CESNUR Paper: Bahai Dissent by Bei Dawei

On the heels of the conference in Canada, Intellectual Othering & the Baha’i Question in Iran, Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) held its international conference in Taipei, Taiwan.

Among the papers presented was “Baha’i and Subud dissent: Developments in the 2000′s” by Bei Dawei. The paper compares and contrasts the recent dissident community developments among the two distinct religious traditions. Since I’m ignorant of the Subud community and theology, I’ll highlight the Baha’i relevant sections:

Baha’i dissent in the 2000′s can be read as a continuation of the “internet wars” of the late 1990′s. At this time, the Baha’i administration either pressured to resign, or actively disenrolled, a number of Baha’i intellectuals associated with the online Talisman discussion list, for disagreeing with the received line on certain controversial issues. These included the faith’s opposition to homosexuality (and the strained scriptural interpretation upon which the policy is based); the exclusion of women from the Universal House of Justice (the same observation applies here); the shunning of “covenant-breakers”; the requirement that any proposed publications on the faith be submitted to regional censorship boards (“Baha’i review”); and an electoral system which favors incumbents. All of these touch on more fundamental issues of infallibility and institutional authority—against which the dissidents invoke the equally core Baha’i values of the independent investigation of truth, the elimination of all kinds of prejudice, the equality of men and women, and interreligious harmony. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex web of alliances and animosities, the rift between reforming liberals (many of them academics) and pro-administration conservatives widened, amidst mutual accusations of betrayal. In 1999 the Universal House of Justice complained of a “campaign of internal opposition to the Teachings,” and warned Baha’is not to hold their faith to the materialistic standards of secular scholarship.

Following are some major developments of the 21st century:

Indiana University (Bloomington) anthropologist and sometime Baha’i dissident Linda Walbridge died in 2002. She and her husband, Middle Eastern Studies professor John Walbridge (also of IUB), had both resigned during the Talisman affair, and largely abandoned the field of Baha’i Studies for other research.

University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole—the most prolific Baha’i academic during the 1990′s, who likewise resigned from the faith during the Talisman affair—turned his attention to other, arguably more important Middle Eastern topics after 9-11. Of his 29 papers in the field of Baha’i Studies, only two were published during the early 2000′s; these took on a frank and even scathing tone, now that he was no longer constrained to submit his work to Baha’i review. Besides Talisman, Cole and John Walbridge were also the organizers of H-Bahai, a now-inactive academic discussion list and online journal, the last of whose Occasional Papers in Shaykhi, Babi, and Baha’i Studies appeared in 2003.

2005 saw the publication of two significant academic works which proved unexpectedly controversial within the faith (though not, apparently, outside it): William Garlington’s The Baha’i Faith in America (Praeger), which pro-administration critics felt devoted excessive attention to Baha’i dissent (as opposed to, say, the fifty-year history of the construction of the House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois); and Sen McGlinn’s Church and State: A Postmodern Political Theology (self-published), which discusses the nature of the future global political order, i.e. whether it is to be a theocracy. McGlinn’s incidental description of himself as a “Baha’i theologian” attracted official rebuke, on the grounds that the faith has no clergy. He has since been disenrolled by the administration, for reasons which were never made public, but which seem likely to involve his published views. (Garlington had resigned during the 1980′s.) Also in 2005, the U.S. National Spiritual Assembly ordered a partial boycott of Kalimat Press (founded in Los Angeles, 1978 by Anthony Lee and Payram Afsharian), an independent publisher of Baha’i books known for its academic works, such as the Studies in the Babi and Baha’i Religions series (eighteen volumes). At issue was Kalimat’s promotion of scholarly books by Cole, Garlington, McGlinn, and Abbas Amanat.

