Two Baha’i Conferences: Arizona & Haifa

During the short period of time towards the end of December when most are on holiday for Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s the Baha’i community had two significant conferences. Each was separated by half a world in distance and an equal measure of distance in tone. The first was the 26th annual Grand Canyon Baha’i Conference held in Arizona, US between December 23rd and 26th.

This year’s Arizona conference featured the following speakers: David Young, Fariba Aghdasi, Erica Toussaint (US NSA member and previous ABM Propagation), Jena Khadem Khodadad, Kavian Sadeghzadeh Milani, Ghasem Bayat, and Sharon and Jos? Fiero. There were also speakers for junior youth and many performers, including Andy Grammar.

If you attended, share with us how it was. From what I’ve heard from fellow Baha’is, the Arizona conference is a great place for young Baha’is to meet prospective future partners. I still chuckle recalling the anecdote of a friend who attended the conference a few years ago and was cornered in an elevator by a Persian Baha’i mother (on behalf of her daughter). When she found out he was a medical doctor, he had a hard time getting away from her for the rest of the conference.

So if you did attend, I hope you practiced your Baha’i pick-up lines: “Baby, I just did some Ruhi Book 2 and now I wanna pay you a home visit.” or “Why don’t you make like the Treasurer’s Report at Feast and give me your digits?”. But I’m sure most attendees were able to squeeze in some other activities as well.

The other conference was in Haifa for the Counsellors between December 28th and January 1st 2011. During this conference, “deliberations will be held on the features of the next Five Year Plan”. So we have that to look forward to.

The Universal House of Justice wrote a letter to the conference attendees to provide its guidance. There are many portions that were notable for me from this letter, one of them was this excerpt:

Service on the institutions and agencies of the Faith is indeed a tremendous privilege, but not one that is sought by the individual; it is a duty and responsibility to which he or she may be called at any given time. It is understandable, of course, that all those involved in Bah??’? administration would rightly feel they have been invested with a singular honour in forming part, in whatever way, of a structure designed to be a channel through which the spirit of the Cause flows. Yet they should not imagine that such service entitles them to operate on the periphery of the learning process that is everywhere gaining strength, exempt from its inherent requirements. Nor should it be supposed that membership on administrative bodies provides an opportunity to promote one’s own understanding of what is recorded in the Sacred Text and how the teachings should be applied, steering the community in whatever direction personal preferences dictate.

Universal House of Justice Letter to Conference of Continental Boards of Counsellors (December 2010):

NSA of Canada: Two New By-election Members

As a result of two appointments by the Baha’i World Center which necessitated a recent by-election, the NSA of Canada has two new members. Borna Noureddin is moving to Haifa to join other Continental Counsellor and Todd Smith will be moving there to serve at the BWC.

Outgoing Members
Borna Noureddin holds a Doctorate of Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of British Columbia and was an instructor at the British Columbia Institute of Technology since the summer of 2010. He was first elected to the NSA of Canada in 2007, replacing retiring member, Don (Otto) Rogers. He held the position for almost 4 consecutive years and in his last year as member, he was the Chairperson of the NSA.

Todd Smith holds a Doctorate of Philosophy degree in sociology from the University of Toronto. Before serving on the NSA, he was a member of the Baha’i Council of Ontario from 1997 to 2008. He was elected to the NSA on April 2008 to replace his father David Smith and served as assistant secretary for the first two years and as vice-chairperson for the final year.

Incoming Members
Dr. Mehran Anvari completed his education at University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and at University of Adelaide where he received his Ph.D. in gastric motor function. He has a Fellowship in General Surgery from the Royal College of Surgeons of Canada and is a Fellow of American College of Surgeons. He currently teaches in the department of surgery at McMaster in Hamiton and is also the Director of the Centre for Minimal Access Surgery. Dr. Anvari previously served on the Baha’i Council for Ontario.

Simon Grandy along with his wife, Jelana Bighorn, has been very active in teaching the Faith, especially with the junior youth. He is the son-in-law of current NSA member, Deloria Bighorn – first elected to the NSA herself in 2009. Grandy was just elected a month ago to the Baha’i Council of British Columbia (November 24th, effective November 26th – the Day of the Covenant). He received 254 votes from 75 participating LSA’s which placed him in the top three. As a result, the Council will have to hold a by-election to replace him.

