Is the Universal House of Justice Infallible? (part II)

My first post about the infallibility of the House of Justice got quite a lot of comments. To all who read and contributed: Thank you! I’m indebted to you all for your thoughts and ideas. Some comments where short, some were long, some were quite funny (unintentionally) while others were surprisingly deep and insightful.

Here is a concise summary the most important points made:

For some the concept of infallibility was quite literal, while others took a more nuanced approach. Some tried to separate the ‘intellectual’ sphere with the ‘spiritual’ or ‘divine’ sphere, saying that I should use more faith and less brains. A few suggested that this whole thing was simply a ruse to incite unity and that it really didn’t matter otherwise. Others seemed to be saying that one must simply believe that the House of Justice is infallible and by believing so they are.

house of justice infaliblility.png

I’d like to answer those who request me to stop asking so many damned questions and just believe. First of all, I am truly sorry that you are missing one of the most important and cherished characteristics of the Baha’i Faith: independant investigation of truth. And further, I’m saddened that you have not been able to cast aside the Shi’ite tradition of taqlid (blind imitation). Baha’u’llah forbids all Baha’is from this Muslim tradition saying that we must ‘see with our own eyes’ and ‘hear with our own ears’. If we just accept what we are told and follow a presented path unquestioningly, we are not Baha’is.

The Baha’i Faith and questions go together like peanut butter and jam. Why else would there be a whole month devoted to them?

To those who asked me in their comments to not use logic or intellect, I say: Are you kidding? In the Baha’i faith science and religion are both lauded as paths to truth. One is not superior nor subservient to the other. A true Baha’i would never deny logic, critical thinking and simple deduction because it might conflict with religious dogma. That is the slippery slope of superstition. Thanks, but no thanks. In fact, the history of the Faith is replete with examples where simple logic and deduction was used as an effective teaching tool.

One of my favourite examples is that used by a simple Baha’i blacksmith to open the eyes of a learned Mulla who then went on to become a Baha’i and was titled by Abdu’l-Baha, Mirza Abul-Fadl (the Father of All Learning). The story involves rain, angels and dogs. If you don’t know it, do yourself a favor and read his wiki entry.

While discussing this interesting topic over on Talisman (the venerable Baha’i discussion forum), one contributor provided this insight:

The acquired infallibility concerns the final product, not the decision making process. IMO, confusing the final product and the process is where you and others go wrong on this issue.

As I said before, the guarantee for being error free refers to the final product and not to the process no matter what the steps of the process may be called.

This is similar to other responses that I received from fellow Baha’is. Basically, they are saying that the UHJ receives guidance from God and so their decisions are protected from error. That is why they are infallible and do not make mistakes. Not because they are omniscient but because, as Dawud put it (in the comments section of the first post) they have “God whispering in their collective ear”. Or as the above contributor on Talisman put it, the process isn’t important, the final product is.

This is a curious sort of logic for me to wrap my mind around. It could very well be that my mind is shrivelled up and simply not as ‘wrappable’ as it once was. But nevertheless, please permit me to explain why I find this explanation wanting.

If we assume that the ‘process’ isn’t important, then it does neatly side-step the requirement of omniscience that I mentioned. That is a clear advantage that it presents. However, its natural corollary presents us with an insurmountable challenge.

For if we assume that the process isn’t important but rather the final outcome, then the natural conclusion is to simplify the process as much as we can; especially considering the amount of time and resources that it can require.
house of justice ball.png
One especially mischevious person might even suggest that the process be simplified to a Magic 8 ball. Whenever the House of Justice needs to come to an infallible decision, all they have to do is to jiggle the Magic 8 Ball and then to read its answer. If we believe that God’s hand currently directs the UHJ to the infallible decision, then if would follow that God’s hand would direct the Magic 8 ball to an infallible decision also.
house of justice dart
If you are not familiar with a Magic 8 ball, another option is a dart and wall system. Presumably, answers could be taped to a wall with a blindfolded and spun UHJ member launching sharp projectiles in the general direction of the ‘answer wall’ while the other 8 duck for their lives under the table. Since God has bestowed infallibility upon the final outcome, He will guide the dart to produce the proper answer (and avoid innocent bystanders).

