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.