In 2007, Moojan Momen’s article “Marginality and Apostasy in the Baha’i Faith“, for the Elsevier journal Religion (no. 37, pp. 187-209) attempted to analyze—none too charitably—the psychological motivations of seventeen unnamed (but readily identifiable) dissidents. Twelve of these display a “preoccupation with their campaign against the Baha’i community” which, according to the abstract, “brings to mind Max Scheler’s description of the apostate as ‘engaged in a continuous chain of acts of revenge against his own spiritual past’.” Momen’s article inspired a wave of online rebuttals, in addition to the four which appeared in the journal itself. At one point I contemplated writing a paper about the controversy; on reflection, however, I can hardly improve upon the various responses which have already appeared, and which also serve to convey something of the personalities involved. Suffice it to say that—like the old joke about psychologists being crazier than their patients—Momen often seems to resemble the objects of his diagnosis. His description of the apostate worldview as a “dark mirror image” of mainstream Baha’i experience, would be equally applicable to his perception of them. His suspicion of their alliances, slanders, and planned subversions ignores factional behavior on the part of the Baha’i administration, not to mention his own role as cat’s paw. He accuses his apostates of Nietzschean ressentiment, but at no point considers whether their complaints are justified—talk of apostate “narratives” and “mythology” obscures the important question of whether the dissidents have their facts right. By contrast, many of his apostates have been models of fair-minded critique, and have pointedly sought out common ground. Finally, having gone to so much trouble to achieve academic publication, Momen complains that dissident views have found their way into scholarly presses and journals, where they now risk confusing non-expert readers into thinking of the Baha’i religion as a cult. All this calls to mind another psychological term: projection.

Outside of academia, discussion involving dissidents is especially likely to found on Yahoo groups (especially Talisman9, begun in 1999 as a successor to Talisman), Usenet / Google groups (e.g., talk.religion.bahai), and the message boards at Beliefnet.com. During the 2000′s, Baha’i dissidents have created a number of personal blogs and websites; of these, only Sen McGlinn’s (from 2004) compares with those of Cole and the Walbridges in term of academic quality. Karen Bacquet (Karen’s Thoughts, from 2004) and Alison Marshall (Meditations on Baha’u’llah, from 2007) emphasize devotional reflections, though each has posted material more directly critical of the administrative order. (Bacquet has also published two academic journal articles in this vein.) Baha’i Rants (from 2005), by an anonymous writer called “Baquia” (not to be confused with Bacquet), is relatively strident—recent articles have questioned financial statements made by the Canadian National Spiritual Assembly, and the administrative favor accorded to Dr. Hossain Danesh, a Canadian psychiatrist earlier forced to abandon his medical practice due to accusations of sexual misconduct. Blogposts by all these writers regularly feature on Baha’is Online (created by Steve Marshall in 2004), a Baha’i news aggregator which often links to material from dissident sites, or of interest to dissidents. These sites—along with several others run by non-believing ex-Baha’is (e.g. Dan Jensen’s Idol Chatter, Priscilla Gillman’s Baha’i the Way) — can be understood as mutually reinforcing, judging from their mutual links and comments.

Overall, the paper is accurate regarding the Baha’i community. The only criticism I would offer is that it is merely descriptive and fails to add value by providing any significant insight into the trend we’ve seen so far or to project it into the future to venture a hypothesis or prediction.

For those interested, the complete paper can be read here.

Bill Davis Comment On UHJ April 19th Letter

Bill Davis at the US National Convention asking the delegates to bury the NSA’s own letter and instead focus the attention of Baha’is on the UHJ’s letter:

What is this all about?

US NSA Annual Report – Ridvan 2007

House of Justice Letter April 19 2007 – Response To NSA US

Counsellor Rebequa Murphy’s Comment At Convention

bill-davis-nsa
Mr. William E. Davis
Former Chairperson
National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States of America

Those Naughty, Naughty “Baha’i Dissidents”

A few weeks ago, fellow Baha’i blogger J. A. McLean wrote an article titled “Dissidents and the Baha’i Faith”. It attracted a lot of attention, especially from quite of few of those naughty, naughty “dissidents”.

So much so that Jack seems to have changed his mind about the whole thing and decided to call it all off… by erasing his post from his blog.

Before the self-censorship, the blog post was featured on Baha’is Online. And Allison also wrote a commentary on her own blog. As for this humble blogger, for now I’m withholding any comments.

However, the internet and the technologies it contains allows us to punch a few buttons and take a ride in our own time machine (also known as, Google Cache) to retrieve Jack’s original post.

