Recently BBC Radio 4′s “Beyond Belief” program hosted by award winning host and producer, Ernie Rea held a surprisingly frank discussion on the Baha’i Faith.This type of program is rather rare but hopefully not for much longer. Usually media mentions of the Baha’i Faith tend to be public relations type story plants which announce an important milestone or event like the recent completion of the multi-year renovation of the Shrine of the Bab.
Most general media audiences are not familiar with the Baha’i Faith making it a low priority for most journalists. Even more esoteric are the relatively new challenges and frictions within the worldwide Baha’i community.
This program features Denis MacEoin, a Babi, Baha’i and Muslim scholar who left the Faith in the 1980′s as a result of the infamous clashes that occurred between academics and various persons within the Baha’i institutions at the time. Although he was half a world away, MacEoin participated in the LA Baha’i Study Class of the mid to late 1970′s. Ernie Rae’s panel also includes Moojan Momen and Lil Osborn, both Baha’is. As well as Fidelma Meehan, a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United Kingdom who recounts how she learned of the Faith in university. The complete audio of the program and transcript is below. I welcome your thoughts and comments.
It make more sense to listen or read the program before reading my reactions. Several important points jumped at me as I listened. First, I’m surprised that someone as knowledgeable as MacEoin would claim that the Bab wasn’t really concerned about the next Manifestation of God. I’m also surprised that MacEoin says that the Bab was the first to lay claim to being the “Mahdi” or Qaim, the 12th Imam or the Hidden Imam. There were in fact 8 previous claimants going back as far as the 8th century and 6 other claimants after the Bab – Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of the Ahmadiyyiha movement being the most famous and successful among this group. Even today there are people making the claiming.
It is also surprising that neither Momen nor MacEoin take this opportunity to raise the issue of Momen’s irredeemable paper “Marginality and Apostasy in the Baha’i Community” which resulted in an unprecedented editorial response from the publication declaring:
This incident clearly points to the absence of a code of research ethics in our ﬁeld. The fact that so many individuals felt a need to protest against what they perceive as misrepresentation illustrates the need to take potential dangers to the in-tegrity of persons more actively in to account in the review process and editorial decisions. Possibly, we need to change our procedure in cases where people are targeted in ways that go beyond the usual forms of scholarly discussion (such as in reviews). The editors of Religion have begun discussing the possibility of dedicating a special issue on research ethics in the study of religion(s).
Religion subsequently published several responses, including one from Denis MacEoin, (as well as Momen’s own rebuttal): Challenging apostasy: Responses to Moojan Momen’s ‘Marginality and Apostasy in the Baha’i Community’
It is unfortunate that the discussion about the “paradox” of the exclusion of women from the House of Justice does not touch on the points raised in such papers as The Service of Women on the Institutions of the Baha’i Faith. Of course I don’t expect Momen, Osborn or Meehan to bring it up but MacEoin doesn’t either.
Momen’s defense of the Baha’i institutions is equally puzzling when he claims: “All of the institutions of the Faith are elected…”. Only one pillar out of two is elected, the other is appointed. Furthermore, in recent years we have seen a phenomena where the appointed bodies have come to have more prominence and clout. And the members of the Universal House of Justice sourced from the very same group of individuals the House of Justice itself appoints! This circular administrative order at the top of the Baha’i leadership is most definitely not “democratic”. Point to MacEoin – if anyone is keeping score.
The claim that the Baha’i Faith envisions the world governed by one world government does not mean that that government would be either Baha’i in nature or a theocracy. For more, see Baha’i Views on Church and State. The treatment of Baha’i publication review is equally superficial with no acknowledgement that the Faith is now engaged with a dynamic global audience that is able to ascertain fact from fiction and to differentiate between a person’s opinion or actions and the official policies of their respective religious authority. Do you think any of the 99% of the Catholics who use contraception need to be coddled about how one individual Bahai’s opinion about a matter may not necessarily match with that of the Universal House of Justice?
