LA Class Newsletter [#32]


My Notes:

This newsletter is noteworthy not only because it contains a report about a scholarly conference held in England but also because it was later cited as an example of naughty behavior by the NSA of the United States and figured into their decision to ban further publication and dissemination of the LA Class Newsletters.

The class also discusses the crisis brewing in the cradle of the Faith. This discussion was held in October 1978; you may wish to refer to the time line of events leading up to the Iranian revolution for context.

If this is your first newsletter, you might also want to read the introduction to the LA study class, here.

On with the 70′s class . . .


[Ed. personal address]
Hermosa Beach, California
?Impiety is our only Sacred Cow?

November 1978
Volume III. No. 10

Our October study class meeting featured a report by Tony Lee on the two-day Baha’i Studies Seminar at Cambridge University held from September 30 to October 1. It also took up the topic of the current political unrest in Iran and how that affects the Persian Baha’i community.

Tony reported that the Baha’i Studies seminar was called to survey a variety of scholarly topics. Those participating included Peter Smith1 studying sociology at. the University of Loncaster; Moojan Momen, research assistant to Hasan Balyuzi (now assisting the Hand of the Cause with an upcoming book on Baha’u’llah); Denis MacEoin, pursuing a doctorate in Oriental Studies at Cambridge and working on Babi history; Wendy Momen, who holds a doctorate in International Relations; Loni Bramson, studying the history of religions as the Catholic University of Luvain and doing her dissertation on the Faith; Viva Perdu, doing a doctorate in theology at Oxford and writing a dissertation comparing Baha’i and Christian notions of the Kingdom of God. In all, about 35 people attended the conference. Most were spectators. (An official report, of the seminar can be obtained by sending the equivalent of one British pound to Denis MacEoin, Kings College, Cambridge University, England.)

Most of the discussion at the seminar centered on the justification of Baha’i Studies at this point in Baha’i history, the methodology which the Baha’i scholar should use and the role of the Baha’i scholar in the community. Tony summarized some of the highlights of the session which interested him most.

Several of those attending the seminar agreed that, within the last 30 to 40 years, there has been very little Baha’i scholarship. Most of the commentaries on the Faith which we use now in the West were written during the 1920’s and 1930’s. They focus on the problems of that time: war and peace, international cooperation, race relations, etc. Since that time there have been few new ideas introduced into the Baha’i community.

This is because Shoghi Effendi, beginning in the late 30’s turned the attention of the Baha’i Community toward the urgent need for the Baha’i Faith to become a world religion. Scholarship dwindled under the Guardianship. However, in the 1930’s most outside observers who noticed the Faith at all came to the conclusion that it was a Persia religious movement which had spread in some circles in the West, but had gone about as far as it would go outside of its native land.

Shoghi Effendi directed a series of global campaigns which were able to spread the Faith all over the planet and forever change the character of the Baha’i community. Nonetheless, the activity of expansion and multiplication occupied the Faith and its followers almost exclusively on through the 1960’s and into the 1970’s. And it was argued, that emphasis left the Faith largely unprepared to face the social crises which the world must deal with today. While it is true that the Faith has solutions to the world problems today the major works by the believers which interpret what these solutions might be — such as those of Horace Holley and John Esslemont were written in a different period and in the idiom of a different age. The remedies offered in those books are largely obsolete and irrelevant to current considerations. This leaves the average believer simply unprepared to address contemporary social issues, such as world starvation, population explosion. neo-colonialism, world socialism, ecology arid pollution, women’s liberation, economic exploitation, the alienation of industrial society, dwindling fuel resources. etc.

It was argued at the conference that the American Baha’i Community is in a State of stagnation due to a lack of ideas arid a paucity of discussion which fosters change and growth. Therefore, Baha’i scholarship is an essential priority at this time, if the community is to grow arid develop. Often teaching at the local level has become a formula recitation of the ?12 Principles? (most of which are already realized or have been supplanted as front-rank social concerns in most parts of the world). While the conferees seed to agree that a steady stream of ideas and proposals is essential to the development of the Faith, they also argued the lack of fresh impulse is one of the reasons that the teaching work is now so difficult and consolidation such a problem in most parts of the world.