In all its effulgent glory (minus the holy numbered comments), behold:

[START DOCUMENT]

Thursday, August 23, 2007
DISSIDENTS AND THE BAHA’I FAITH

On the Internet today one may find webpages, websites and member lists that contain disgruntled views and/or bitter attacks, usually against the Bah??’? Administrative Order, from a relatively small number of so-called dissident and ex-Bah??’?s. A dissident is not, of course, an ex-Bah??’?, but someone who still claims to be a follower who has serious grievances against the Bah??’? Faith and who continues to militate for their acceptance. A dissident must be distinguished from the individual, who for personal reasons, chooses not to associate with the community, and from the person who, for one reason or another, drifts away from the Faith. Surprisingly, some of these attacks are made even by ?Bah??’?s in good standing.?

In the early 1990’s, I gained first-hand experience of this phenomenon when I was a temporary member of the original Talisman list, hosted by ex-Bah??’?, Dr. Juan Ricardo Cole. I subsequently resigned from Talisman I when Dr. Cole, in his grand design to be the ?gadfly? reformer of the Bah??’? Faith, made direct, frontal attacks on the Universal House of Justice. What is perhaps not so well-known was that by that time Dr. Cole had been remonstrating with the Universal House of Justice more or less steadily for about 20 years.

It is not the purpose of this message to reanimate the specifics of Cole’s case which are well-known to those who once belonged to Talisman I and who are familiar with his articles that attempted to blacken the reputation of the Bah??’? Administrative Order. He has since found new enemies: his blog is largely devoted to attacking the foreign policy of the United States government. However, I would like to make some general comments about dissidents and ex-Bah??’?s, whether it be Juan Cole, Francesco Ficicchia in German-speaking Europe in the 1980’s and ?90’s, and/or the like-minded Internet club of present or past hostile critics.

The behaviour of these individuals, if one wants to step back and observe it, reveals a negative dynamic or pattern of behaviour that continues to be dismally instructive. I am submitting the following observations, consequently, not to revive some old grudges, nor to perpetuate present ones, but because I seriously doubt that the Bah??’? community has seen the end of the complaints of the constantly disgruntled, the doctrinally innovative and the permanently embittered. While space is lacking here to set out fully the entire dynamic of this pattern, I would like to comment briefly on the climate of sympathy that seems to be created, at least momentarily, for the grievances of these individuals.

Allow me to preface these observations with this comment: I do not doubt for a moment that these persons have been hurt or that some have been betrayed by a fellow believer or that some decision by an administrative body has not gone their way. Most Bah??’?s, if they live long enough, will experience betrayal, or be subject to an administrative decision that has not been in their favour. The latter phrase applies sometimes to members of these very same institutions. These experiences contribute to our awakening to the stark realities of the human condition.

One of the keys to the sympathetic ear temporarily lent to the disgruntled has to do with the way that organized religion is generally perceived in contemporary society. In modernity, religion and spirituality have gone their separate ways. Individuals may willingly affirm their theism or spirituality but many disavow being official members of an ?organized religion.? Of course, the whole notion of being against organized religion per se is a strange one, when one thinks about it. People, generally, do not object to organized government, to an organized judiciary, to organized political parties, to organized education, to organized medicine, clubs, associations and societies. But except for official members, the religious ?organization? in a secular age has become definitely suspect.

And for good reason. This climate of suspicion has been created by a long history of the violent repression of doctrinal minorities, and other past or present moral travesties. Uninformed observers, consequently, tend to be predisposed to accept the viewpoint of the dissident without further reflection or investigation. If she has dissented from a religious institution, ergo, the charges must be true and she must be a victim: at least, that is the hasty conclusion. This predisposition was clearly at work for a time in Juan Cole’s case, just as it was for another ex-Bah??’?, Francesco Ficicchia.

What the dissidents fail to realize, and do not accept, is that the Bah??’? Faith, while it allows for a fair and reasonable largesse of individual interpretation, has nonetheless its own doctrinal boundaries and ethical norms. But in the final analysis, these doctrinal boundaries and ethical norms are simply not accepted by these individuals who, driven by frustration at the non-acceptance of the perceived moral rightness of their cause, ego-mania, hyper-individualism and the principles of ?liberal democracy,? engage in corrosive attacks which by definition are beyond the ethical norms and the principles of consultation which Bah??’u’ll??h has mandated to replace acrimonious and divisive debate.