Another golden opportunity would have been the paper written by another member of the NSA of the UK, Barney Leith arguing that it is now time to do away with publication review (written in 1995!): Baha’i Review: Should the ‘red flag’ law be repealed?
Of course many other fascinating points of discussion were also ignored. For example, the view of the Baha’i Faith on homosexuality.
Ernie: Hello, members of the Baha’i Faith hold to three cardinal beliefs: the unity of God, the unity of religion and the unity of humankind. Human beings are here to learn to love God and to be of service to others; universal principles. But Baha’is have suffered dreadful persecutions for their beliefs in places like Iran, Egypt and Afghanistan. So who are the Baha’is? what do they believe? and why do they attract such opposition in some Islamic countries? and what challenges does modernity pose to their own principles of equality and tolerance?
Joining me to discuss the Baha’i Faith are Lil Osborn, herself a Baha’i and whose book on the Baha’is in Britain will soon be published. Moojan Momen a Baha’i researcher and writer and Denis MacEoin a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly who used to be a Baha’i but has left the Faith.
Lil, you’ve taught religious studies in schools, when you introduce your students to the Baha’i Faith do you present it as one of the major world religions like Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or do you compare it with what we might call new religious movements like Jehova’s Witnesses or Mormon’s?
Lil: I think I tend to put it somewhere in the middle really. It’s a world religion in so far as it is spread worldwide; whether its major or not at this stage in time is debatable. But it certainly doesn’t conform to the stereotype of new religious movement. It’s too early to conform to Eileen Barker’s definition of a new religious movement.
Moojan: Eileen Barker being a sociologist who has done a lot of work in this.
Ernie: Denis, where do you stand on that? new religious movement or world religion?Denis: New religious movement on the whole – not because it starts in the middle of the 19th century its because it really starts as a world movement in the 20th century so there’ actually chronologically in line with others. It also has none of the definitions of a world religion in the sense that it has very low numbers. Its got fewer members worldwide than the Mormons for example. There is no one country that has Baha’i as its main religion. There is no Baha’i culture. No Baha’i music. No Baha’i literature. It just simply doesn’t have all the features that we associate with a world religion, however else you define that. Even in say comparison with Judaism. Small in numbers 12-14 million perhaps worldwide but vastly rich in history, culture and so on and therefore you can’t really compare Baha’i to something like that.
Ernie: I suppose Moojan it can be said that it is very widespread. Maybe small in numbers but they spread to virtually all corners of the earth.
Moojan: Yes, there are Baha’i communities in virtually every country of the world.
And there has been for several decades now. I think this question of new religious movement or world religion really depends on how you define those two terms. I would agree with Lil that its a new religious movement that’s moving towards being a world religion. It hasn’t got to that stage yet. And I agree with Denis, it hasn’t gotten cultural depth and history behind it because it is only a hundred and sixty years old. But on the other hand it certainly isn’t a sect of another religion. For example, its not a sect of Islam, its not a sect of any other religion. It is gradually evolving for itself the beginnings of a culture in terms of art and music and so forth.
Ernie: You say it is not a sect of another religion but I want to look at history. It emerged out of Islam, it emerged out of Shi’ite Islam in Iran. And it began with a person called the Bab who became convinced that he was the Mahdi – a great religious leader – the twelfth or missing Imam. Just explain a little about the Bab, put it into context for me Moojan.
Moojan: In both Sunni and Shi’ite Islam there is an expectation of the Mahdi. But in Shi’ite Islam, which is the form of Islam that predominates in Iran, this figure of the Mahdi relates to one of the early religious leaders who is said to have gone into occultation and they are expecting his return. The Bab initially put forward a claim of being the representative of this Imam. But then came out and said no he is actually the twelfth Imam, this figure that was being expected, this Imam Mahdi. On the basis of this claim he created quite a stir in Iran. Quite a large number of people from all walks of life, from the royal court circles down to the humble villagers became followers of this figure in a very short space of time.
