "administrative rights". This meant that he could not vote, or be elected to a Baha'i institution, or participate in any even that was limited to Baha'is in good standing.

In February 1996, a young member of Majnun (the smaller list continued with its more specialized discussions) was furious at the way the NSA handled the case and suggested that an organized protest be formed along with a written statement of reform proposals for Baha'i administration. Another member of this small circle of friends responded with a humorous message, gentle vetoing the idea as potentially causing more harm than good, and saying that the administration couldn't do anything about the existence of Talisman or the spread of liberal ideas, even though they disliked it. Fatefully, this email was sent to the broader forum, Talisman, instead of to the Majnun list. This message, later dubbed the "Majnun post"was misinterpreted as evidence of a conspiracy and used as an excuse to investigate the prominent posters on the list.

These included John Walbridge and his wife, Linda, Juan Cole, Steven Scholl of White Cloud Press and founding editor of Dialogue magazine, and Anthony Lee of Kalimat Press, an independent Baha'i publisher. Accounts differ concerning the nature and purpose of this investigation. Cole, who had made the most extensive public statements on the crackdown insists that he was threatened with being called a "covenant-breaker" if he did not stop posting his liberal views on email forums. (A covenant-breaker is a heretic who advocates a form of authority other than the Baha'i institutions. The penalty for this is shunning.) Baha'i officials deny that Cole was ever threatened.

The only written evidence of the nature of the threats made against the Talisman posters are two letters by Counselor Stephen Birkland, the Baha'i official asssigned to the investigation, to Scholl and another Talisman participant.Both of these letters end with the warning that "your promulgation of views contrary to the Teachings was damaging to the Cause. If you were to resume in any fashion this course of action, the effect would be to bring you into direct conflict with the Covenant"; that is, they would be regarded as "covenant-breakers". The letters also make it clear that Birkland's instructions came from the supreme governing body of the Baha'i Faith, with its seat in Haifa.

In the aftermath of Birkland's investigation, Linda Walbridge, Steve Scholl and Juan Cole resigned their Baha'i membership. Walbridge shut down the Talisman list, but Cole, the only one of the five to remain significantly active in cyberspace, started the list up again almost immediately at the University of Michigan. In December 1999, the list, now known as talisman9, moved to eGroups, where it still has over 100 members. Other email forums, including the academic list H-Bahai, and the liberal discussion list Zuhur19, can be regarded as direct descendents of Walbridge's Talisman.

While administrators have been powerless to prevent freedom of expression in Baha'i cyberspace (a phenomenon the Universal House of Justice has called "a campaign of "internal opposition"), it has taken membership away from two others who had become prominent on the later Talisman forums: Canadian fantasy writer Michael McKenny in 1997, and Alison Marshall of New Zealand in 2000.

Author's note: This article first appeared in the online magazine Themestream. It was published on IAMValley April 15, 2001.

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