Now, you might laugh at these silly processes. But all I am doing is going by the the logic that the process isn’t important but rather that the outcome is.

I hope that by now it is clear that the process by which a decision is made is quite important. I would say critical in fact, to the end result. And as a natural extension, the information used in the process also has a strong correlation to the quality of the decision.

It would seem that the House of Justice itself might agree with such an assertion:

Like the Guardian, the House of Justice wants to be provided with facts when called upon to render a decision, and like him it may well change its decision when new facts emerge.
(Universal House of Justice — August 22, 1977)

That seems like good old fashioned common sense, doesn’t it?

But can the Universal House of Justice make a mistake? Well, if they are not omniscient and depend on the quality of information presented to them like the rest of us mortals, then it would naturally follow that that is a possibility.

But there is also a clue in this quote that Sen provided in the comments section:

“The Guardian… is bound to insist upon a reconsideration by them (the UHJ) of any enactment he conscientiously believes to conflict with the meaning and to depart from the spirit of Bah??’u’ll??h’s revealed utterances.”
(Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 150)

And as Sen pointed out:

So the UHJ can be wrong in a deeper sense than just making a mistake. It may be leading in the wrong direction, departing from ?the spirit of Bah??’u’ll??h’s revealed utterances.? So can anyone else — Shoghi Effendi’s words are not an invitation to stand on the soapbox of our own certainties, rather they indicate the need for humility for everyone.

I would add that what Shoghi Effendi is saying is rather alarming and it is not readily understood by most Baha’is. To me, he is saying that not only can the UHJ make a mistake, it can in fact go against the very essence of Baha’u’llah’s teachings. This is quite a dire sort of situation he describes. Of course, he is saying this in the context of the responsability of the Guardian in balancing the authority and power of the House of Justice.

And as you know, we do not have a Guardian. So that position is left unfilled and his responsabilities and duties left unfulfilled.

Chile Temple Takes Shape

Since the previous time I wrote about the Chile temple, another step has been taken towards its ultimate completion. The Canadian firm of Soheil Mosun has finished building and testing a 1/6th scale model of one of the nine petals that will surround the temple.

Apparently they had some glitches to work out over 7 months as the software they were using is normally used for aeronautical testing. The good news is that after “extensive and detailed testing” the model seems to be accurate enough that fabrication on full scale can begin.

It will take approximately two to three years to manufacture the pieces in Canada. Afterwards they will be shipped to Chile for final assembly. This may seem like an odd way to build such a structure but it turned out to be the most cost effective solution among the options considered.

On site construction work is planned to begin in October 2008. All in all, it is safe to estimate atleast 4 years before the temple is completed at an estimated cost of US $27 million.

Blurry Red Lines

I found this recent article on Iran from the Times Online website rather interesting. Especially in the last few paragraphs were it describes the approach of the Islamic government of Iran towards censorship:

The way censorship works in Iran is that the rules are deliberately kept vague. Something that sneaks through one week is then used later as a catalyst for a crack-down. What is acceptable and what not changes constantly: the blurry red lines foster a climate of self-censorship more powerful than any rules.

Sadly, this is also a succint description of the way Baha’i pre-publication “review” works. There are no clearly defined lines. In fact, they would bristle at the word ‘censorship’ being applied to what they do. But the outcome of the process is the same as that in the Islamic Repulic of Iran: within the Baha’i community there is no academic freedom, nor is there freedom of the press.

And by keeping the mechanism and process as vague as possible, the result is that a state of fear is produced. Academics, authors and all creatives begin to self-censor themselves much more readily and to a deeper extent simply because they don’t quite know where the lines are. If one day a Baha’i of many years can be thrown out of the community for calling himself a ‘Baha’i theologian’, then who knows what’s next?