Ernie: Lil, he appears to an outsider to be a sort of John the Baptist figure. Somebody who prepared the way for the great prophet Baha’u'llah.
Lil: In many ways he does perform that function within this tradition. But he is himself a manifestation of God. So it is slightly a different status from the way that Christians, for example, perceive John the Baptist.
Ernie: But he did say that one would come who…
Ernie: … who God will make manifest, I think was the phrase. Denis, he was executed. Why?
Denis: Because of his claims. On the one hand his claims and because his followers in many areas were armed and getting into conflict with state forces. Therefore Babis were seen as disruptive and dangerous elements to society. That itself has a lot to do with the execution. Beyond that his teachings were eccentric in the extreme. Modern Baha’is would often be quite shocked to learn how very very bizarre some of them were.
Ernie: Give me one illustration.
Denis: He has regulations about how you should eat an egg. Or that a man and a woman can only exchange only, I think its, 19 words between them. He had laws for fighting holy war and for conquering various countries in the neighborhood. He was an unusual character and I don’t think really had the least idea of prophesying the coming of somebody after him. His ideas were frankly a lot more complex than that.
Moojan: I would first of all disagree with the idea that he didn’t prophesy this figure, “He Whom God Shall Make Manifest”. His major book which is called the Bayan, in that book practically every chapter has mentions of this figure, “He Whom God Shall Make Manifest”. He was certainly putting forward to his followers the fact that this person would come. That’s evidenced by the fact that after him quite a few of his followers actually claimed to be this figure before Baha’u'llah made the major claim and attracted most of the Babis to his claim.
Ernie: I want to turn now to this great figure, Baha’u'llah, who is the founder of the Baha’i Faith, tell me a little about him Lil.
Lil: He was a Persian, he lived in the 19th century. He was a follower of the Bab but never actually met him. He declared himself as the one that the Bab had prophesized to come, of course after that huge persecution rained down upon him and he and his family were forced to leave Persia. They traveled across, finally settling in what is modern day Israel.
During his lifetime he revealed huge amounts of scripture, which Baha’is believe to be directly from God, if you like, directly revealed through a manifestation. And these were written down at the time, and the came in both Persian and Arabic, so there is no question of authenticity being at stake over these writings.
Ernie: Denis, I suppose it is hardly surprising there was persecution because here was somebody, a Persian, an Iranian who was actually saying “I’m a prophet after Mohammad” and Islam believes that Mohammad is the last of the prophets.
Denis: Well, yes, he is the first person to do this, to make that claim of being a prophet after Mohammad. That is something that is utterly unacceptable to Muslims. The whole very thought of that; Mohammad is the last prophet, the Koran the final revelation. Therefore for someone to stand up and say “Well, I’m a prophet and here is another revelation” was and is very very shocking and as we know, basically, the punishment for apostasy in Islam is death. And that has therefore sparks off the kind of persecution, the violent persecution, that we have seen somewhat particularly in recent years but certainly beginning at the time of Baha’u'llah as well.
Ernie: I want to turn to the teachings, Moojan. I’ve mentioned one or two of them: the unity of God, the unity of religions, the unity of humankind. Just fill that out a little for me.
Moojan: Well, I think Baha’u'llah’s vision was that we’ve now moved to a new era in the progress or development of humanity which is a global era; that we must start thinking of the world as a whole and we must put aside narrower more parochial concerns and start thinking in terms of what is in the interest of the world. So for example, He says all humanity are the citizens of one country.
He, as it were, brought these teachings which were mainly focused on this idea of unity. Uniting humanity, bringing together, really removing all the causes of separation whether those are religious causes, racism, all of these sorts of different aspects that divide humanity and keep humanity apart, He was trying to remove.
Ernie: And one consequence of that unity to the world is that one day Baha’ullah promised, there would be a world government, Denis.