The founders of the Bah??’? Faith have repeatedly warned their followers—some individuals even balk at the very notion of a warning–of the grave moral and spiritual consequences that accompany such hostile, confrontational approaches. But these individuals, unless they disaffiliate themselves from the religion to which they belong, and although they have knowingly accepted these doctrinal boundaries and ethical norms, imagine that these standards do not apply to them. They clearly view themselves as belonging to a different category. Dissidents believe somehow that they are fully within their rights to violate these norms with impunity.

Yet, just like the perpetrators who claim to be victims, they act shocked and surprised, and charge betrayal and harassment, when the government of their religion finally asks them to withdraw or takes measures to remove them permanently from the membership list. This removal, I should add, usually takes place after a lengthy and patient hearing and exchange of views, counselling and, final warnings. This careful process, however, has sometimes resulted in charges of fascism and religious fundamentalism being levelled against the institutions of the Bah??’? Faith. Of course, neither Bah??’? doctrine nor covenants gives any one a licence to radically alter Bah??’? belief or ethical practice to the point of making it unrecognizable to the community itself and to the institutions of the Bah??’? Faith. But for these individuals, this seems to be quite beside the point.

As sequitur to this last sentence: the point of this message is not, as might be supposed, simple justification, the basic preoccupation of theology, of administrative sanctions taken against these individuals. Methodologically, the confrontational, heavy-handed approach is also unsound. It is both strange and ironic when this defective, ineffective tool originates with the learned. Phenomenologist of religion, William Brede Kristensen, the Norwegian-Dutch scholar (1867-1953), in his instructive essay ?What is Phenomenology?? was perhaps the first to make the point that serious students and scholars of religion must identify with the faith of others to the extent that they ?must therefore be able to forget themselves, to be able to surrender themselves to others? (p. 49). The respected comparative religionists, Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Huston Smith have since made the same point both in their writings and in their lives by profound study and congenial practice with followers of faiths outside the Christian tradition.

Kristensen is promoting here, not some objective and detached study of a particular religion—let alone an inflammatory one–but rather a process of initiation into the sympathetic understanding of ?the faith of other men,? as the title of Cantwell Smith’s 1962 comparative study of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Chinese philosophy, Christians and Jews put it. Smith’s innovative little book aimed to elucidate, not only the beliefs of these world religions, but also and especially, how these religions formed the personal values of the men and women who practiced them, and how their personal beliefs motivated their lives. In other words, Cantwell Smith recommended that the observer be willing to be taught by the participants of the tradition he or she was investigating, and to assume their point of view, without necessarily adopting their faith. In the academic study of religion, then, the testimony of believers is consequently the starting point and the meeting place of authentic understanding and must necessarily carry great weight.

Some may think that this argument is irrelevant and has no bearing on the present case; these individuals are, after all, already Bah??’?s, and are no longer studying the faith to which they belong. But Kristensen’s views are pertinent to this discussion. The point is that with Cole, Ficicchia, and present-day dissenters, the testimony, sacred writings, history and ethical norms of believers were either ignored or distorted to the extent that members of the Bah??’? Faith were no longer able to recognize their own religion in the distorted or hostile depictions by these critics. So much for the elementary protocol advocated by Brede Kristensen, Cantwell Smith and Huston Smith and other respected scholars of religion.

What one sometimes reads from these poisoned pens is even more surprising since some of them claimed, or still claim, to be Bah??’?s. It is no wonder that the appointed and elected institutions of the Bah??’? Faith ultimately came to the intellectually defensible conclusion that they were not. Neither is it a wonder that the Universal House of Justice has written that character, that is, active spirituality, ethics, values and norms, and methodology cannot, and should not, be separated. In this, as in all things Bah??’?, character and methodology are one.

***

Posted by J.A. McLean at 11:45 AM 9 comments

[END DOCUMENT]

I was unable to retrieve the nine comments, if anyone has them, please forward them for inclusion.

It Is God’s Will That You Be Tested

Spending time with Persian Baha’i ladies has some consequences. You eat delicious Persian food (rather, you’re forcefed it), you learn to hide your enthusiasm for said food (the Persian practice of “tarof”) and you hear a lot about God’s Will and “tests”.

I have nothing against Persian food but I’m beginning to develop allergies against the superstitious practice of calling everything “God’s Will” or “a test”.