Here is an excellent article by Barney Leith on pre-publication review.

In case the link to the Times article kicks the bucket, here is the complete article:

This is Iran, but not as you know it

Young Iranians are doing more to transform their country than any outside agency could do, writes Rageh Omaar

It might have been hot, but it was going to take much more than the familiar Tehran cocktail of unrelenting heat and choking smog to deter the 20 or so young Iranian women gathered outside the record shop. Beethoven’s isn’t exactly the sort of name you would expect of a hip music store. But this is Tehran, and as with most things involving young Iranians today, even a seemingly boring name hides something far more subversive.

All the young women are in manteaus, the figure-hugging three-quarter length jacket worn as a substitute for the chador. But underneath they sport tight white jeans, Versace print head-scarves, designer sunglasses and delicate sandals, the thin straps of which wrap around perfectly painted toenails.

A brand new silver Mercedes glides up and an androgynous young man clad in trendy black gets out. Behind him walks a confident man in his late thirties who shepherds the younger man past the adoring female fans. A ripple of excitement goes through the crowd as the girls recognise the young man while some hold up their mobile phones to take pictures and video clips of him in the crush.

Were it not for the head-scarves and manteaus, it could easily have been Robbie Williams outside HMV. Welcome to the vibrant and almost completely unnoticed world of Iranian pop music.

Tehran is one of the most talked about cities in the world; many people believe it could well be the next target for the Bush administration’s third invasion in its so-called ?war on terror?. The majority of the limited reports and images to have emerged from the Iranian capital in the past year have been about alleged nuclear weapons programmes, senior members of Iran’s theocratic state and, of course, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Very little has been said that accurately describes this nation of 70m, which is one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse countries in the Middle East. Despite a recorded history of more than 5,000 years, making it one of the oldest civilisations on earth, Iran remains shackled to a small number of clich?s; turbaned mullahs, women wearing the black chador and antiwestern rhetoric.

As a news correspondent this Iran was familiar to me. I’d seen many angry rallies postFriday prayers and done interviews with politicians and military figures. But I longed to show the unseen and hugely varied life of ordinary people in Tehran; one of the least understood cities on earth.

I had a personal reason for doing this, too. There have been many times over the past year or so where the accelerating crisis over Iran has reminded me of the relentless build-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2002. The similarities are chilling; accusations of the development of WMDs, allegations of sponsoring terrorism, and military reinforcements being sent to the region while leading Bush administration officials consistently speak of the need for the world to be prepared for preemptive action.

I reported from inside Iraq for several years before the invasion and I regret enormously that while I did endless stories about Saddam, his regime, weapons inspectors and suchlike I spoke very little about ordinary Iraqis; what role religious and sectarian beliefs played in their identity, what they made of the exiled politicians groomed by Washington as their leaders in waiting.

I wanted to make sure that mistake was not repeated. It took a year of wrangling with the authorities to be able to follow the lives of ordinary Iranians without restrictions or minders, but I was given an extraordinary opportunity.

Iran has one of the youngest populations in the world; around 70% of its citizens are under the age of 30. That means 70% of Iranians have no memory of life under the Shah, and have grown up under the rules of the Islamic republic. For them there is the profound sense that nearly 30 years after Ayatollah Khomeini led the world’s first Islamic revolution the rebellion has to renew itself to become relevant to their generation.

So in Iran at the moment there is a unique situation where an Islamic theocracy is being challenged, scrutinised and publicly questioned in a way that very few other regimes in the Middle East are. This is not just happening in Iran’s parliament and the active media; it is being done in the streets, in people’s homes, and even by what citizens wear and how they express themselves.

The pop star I met at Beet-hoven’s record shop was called Benyamin and the analogy with Robbie Williams is pretty accurate. Benyamin is currently the hot young thing in Iranian pop music. Mohsen Rajabpour, his manager, is Tehran’s Simon Cowell — and is a match for his English counterpart in every way. The last person I expected to hang out with in Tehran was a pop svengali cum entrepreneur.