The picture below shows Simon Grandy with Jelana Bighorn (and their son, Ohiyesa – native for “one who wins” or “the winner”. The image is from the Vancouver conference held in early 2009 as part of the global regional conferences of the 5 year plan.

Baha’i Rants wishes Dr. Noureddin and Smith the best in their new endeavors at the Baha’i World Center and welcomes the addition of two new faces on the NSA of Canada.

Nevertheless, it should be noted that the two recent newcomers are only replacing those who already were new themselves to begin with. That is to say, the majority of members (quorum) on the NSA have been consecutive members for a very long time. These are Judy Filson, Enayat Rawhani, Karen McKye, Gordon Naylor and Susanne Tamas. These five members have been consecutive members of the NSA for more than 10 years.

From an organizational point of view, any real change in the culture of the NSA would necessitate their replacement. Incremental changes at the periphery, such as one or two new members, provides no real opportunity for change or fresh ideas. For an explanation of why, read about the Fable of the 5 Monkeys.

Frequency of the Word “Bahai” in English Books

The eggheads at Google have done it again. After aggregating and digitizing more than 5.2 million books containing more than 500 billion words, they have unleashed a massive and searchable database of words used in those published works: the Google’s Book Ngram Viewer.

As you probably know, I’m a sucker for data-mining: Declining Internet Interest for ?Baha’i?. That was keeping track of the relative popularity of search incidents for the keyword “bahai”.

This new tool from Google is equally fascinating but it provides a different perspective. Whereas the previous one is a reflection of our modern times and our penchant for using google as a search engine to find answers on the internet, this new tool allows us to look at the usage frequency of certain words throughout history in published books.

Of course, I immediately typed in “Bahai” to see what it would show. Keep in mind that it is very sensitive to alternative spellings. So the word “Bahai” that I used will produce different results than the word “Baha’i” or the word “bahai” or “baha’i”. In the end, I chose to show you the graph for the word “Bahai” because it has the most frequent usage in Google’s database.

Take a look at the graph and see if you notice the same things that I did:

Bahai google ngram English

Click to see larger graph

The first ‘bump’ is 1850 which is right around the time of the Babi movement in Iran, which then morphed into the Baha’i Faith. It is surprising to see such an immediate – albeit relatively small – reaction from the English press to this event halfway around the world. But then again, orientalists like E.G. Browne were deeply interested in the movement.

There is a clear spike between 1911 and 1918 (approximately). The line is smoothed with a smoothing coefficient of 3 – a setting which can be changed in the Ngram control panel. If you reduce the smoothing coefficient, there are two distinct spikes, one for 1915 and the other for 1919.

Knowing that Abdu’l-Baha’s visit to the West took place between 1911 and 1913 provides a simple explanation for this sudden increase in exposure. And providing that we give a few years lag time for research and publication we have a very neat match for this sharp increase in the prevalence of the usage of the word “Bahai” in English books.

The second spike occurs a few decades later between 1944 and 1946. What might account for it? My hunch is that it is the outbreak of World War II and the inevitable soul searching that occurred in reaction to the horrific tragedy that is war.

The other standout years are 1973 and 1982. I’m not sure what 1973 corresponds to but 1982 would probably be explained by the Islamic revolution of Iran and the systemic persecution of Baha’is – which continues to this day.

Here is the same graph restricted to “British English”:

Bahai google ngram British English

Click to see larger graph

The prevalence of the word “Bahai” in British books is somewhat different. The first spike occurs in 1921. Then there are other spikes of activity in 1974 and 1981. And finally, most curious is the astounding increase in 2008 – the final year for which there is data.

Take a look yourself and see what sorts of things you can discover. As always, if you have any insight or comment, I’d love to hear about it below.

If searching through billions of words in the span of seconds isn’t amazing enough, you can also bore down into the books themselves using the links provided at the bottom of the graph at the Google Ngram website and actually read where each mention is featured.