For one, how are we to know what is God’s Will? Sure, the general broad strokes are obvious. They are in every religious dispensation. Don’t kill, be nice, don’t lie, etc. Those are God’s Will for us. That’s what He wants us to do. I have no qualms about those. They are clear.

But what about the mundane, everyday things. Was it God’s “will” that I be late for an interview? Was it God’s “will” that I forgot to call ahead and make reservations? That I burn the toast by forgetting to adjust the setting on the toaster?

I’m not so sure. Maybe it was the Big Guy’s will that those things happen. But then again, maybe they were a result of less than devine motives.

But many of the Baha’is that I spend time with have no doubts whatsoever. They know. And they want to tell you. Usually I just play along and don’t upset their perception of things. But sometimes I do venture to ask meekly, how exactly it is that they know. In those times, they blink and recover with: why… what else can it be? of course it is God’s will.

And then they smile at me as if I’m a total idiot incapable of telling the difference between yogourt and glue.

I keep thinking though that unless you have some sort of direct phone line to God, or are a Prophet you can have no conviction on the matter. But then again, saying “It may or may not be God’s will” just doesn’t have the same ring to it, now does it?

The other one is when they call difficult situations “tests from God”. This one gets me even more. I mean, how the heck do you know? Oh, we already covered that: what else can it be? Yes, ironclad logic. How did I ever miss that one?

Seriously though, I’ve heard this explanation when people are confronted by challenges in their life and slap the name “tests” on them. Going through a divorce? It is a “test”. Children misbehaving? yup, another “test”. And you guessed it, it was specifically tailor made by the Big Guy for you.

Again, not once do these people stop to ask how exactly they know or can prove that this is a “test from God”.

This insidious practice is seeping into Baha’i culture and I hate it. For one, it is supersition and we are to guard against superstition. When religion doesn’t agree with simple reason, something is wrong.

Also, using these superstitious labels, like “God’s will” or “test” causes one to become separated from cause and effect. To not feel personally responsible for our actions, our lives and the results that we cause. I don’t believe that God wants us to live that way. Some things may very well be God’s will or tests, but there is no way for us to know.

What’s more, living our lives as if most or almost everything is a test or His will, can cause one to feel disempowered. I’d rather live my life believing that some things are under my power and some things under His. Since I will never truly know which is which, I will simply live my life by giving it all I’ve got. By living my life to the fullest, by trying my darndest, by never ceding an inch. And letting Him sort it all out in the end.

Where someone else might simply sigh and say, “Well, it is God’s will…” and sit back, I will redouble my efforts or reflect on what else I can do, what other options I have and how I can learn from this for the future. I attempt to be proactive, a protagonist in my own life, rather than a puppet whose strings are pulled by divine decree.

Where someone else might call a situation a “test from God”, and feel vindicated or absolved from responsability, I attempt to reflect on how I contributed to the outcome, how I may react or act differently in the future and what I may do now to improve things. It may be a test, or it may not. That sort of thing is irrelevant to the matter.

Finally, another reason I strongly dislike this practice is that it can be a useful tool in the hand of a bully. Let’s say that a situation arises and you disagree with things or how it came to be. If you contact the institutions and let them know, like a good Baha’i is supposed to, you may get the short and sweet response that “it is God’s will” and that agitating for change would mean that you are making the situation “a test” for yourself.

Farfetched? Impossible? Not at all. This has actually happened.

House of Justice Letter April 19 2007 – Response To NSA US

The refreshing acknowledgment of reality contained in the Annual Report from the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States drew a swift and scathing response from the House of Justice.

You can read the response of the House of Justice (Adobe PDF document) to the legitimate concerns of the NSA of the United States regarding the perilous condition of the Baha’i community in that country.

You can also find the April 19th 2007 letter from the House, here as a simple HTML file.

So severe was the rebuke that the House of Justice forced the delegates to not base their consultation within the National Convention on the NSA’s Annual Report but instead on their own spin (the April 19th 2007 letter above). And to show that they meant business, they sent an enforcer: Ms. Penelope Walker from the International Teaching Center. She delivered the message of the House to the delegates, made sure that the focus of the convention was on the letter from the House and that reality did not creep in into the consultations.