Many of those attending the Cambridge seminar were concerned that new ideas should be presented in a gentle and non-threatening manner. Challenging old ways of thinking or overturning popular myths may well shake the faith of some. There is a need for Baha’i scholars to exchange ideas and devise some way to have them filter through to the community at large. As things stand now, the practices and concerns of the scholar are not those of the mass of the faithful. To most Baha’is, tracking down the historical errors in “The Dawn Breakers” is not only a pointless exercise, but possibly heretical as well. How can the scholar communicate what he is trying to do to the body of the believers?

Also discussed was the issue of censorship and review, Although Shoghi Effendi declared that the review of any materials on the Faith written by Baha’is by the administrative institutions which is now required was a temporary measure, it has been in force now for more than 50 years and shows no signs of withering away. How much, if any censorship ought to be permitted in the Baha’i community? If a scholar spends several years researching some topic in the Faith. who is qualified to review his work? Who can challenge the accuracy of his conclusions besides someone who has spent as much time researching the topic as he has. Doesn’t this place the scholar in the position of having to submit his work to a committee which may be wholly ignorant of the topic upon which he has written. And this committee has the absolute right (with the approval of the National Spiritual Assembly involved) to prevent his work from being published.

The topic of Baha’i methodology, especially in the area of history, raised questions of what assumptions the Baha’i scholar ought to make. Is “methodological agnosticism” (where the scholar essentially becomes a non-Baha’i for purposes of research) essential or ever legitimate? If the teachings of Baha’u’llah are for the illumination of the whole world, surely they can illumine scholarship at well. But how? As scholars how are we to regard the Central Figures of the Faith? What about the question of infallibility? Is it absolute or specific? We know that Shoghi Effendi is not to be regarded as infallible in matters of history. Where does this put Cod Passes By When accounts from Baha’i sources and Covenant-breaker sources differ diametrically and there are no third party accounts (there are dozens of historical incidents in which this is the case) should the Baha’i automatically accept the Baha’i version?

If the Cambridge Seminar wondered about these provocative topics, so did our class members as they discussed the same issues. In class, it was argued that we must establish new standards of scientific investigation. Our concepts of empiric investigation were formed during the Renaissance, when the basic criterion required that the scientist look with a neutral, unbiased eye at how natural phenomena performed. The outgrowth of this training is that now we have a scientific method which is devoid of faith. Perhaps a new form of scientific method must be developed, one that acknowledges the appearance of a Messenger of God Who has proclaimed the interdependency of science and religion. Still, an issue that was raise, but not resolved, is what impact this change might have on scientific investigation.

In our rambling discussion, we examined our own role as a class of interested observers (scholarship, in the strict sense of the word cannot be applied to our class), Over the past couple of years, we have examined a variety of topics, raised some provocative questions, but without any real effect on the Baha’i community at large. It was argued that we should intensify our efforts with the aim of making an impact with ideas on the policies and practices of the Baha’i community. The prevailing attitude iii the American community, at least, is that the Prophet comes and delivers a package (an instruction manual, perhaps) to the world. Then it is the simple task of His followers to just apply what has been revealed (that is, follow instructions). But, this notion leaves no room for thought or creativity on the part of the believers. Their only task is to become good robots. In fact, creativity is to be looked upon with suspicion and innovation avoided as possible heresy. But this view supposes a static society with no social change, and this is just not the history of man. Class members agreed that the Faith works best as an interchange between the individual and the institution. New ideas and new approaches are needed or religious notions become antiquated and a kind of spiritual arteriosclerosis sets in. Very often in the recent history of the Faith policy has come about as a result of just such an interchange. But that spirit seems to have evaporated, and now, more often than not, the body of the believers are expected to only carry out policies, rather than help form them.