Denis: Yup, absolutely. There are people who disagree with that but I think that is absolutely true. The reason for this is, again it goes back to Islam. Islam is not just a religion, its religion plus politics; Its an ideology in that sense. Therefore for Baha’is, just to be a religion, again, is not appropriate. They need to bring into being a whole international system so that ultimately the Baha’i Faith is the religion of the entire world and there are no other political systems in power at all. Its an undemocratic system so we have to take it seriously as a threat to open, free, democratic governing that we have, at least, in the West at present.
Moojan: Well, I again, I don’t recognize this at all. All of the institutions of the Faith are elected therefore democracy is at the heart of the Baha’i Faith. And there is no question of Baha’is imposing their system on others.
Ernie: Well, let me remind you that you are listening to “Beyond Belief” and today we are discussing the Baha’i Faith which emerged out of Iran in the 19th century and now claims to be the second most widespread religion in the world. And with me are Lil OSborn, Moojan Momen – both members of the Baha’i Faith – and Denis MacEoin.The Baha’i Faith is a missionary faith and it draws converts from a variety of religious backgrounds. Fidelma Meehan was brought up as a Catholic in Northern Ireland before she was drawn to the Baha’is.
Fidelma: Well, I first heard of the Baha’i Faith when I was at university in Coleraine, the University of Ulster. I was on a course with a person called Omid Djalili who is now very well known as a comedian here in Britain and an actor in Hollywood as well.
Omid introduced me to the idea of the Baha’i Faith, the idea of the oneness of religions and the inclusivity of all the religions. He said it was like seeing religion as chapters of one book and I got very excited about that. So my journey on faith really was a journey of laughter of discovery and really embracing spiritual realities that I guess probably always believed in.
Ernie: But at the time you met Omid you were a Catholic.
Fidelma: At the time when I met Omid and I was still a practicing Catholic I was a questioning Catholic and I was really wanting to find answers to my questions that weren’t always forthcoming within my own faith. And then to have actually Omid recast the whole understanding of what religion is for me was an eye opening moment.
I had never seen religion like this before because initially it was different religions all often fighting or arguing among each other. Now this eye opening moment brought an understanding that all religions could be progressive stages of one faith. And that they all had connections, they were all from one source. That their founders were divine educators such as Moses, Christ, Krishna, Mohammad. So that really made a lot of sense for me.
Ernie: Now you’re a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of Baha’is in the United Kingdom. What’s your role in that body?
Fidelma: Well, there are nine members on that body and we consult about all the issues that are pertaining to the spiritual rejuvenation of the United Kingdom. To how we really get out those beautiful spiritual teachings of Baha’u'llah out to the people of the UK and that they are there to be applied and to put into action.
Ernie: Now you are clearly a person of some standing in the Baha’i movement in the UK and yet you can never be a member of the Universal House of Justice which is the overall body that exercises leadership in the Baha’i movement in the world and you can’t be because you’re a woman. How do you feel about that?
Fidelma: Well absolutely fine about it actually. Baha’u'llah has clearly said that there won’t be women admitted to be elected on the Universal House of Justice. But this doesn’t in any way indicate that men and women are not equal. The wisdom we are told from the Baha’i Writings, the wisdom of this, will be manifest as clearly as the sun at high noon.
Ernie: But not yet.
Fidelma: But not yet. And I think it wouldn’t be correct to deduce from this any implication of inequality between the sexes because the Baha’i principle of the equality of men and women in clearly stated in the teachings.
Ernie: It strikes me though that you’ve left one patriarchal organization, the Catholic Church, for another one, the Baha’i movement.
Fidelma: Well this clearly isn’t the case. I think today there are systems and laws that when we align ourselves to them will bring out the potential of every human being. Most of those laws we can make great sense of today, in this age, others become clear over time.
I think that we are all equal in that we all an opportunity to grow spiritually and contribute to an ever advancing civilization and bring about the kind of community, the kind of world, Baha’u'llah had envisaged in His writings over a hundred years ago.