Furthermore, the convention’s consultation would be based on the letter from the UHJ, not the annual report from the NSA. The coup de grace was when the National Spiritual Assembly formally asked delegates to the 98th Bah??’? National Convention to refer to the April 19, 2007 letter from the House as the basis of their reports to the Baha’is nationwide on the Convention – and not the annual report from the NSA. So the vast majority of the Baha’is in the community, who hadn’t attended the convention would not even learn of the major concerns from their own NSA.

So effectively was her duty performed that Counsellor Rebequa Murphy said in the closing remarks of the National Convention:

We don’t want to be those people that want to see God with their own eyes or hear His melodies with their own ears. Because we’ve been given the gift of being able to see through the eyes of the House of Justice and listen through the ears of the House of Justice.

*********

rebequa-murphy-head-in-sand-meditation.png
New meditation pose suggested by Counsellor Rebequa Murphy

*********


Timeline:

  1. Document: US NSA Feast Letter (Jalal/Glory)
    Time: April 8th 2007
    This letter contains the (in)famous 50% decline statistic.
  2. Document: US NSA Annual Report
    Time: April 12th 2007
    A refreshing dose of reality: the Baha’i community in the US is in a perilous state.
  3. Document: UHJ Letter to US NSA in response to US annual report
    Time: April 19th 2007
    A rebuke to the US NSA Annual Report: presented to delegates of US convention on April 27th, 2007 as a substitute to the US NSA’s Annual Report. Ms. Penny Walker ITC counsellor sent to US convention to supervise this change of focus.
  4. Document: UHJ Ridvan Message to world
    Time: April 21, 2007
    This is an annual letter sent from the House of Justice.

  5. Document: US NSA Feast letter (Jamal/Beauty)
    Time: April 27th, 2007
    In this letter the NSA, obedient to the UHJ, requests that Baha’is study UHJ’s Ridvan message.

*********

In their letter, the House of Justice sweeps aside nonchalantly the methodical reasoning of the NSA and their multi-pronged approach aimed to save the hemorrhaging Baha’i community. In its stead, the House of Justice posits a simple strategy: more of the same.

While the NSA is struggling valiently to break free of the constraints of the “framework”: “We feel a particular need for flexibility and innovation…” the House of Justice provides clear guidance: “…what is essential is for such roles and functions to take shape within the framework for action that has been elaborated in the message dated 27 December 2005…”.

While the NSA is attempting to acknowledge the marginalization of the LSAs: “…there is a pervasive feeling of confusion and dislocation among many Local Spiritual Assemblies, including those in ‘A’ clusters.” the House of Justice responds: “In every cluster the institutions and agencies guiding the process — the Auxiliary Board members and the institute, together with the Area Teaching Committee — need to examine the dynamics of growth on a regular basis…”. So basically tough luck! No elected institutions need apply.

In conclusion, the House insisits that Baha’i communities must follow the same “framework for action” that has (by the NSA’s own observation) failed to produce results, that has marginalized LSAs, caused conflict within the community, lead to a stagnant Baha’i community, straitjacketed the community’s dynamism and robbed it of the freedom of individual initiatives.

The next five years should be interesting!

Here are my own heretical questions:

How will we know, specifically, if this whole Ruhi/core curriculum/institutes process is succeeding? what metrics will we have to watch? what time frame will have to elapse? is there any point or event or situation in which we may potentially acknowledge that it didn’t work? what would that be?

Of course, I’m spiritually weak. If I were strong as Counsellor Murphy I would comprehend that although the US Baha’i community has hit the event horizon and is at imminent negative absolute growth, we shouldn’t allow this fact to dissuade us from following the UHJ’s guidance.

I would realize that reality, is not the yardstick by which we should judge the efficacy of “X-Year” plans. I would understand that rather than use our own eyes and ears as Baha’u’llah instructed us, we should see things and hear things through the eyes and ears of the House.

And that although the largest, most dynamic Baha’i community in the world is fast spinning down the tubes, we should not be alarmed nor let doubt enter our mind in the least. Rather, we should rejoice that 3 yak herders in Mongolia are taking Ruhi and parroting back perfectly what their tutor is telling them in the best tradition of taqlid.

I have quite a long ways to go to reach Counsellor Murphy’s spiritual level. Maybe I should take Ruhi again.