Ironically, as the Faith became more institutionalized, the result of Shoghi Effendis work, individual Baha’is became less innovative and more dependent on the administrative institutions to do their thinking for them. This they are incapable of doing of course, because they were never intended to act as a substitute for individual thought.

As a result; in recent years, the Faith has become neglectful of the pressing social issues of our day. What (for example) are our stands on the issue of illegal aliens entering the United States?

What about busing to achieve school integration? What is the Baha’i response to the Marxist view of capitalist exploitation? (See also above.)

Some class members even objected that the same Baha’i principles which may have been clear 50 years ago are so no longer. The principles raise all sorts of questions. What is the equality of men and women? What does that mean for changing sexual roles? How do we apply this principle to real situations? How are men and women equal? it was pointed out that, looking at the Baha’i communities around the world, this principle seems to mean little in practice. The Baha’is have not distinguished themselves as models of sexual equality, but have followed the customs of their respective cultures. If we are supposed to be in the vanguard of social change why have we failed? For lack of fresh and new ideas to spur us on?

In our discussion, it was suggested that a series of weekend seminars on different topics involving Baha’is who are professionals or scholars in various fields ought to be formed to offer advice and suggestions to the National Assembly. But,others contended that it is just not that simple. One does not sit dawn on a weekend and bash out a raft of bright, new ideas. Such ideas must rise naturally from debate and discussion, within the Baha’i Community as a whole.

For such developments to take place, we must first agree that new ideas are necessary at all and commit ourselves, as a community, to some degree of intellectual life. Right now, the entire National thrust is towards spreading the Faith and multiplying its institution and nevermind new ideas. The achievement of statistical goals has gotten to the point that it is pointless and uninspiring. After a while no one cares if we have 1,400 or 1,800 local Spiritual Assemblies or how many languages Baha’i literature is translated into. The excessive concentrattons on such ?shopping list? goals has left the Baha’i community without any sense of culture or unique identification.

And what happens if our zeal for expansion pays off big? Suppose there is a massive influx of new believers’? Is the Baha’i community prepared to handle such an influx. Do we have the flexibility and adaptability to receive large numbers of people into the Faith and socialize them quickly — bringing them into the mainstream of Baha’i life and allowing them to change the course of that mainstream? Experience shows that we do not. Even the recent influx of deepened Persian believers into the United States has caused problems which we are not prepared to handle because we have never thought about them. How does a Baha’i community overcome a language barrier? Some communities in the Los Angeles area have chosen to have translations at the Feasts, while others have steadfastly refused to have them (except, perhaps, for the Treasurer’s Report). And what if Armenians and Chinese and Mexicans enter the Faith in large numbers all at once? Do we then translate into four languages? Do we ignore then and go on only in English?

Questions like these came a lot easier than answers. While we could ask how we should socialize ethnic minorities in the Baha’i community, we could not agree on the best methods, or how to safeguard the rights of Baha’i minorities. The unhappy conclusion we arrived at is that the administrative institutions have not identified problem areas. And barring some major re-thinking on the highest levels, we will continue with what one class member termed the ?body count’ theory of expansion which ignores the question of quality in the quest for quantity.

After a break our discussion shifted to the political situation in Iran, Attending our class session were a number of Iranian Baha’is, including one man who had recently returned from that crisis-torn country. He reported that the recent wave of anti-government demonstrations, strikes and riots has left Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi in a very bad situation. The Baha’is of Iran have not gone untouched by this widespread social upheaval. There have been hundreds of incidents of beatings, torture and other persecutions outside of Tihran, Our class was told of a Baha’i Center in Gurgun in the province of Mazindaran [Ed. alt spelling: Mazandaran] that was burned to the ground by a mob. Baha’is have been purged from all high government positions. Gen. Khademi, the head of Iran Air and a Baha’i, was fired from his job and them murdered by a group of Muslim youth.

Behind these incidents lies the fact that opposition to the Shah is spearheaded by religiously super-orthodox mullas who have deep antipathy for the Baha’i Faith. Since the pulpits of the mosques have remained for the last many years the only avenues of dissent which have not been crushed by the government of Iran, the frustrated masses of a nation have rallied behind these reactionary leaders. This places the Baha’is is a very dangerous position — especially if the Shah should fall.