?The difference between me and this Englishman [Cowell] is that he is not restricted in making his pop stars,? said Rajabpour as we glided around in his Mercedes. ?Mine must be created within the restrictions of Iran.?

But this hasn’t stopped him producing a number of highly successful pop acts. The restrictions are ones you’d expect. ?I can’t do songs that are about hot sexy topics,? but despite this his acts find ways of pushing back the boundaries with each record.

The key to Rajabpour’s success and why he is an unlikely modern revolutionary is that he succeeds as a pop entrepreneur by having a very good grasp of the laws and jurisprudence of the Islamic republic. He’s now working on what he thinks is the perfect rock band for Iran.

?It has the usual things: drums, bass, guitars . . . but with girls!? They’re going to be Iran’s answer to the Spice Girls, but with a very different kind of girl power. The law says that the lead vocalist in a publicly approved rock band cannot be a girl. His trick is that all members of the band are vocalists, so it can’t be said that the lead vocalist is a girl. It is in thousands of such small tests of change that Iranians from all walks of life are transforming their country.

Bozorgmehr Sharafeddin is the editor of Chelcheragh, one of Tehran’s best known weekly youth magazines. Still in his twenties, he leads a constantly changing group of 40 or so young Iranian men and women journalists. The topics range from politics and culture to music and comedy. In the midst of Benyamin’s appearance at Beethoven’s, the editor quizzed me about my documentary and I explained that I wanted to follow the lives of ordinary Iranians.

?So,? he said with a wicked grin, ?you are on mission impossible.? He paused briefly then said: ?Why don’t you write an article for our magazine as a guest reporter? It’s the best way for you to get as deep into Iranian society as possible.?

I duly attended the magazine’s editorial meeting where I was quizzed by staff and given a stark insight into the constant battle they face with the censors and the threat of the magazine being suspended or shut down.

Iranian journalists call them ?red lines?, the opaque and constantly shifting guidelines by which the state clamps down on publications. My article was going to be edited by Sharafeddin and any sensitive or risky comments would be cut.

I said I wanted to write a feature profiling three prominent young women: Nazila Noe-bashari (who runs a transportation company employing many men), Newsha Tavakolian (a renowned photojournalist I met in Iraq) and Ghazal Chegini (who works in Iran’s huge nongovernmental organisations network for a charity caring for children with cancer).

The three of them allowed us into their lives and homes in Tehran and took us around their city. I discovered a mass of contradictions. Tehran has one of the highest rates of cosmetic surgery among young people and terrible poverty. One day I went to a pro-Hezbollah protest in the morning and a recording studio with Benyamin in the afternoon. Women cannot ride motorcycles, but in the glitzy shopping malls of the affluent northern suburbs young men with earrings openly court girls.

I went back to Sharafeddin to go through my article. Various lines and paragraphs had been crossed out and the changes revealed a lot about the republic. For example, my comment about women not being allowed to ride motorcycles in Tehran was changed to ?in Tehran there are no women motorcyclists?.

The reason? My original sentence laid too much emphasis on the government’s restrictive rule. Another comment, on how Iranian women wear what they want in their homes but outside wear a headscarf (which, it seemed to me, meant they were hiding their identities behind a mask), was rejected and changed to ?women felt they were having to take on different identities?.

The way censorship works in Iran is that the rules are deliberately kept vague. Something that sneaks through one week is then used later as a catalyst for a crack-down. What is acceptable and what not changes constantly: the blurry red lines foster a climate of self-censorship more powerful than any rules.

And yet it is the millions of largely young Iranians who are forcing through a slow but surely unstoppable transformation in the country. Sometimes at a terrible cost to imprisoned journalists and human rights activists, the restrictions are being rolled back. But the quickest way to reverse this progress is for the West to attack.