Haifa Fire Does Not Threaten Baha’i World Centre

After the driest conditions in 60 years, the region of Northern Israel has been on fire for the past few days. The fire is thought to have started near the Druze village of Isfiya (Osfiya/Ussefia) and quickly spread north. A bus carrying prisoners from Damon prison and their guard escort were caught in the fire and perished. A total of 42 people are thought to have died but forensic examination is continuing because the remains are so badly affected by the fire.

The fire moved up to Haifa University and was so close to the Denya district that many there were evacuated. But the fire then moved west and is now hopefully contained in the Carmel Hai-Bar Nature preserve (the green area to the left of Haifa University):

As you can see from the map, before the fire can even approach the Baha’i World Centre on Mount Carmel, the fire would have to hypothetically go through several major residential neighbourhoods. There is very little risk of that and with international help, Israel will hopefully be able to contain the fire and put it out by the weekend. Cyprus, Egypt, Jordan, France, UK, Croatia, Russia, Spain, and Romania have sent firefighting airplanes to Israel to combat the fire.

Here is a map showing the fire areas in red and the evacuation areas in blue (thanks to Steve at Bahaisonline.net):

You can keep up to date with the dynamic version of this map.

Update:
You can see some stunning pictures of the Haifa fire here.

Baha’i Chile Temple Construction: Math Challenge

It has certainly been too long since we discussed the Baha’i Chile temple project. In case this is new to you, here is an introductory video featuring the architect of the building, Siamak Hariri.

As you may recall, in a letter dated April 14 2005, the Universal House of Justice wrote that the cost would be $27 million (US dollars) with a 3 year construction time period:

Total cost of the project is estimated at twenty-seven million dollars, and the plans now call for its completion within a period of three years.

Anyone with an iota of experience with large construction projects would know that such initial estimates are always far too conservative. Having completed the huge Arc project just a few years ago, I assumed that the UHJ was experienced enough to make that judgement. Therefore, I reserved my caution, hoping for miracle:

I’m not sure just how realistic the $27 million (or the three year time table) is. Such projects have a tendency to run over-budget, especially in a developing country. But then again, the project team could pull it off without a hitch. I wish them the best.

Of course, things did not go as planned. The Baha’i Chile Temple was not finished in 2008. In fact, the engineering firm of Soheil Mosun hired by the UHJ was able to work out all the kinks in their software (originally intended for aeronautical modeling, not free standing structures like a building) in early 2007. With that in place, the project could proceed to actually starting to fabricate the material.

Fast forward to today and we have news that they are finally putting spades in the ground and begun excavation. This is the very first steps in the long construction process. And it has come 5 years after the purchase of the land and 3 years after the initial completion date (2007-2008). But being behind schedule shouldn’t surprise anyone considering the polemic that surrounded the project from the onset.

What should concern Baha’is is the math involved with the construction costs and the funds that have been contributed for the Chile Temple project. Initially the cost estimate was $27 million. The new estimate is $38 million – a 41% increase.

As well, the Universal House of Justice writes in a recent letter that so far, approximately $20 million has been raised, leaving $18 million still to be raised:

However, if we look at information from various National Spiritual Assemblies, it is clear that much more than $20 million has already been contributed.

Consider that the official 2009 annual report from the US NSA includes the following (from page 48):

Chilean Temple Initiative The American Bah??’? community has, to date, contributed $12.7 million to the construction of the Mother Temple of South America. It has passionately answered the call of the National Spiritual Assembly to contribute the ?lion’s share? of the $27 million projected cost of the last of the continental Mashriqu’l-Adhk??rs. Since the last Annual Report over $1 million has been contributed to the Chilean Temple Fund through direct contributions, the Automatic Contribution System, pledges, and ?in honor? contributions.

The UHJ asked the US Baha’is to take point in this endeavor and they have performed admirably. The Chile Temple initiative is actually part of the Kingdom Project and the website (chilean-temple.org) is operated by the US NSA.