Ernie: That was Fidelma Meehan, and Denis it strikes me that Fidelma’s clearly an intelligent, powerful woman and yet she got no problem with her exclusion from the Universal House of Justice.
Denis: Well, I can see that. It’s quite common for Baha’is to think that way. It does rather worry me because there’s failure perhaps to say what the House of Justice stands for. The House of Justice isn’t just a sort of governing administrative body; it is in fact the body endowed with the right to make laws. Now most of the Baha’i laws that have been written already by Baha’u'llah can never be changed which is one of the reasons I talk about it being undemocratic if you can’t change the law.
But the only person or body that has the right to add new ones is the Universal House of Justice. And if you stop and think about what that means. The implication that a woman is not fit to be in the body that makes the laws is yet another indication of how lacking it is in genuine democratic spirit.
Lil: I always find it quite strange that people talk about patriarchy and so on and then get worried about leaderships which strikes me as a terribly patriarchal way of looking at things. The Universal House of Justice does exclude women, I don’t know why. I think it is a kind of anomaly, in some level if you look at the roles of men and women as being one about being the same rather than ones about being equal.
Because the Baha’i Faith has got a tremendous track record on working in projects with women in raising the attainment of women in all sorts of projects around the world.
Ernie: But the principal point that Denis is making is that when it comes to being able to make rules that are going to govern the behavior of people, Baha’i people today, women have no part in that body.
Lil: They don’t have part in that body but they have a huge part in the organizations that elect that body and in the teachings committees… women
Ernie: So Baha’is are all equal but some Baha’is are more equal than others?
Lil: No, I don’t think that’s a fair analysis. People don’t go to church on the off chance they might become the Archbishop of Canterbury. Women don’t become Baha’is on the off chance of… anybody become Baha’i on the off chance they might become a member of the House of Justice.
Moojan: I think we should not overlook the vast contribution that the Baha’i community has made towards the equality of men and women. For example, one of the fundamental Baha’i teachings that is in the scripture of the Faith is if you are in a situation where you have children and you can’t afford to educate all of your children you should educate the girl child before educate the boy child. So in that area women actually have superiority over men in that particular field and that’s because…
Ernie: I don’t dispute that for one moment and I’m sure Baha’is have done enormous things to bring about a greater role for women. But in an organization that actually prides itself on its egalitarian principles it seems very strange that a half of the human race should be excluded from its governing body.Moojan: I agree, it’s a paradox. But the paradox doesn’t mean that Baha’is are not treating men and women equally in the community.
Denis: I don’t deny that. I think the Baha’is have done a lot of good for egalitarianism of that particular kind. I think the problem for me is just a little bit wider. And that is, to see how the system works in its entirety you’ve got to understand Baha’is are not allowed to form any kind of parties. They, even at whatever level of the administration…
Ernie: Politial parties, you mean Denis?
Denis: Political or religio-political parties. They are not allowed to have an opposition to any of the institutors. In other words, basically, one common agreement on everything particularly with God and administration. That is why I call it authoritarian. Just having elections doesn’t actually make any movement democratic. But there is no opportunity whatsoever to disagree with decisions, that are made, particularly by the Universal House of Justice.
Moojan: The fact is that we don’t have political parties precisely because we are, as it were, focused on the idea of unity therefore what we do is come together and consult about matters and come, as a community at a local level, to a decision at a local level and then we all support what that decision is – whether we agree to it when it first was being discussed or not, the important point is create unity and to have unity in action. So that you then… If it is the wrong decision it becomes clear all that much more quickly if people are not constantly sniping away at it.
Ernie: Denis, as I understand it, if a Baha’i is writing about their faith in a publication, book or magazine, they must first submit that to their Local Spiritual Assembly for their OK.
Denis: Well, I think it is the National Spiritual Assembly. Most National Assemblies have committees. I used to be in one of these committees myself. A committee which basically approves or disapproves or demands changes in texts.