Beyond this, there is an even more serious problem. Baha’is in Iran are popularly regarded as firm supporters of the Shah’s regime. In the eyes of the leftist revolutionaries, the Baha’i community is committed to the Pahlavi dynasty and, therefore is a common enemy. This is largely due to the fact that some prominent Baha’is have made fortunes by placing themselves in partnership with the royal family and participating in their corrupt dealings) and partially due to a general misunderstanding of the Baha’i Teachings on obedience to government. However, the Baha’i Community has not taken steps to make its neutrality in the current crisis clear.

Beyond this, the Persian Baha’is themselves have cone to confuse loyalty to government with support for the Shah. It was reported, for example, that it is a well-known fact that there are Baha’is who work for SAVAK, the Shah’s brutal secret police, notorious for systematic torture, of political prisoners. Rumors are rife in Iran that Amir Abbas Hoveida, the now-jailed ex-prime minister, is a secret Baha’i. (His father was a Covenant-breaker.) For years the Baha’i community did nothing to discourage these rumors. It was evidently felt that such misinformation would provide a measure of protection for the Baha’i community, With the fail of that minister and the wholesale expulsion of Baha’is from government posts, the community is suffering a double blow — partly of its own making.

The bottom line here appears to be that the Baha’i community of Iran is isolated and without allies in Persian society. Even the intellectual classes, who might have opposed the persecution of Baha’is on humanitarian grounds, have written off the Baha’is as servants of the Shah and, therefore, traitors to the nation. As for the Shah himself, his continued reign seems to be the only hope the Baha’is have of avoiding full-scale persecution. But, several class members agreed that the Shah would throw the Iranian Baha’i Community to the mobs without hesitation if he thought that it might shore up his tottering rule.

The Persian Baha’i Community may not be the only one to suffer from having become too identified with a repressive regime. One member of our class had received a letter from some American pioneers in South America. They reported that some native believers in their part of the world had been distressed by a photograph published in a recent issue of Baha’i News (June 1978, p; 13). That picture showed a group of Baha’is (including members of the Continental Board of Counsellors and the Chilean National Spiritual Assembly) posing with Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, the dictator of Chile. Gn. Pinochet, it is widely acknowledged, runs one of the most brutally regimes in Latin America. Further, in the picture in the Baha’i News, television cameras were clearly recording the event for the Chilean masses. By posing for pictures with the General, some class members argued, the Baha’is were allowing themselves to be used as pawns in a political game of power. They were giving a de-facto seal of approval to Pinochet’s government – a fact that may be remembered some day, if and when his regime is overthrown. And sometimes military regimes do not last long in South America.

Another class member related a story about the political naivet? of the Baha’is. In Belgium at one time the Baha’i community was asked to send some Persian believers to greet the Empress of Iran as she arrived in the airport in Brussels. Every Persian Baha’i in Brussels, save one, turned out to greet the Empress with smiling faces. The news media duly recorded the event. It turns out that no other Persians (non-Baha’is) in Belgium were told that the Empress was to arrive, because the government feared negative demonstrations which would cause some bad publicity, it seems that the Baha’is could he counted on to provide just the political support that the Persian government wanted. And the Baha’is went along, naively thinking that they were being honored by the government and, apparently without the slightest idea that their actions had any political implications.


Actually, the next class has already been held. You will get the notes from that one shortly. But, the class after that will he held on December 17th (a Sunday) at 3:00 P.M. at the home of Anthony A. Lee (also known as Tony) [Ed. personal address and phone number follows] It is not clear just what the topic of the class will, be, bt uTony has been urged to give a lecture on African Traditional Religions and their relationship to the Baha’i Faith. And, if no one comes forward with some other presentation, then that’s what it will be. Everyone is requested to bring a needle or two to stick into some object which Tony is preparing. Come prepared!


Related Links:

The original scanned documents can be found here.