Back to the numbers: since that was in 2009, if we assume that the same general pace of donations was maintained, then we have the US contributing $12.7 million as well as an additional $1 million since that report in 2009. So that is a total of approximately $13.7 million.

From data available through the Canadian Charities Directorate of the Canadian Revenue Agency, we know that the Baha’i NSA contributed $12.5 million in 2009:

In 2008 the NSA of the Baha’is of Canada sent $2.9 million outside of Canada but it did not breakdown that amount into individual countries so we do not know how much, if any, was destined to Chile. The breakdown that you see above was only introduced in 2010. Likewise in 2007, the Canadian NSA sent $9.8 million outside of Canada. And in 2006, $5 million and finally in 2005 when the Chilean Temple fundraising began, $2.8 million.

So if we give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that none of the amounts from 2005-2008 sent outside of Canada (not even 5%) were destined to Chile for the construction of the Temple and if we again, give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that no other funds since 2009 have been collected and sent for the same purpose, we still have a total of $12.5 million.

With the $13.7 million from the US that is a total of $26.2 million. That amount has already been collected and forwarded to Chile by the US and Canada. Of course, these are just two countries. We are ignoring all of Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, etc. Some countries are wealthier than others and are thus able to contribute much more than others. From travels and my own knowledge of the Baha’i communities, my guesstimate is that the European Baha’i community, while small in number, is very wealthy. Especially Germany, UK, Italy, Spain and France. Even more wealth is focused in the Middle East. But again, we give the benefit of the doubt here and assume that all these countries have donated zero towards the Chilean Temple project.

With the total of $26.2 we have $6.2 million more than the UHJ writes in their letter above. Where did those $6.2 million go?

That is, instead of $18 million still to be contributed, we really have just $11.8 left to collect to have a sum of $38 million.

And if we do add in some figure for the other countries as well as bringing the total up to reflect donations sent after 2009 until the present, then the difference between the two becomes even larger!

I’ve tried to base this on known facts but if we expand it to reasonable speculation by removing all the ‘benefits of doubt’ that were mentioned above, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the total of $38 (or even more!) had already been collected for this project.

Unfortunately, getting an accurate handle on such things is made impossible by the opacity that pervades international Baha’i reporting when it comes to anything to do with finances. At the national level, as you can see, we have some information from NSA annual reports. Some NSA’s like Canada, sadly do not respect the Baha’i community that they represent enough to release an annual report. This leaves the obligatory disclosures they must make to the CRA as the only source of real information.

I hope that such discrepancies outlined above do not reflect a culture of incompetence but have some other explanation. The only real way to know that is through transparency and open communication – something wholly lacking today. I’m reminded of what Shoghi Effendi wrote:

The duties of those whom the friends [Bah??’?s] have freely and conscientiously elected as their representatives are no less vital and binding than the obligations of those who have chosen them. Their function is not to dictate, but to consult, and consult not only among themselves, but as much as possible with the friends whom they represent. They must regard themselves in no other light but that of chosen instruments for a more efficient and dignified presentation of the Cause of God. They should never be led to suppose that they are the central ornaments of the body of the Cause, intrinsically superior to others in capacity or merit, and sole promoters of its teachings and principles. They should approach their task with extreme humility, and endeavour by their open-mindedness, their high sense of justice and duty, their candour, their modesty, their entire devotion to the welfare and interests of the friends, the Cause, and humanity, to win not only the confidence and the genuine support and respect of those whom they should serve, but also their esteem and real affection. They must at all times avoid the spirit of exclusiveness, the atmosphere of secrecy, free themselves from a domineering attitude, and banish all forms of prejudice and passion from their deliberations. They should, within the limits of wise discretion, take the friends into their confidence, acquaint them with their plans, share with them their problems and anxieties, and seek their advice and counsel.
(23 February 1924 to the Bah??’?s of America, published in “Bah??’? Administration”, p. 64)

This news is brought to you thanks to the contribution of a fellow Baha’i who shared their concerns with Baha’i Rants anonymously. Similar submissions may be made using the contact form or by sending an email to baquia at bahairants dot com.

The only stipulations are that the information (and/or documents) be verifiably factual and relevant to a Baha’i audience.