That principle has continued to the present day and it does mean that people writing quite honest and often academically about the religion, but saying something that is slightly controversial may find that they are forbidden to publish or that they have to remove material. And if people do publish something and Baha’is don’t like it, then they will write refutations and it can sometimes get quite unpleasant.
Ernie: Lil, did you have to submit your book?
Lil: Books are submitted for review by a reviewing office. Its time consuming and I’m not saying that it makes publication easy but you can’t be forced to change things. They can suggest and they can say that they disagree but they’d have to give reasons if they disagree on something factual.
Ernie: Can you remain a Baha’i if you write something they don’t like?
Lil: Yeah. I have.
Moojan: Let’s go back to what the idea of review is. The Baha’i Faith is a young religion. Most of your listeners will not have heard anything about it at all. So if some Baha’i were to write an article that Baha’is believe in, uh, I don’t know, suicide… or…
Lil: Child sacrifice.
Moojan: …child sacrifice, or something outrageous – the fact is, because a Baha’i has said that, people will assume that’s the truth. If some were to say the same thing about Christianity, everyone knows that’s nonsense and dismiss they’d it. If someone says that about the Baha’i Faith people would assume its the truth. The whole point of this review process – which is a temporary thing, it’s not a permanent feature of the Baha’i Faith – is that while the Baha’i Faith is obscure and people don’t know what it actually stands for, people who are writing about the Baha’i Faith who are Baha’is are asked to submit this to the reviewing committee. The point of it is not to censor or anything. It’s just to make sure that what is being written about the Baha’i Faith is, in broad terms, compatible with the broad Baha’i teachings. And that’s the rationale for it.
Denis: I can see the rationale for it but I think Moojan, is perhaps, gliding over problems that have certainly surfaced. I think a lot of American Baha’is who have come under heavy pressure about books they have written. I’m not saying it can lead to expulsion but there are things like having voting rights removed. Not only that, publishing a book without authorization, being defiant of the Baha’i institutions is going to get you into a lot of trouble. So I think its not quite as simple or as benign as Moojan makes it seem to be.
Moojan: First of all, if people flout Baha’i procedures and laws, they don’t get expelled straight away. They get counseled, it gets pointed out to them what the problem is that they’ve produced and so forth. It is only repeated, flagrant, willful breaches of Baha’i procedures and laws that brings about any sanctions.
Ernie: As we bring this program to close I’d like to ask each of you a question: Lil, what must the Baha’i Faith do in the next few years to progress its mission? most important thing it has to do?
Lil: I think it has to break out of its bubble where it tends to be very middle class. Quite often it projects itself… bringing up the stuff about the equality of men and women is an interesting one. The trouble is that they’ve never really distinguished what they mean by “equality of men and women” from say, secular feminism. Those lines need to be drawn because one of the problems is that the Baha’i Faith can come across as a liberal-social-kind-of agenda. When in fact its actually very much more.
The problem is at the moment it attracts people who are looking for something different from what its actually offering. Those people may well find themselves disappointed. I would like to see the Faith actually root itself more in the spiritual and mystical approaches rather than its social and quasi-political ideas because most of those have been won now anyway.
Denis: I don’t think there is a great deal that the Baha’is can do. They will probably go on growing at the extremely slow rate – because it is one of the slowest growing religions in the world. They are trapped by things like the unchangeable laws, by the their administrative order which is not deemed to be man made but divine and can not be changed. As time goes by, the Baha’i Faith is gradually getting more and more out of date and in conflict with progressive ideas in the world at large, at least certainly with the West.
Moojan: Yes, I think what the Baha’i community is doing, as well as developing the spiritual side of the Baha’i Faith and the Baha’i community, it is coming out of its bubble, if you like, in terms of reaching out into the community, becoming more active in the community so as to engage the whole community in the sort of goals towards unity to which Baha’is are striving.
Ernie: Well that’s all for this edition of “Beyond Belief”. My thanks to Lil Osborne, Moojan Momen and Denis MacEoin. I’ll be back next Monday with another edition of “Beyond Belief”.