Race, Immorality and Money in the American Bahá’í Community: Impeaching the Los Angeles Spiritual Assembly


           Where could Iranian-Americans, African-Americans and whites meet regularly for worship, negotiating each other very different value system in the globalized world of diasporas and New Religious Movements? The answer is, in the Bahai community of Los Angeles. An analysis of a crisis in that community will tell us a great deal not only about the Bahai Faith but about how an immigrant faith that has attracted many converts deals with the resultant communal tensions. On July 19, 1986, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of the United States formally dissolved the Local Spiritual Assembly (LSA) of the Bahais of Los Angeles, then a community of some 1200 adult believers and among the larger urban Bahai communities. The national authorities replaced the disbanded local assembly with a six-person administrative committee that was to report directly to the national Bahai headquarters in Wilmette, Illinois, so that in effect the national body took direct control of the affairs of the Bahais of Los Angeles. This action was thought by local Bahais at the time unprecedented [1]. Although local assemblies are routinely dissolved, it is usually because their members have flagrantly broken Bahai law, which, with perhaps one exception, was not the case here. Why, then, did the NSA act in such a direct and forceful fashion? What goals did the national body wish to accomplish through this intervention? What problems had the local spiritual assembly faced that the national body felt it simply could not deal with? Three admitted major areas of concern later emerged, having to do with finances, race relations, and immorality. Other sources suggest that concern for the power and primacy of the national assembly played a part. Which, if any, of these causes was determinative?

           The Bahá’í Faith came to the U.S. in the 1890s from the Middle East, where it had been founded in 1863 by an Iranian notable and prophet, Bahaullah (1817-1892) [2]. He taught the eventual advent of world peace, the need for collective security, the unity of humankind, the unity of the religions, and the need to replace absolute monarchy with parliamentary, constitutional government. His son, Abdul-Baha (1844-1921), came to the U.S. in 1912-1913 to help spread the religion, and he was succeeded by his grandson, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, 1921-1957 [3]. From the 1920s, the relatively liberal, freewheeling early American Bahai community, which had no clergy, began to be transformed by the religions leaders into a much more disciplined, organic sort of body. It was demanded that all publications of Bahais about their religion must be vetted by the Bahai assemblies at the appropriate level. Bahais were gradually forbidden to utter any public criticism of their religious bodies policies or decisions. The collective, nine-man international head of the religion from 1963, the Universal House of Justice came to be considered infallible in all its doings by most American Bahais. The American community probably now consists of about 60,000 adult believers, though the authorities claim twice that number of adherents. The Los Angeles community dates from the early twentieth century, and is the burial site of Thornton Chase, widely regarded as the first American Bahai.

            As Mike Davis has contended, Los Angeles is a city of contradictions and contrasts, above all between the poor and the rich, but also ethnically and occupationally [4]. Nowhere is this axiom more true than in the sphere of religion. Most of the world religions are active in the city, and ethnic religions abound. Its population now over nine million, swollen by a century of astonishing immigration rates, Los Angeles county is a place where 106 languages are spoken and persons of Western European descent are a minority. The reality of immigration presents enormous difficulties for religious communities. In the words of John Gregory Dunne, everyone was an alien, the newcomer never an exile. In such an environment, the idea of community did not naturally flourish, since community by definition built on deposits of shared experience [5]. Conflicts abound between members of distinct waves of immigration, and between social groups whose relative importance had shifted in the New World. The Sri Lankan Buddhists of Los Angeles experienced a bitter schism in the 1970s over lay versus monastic control of the community [6]. Shi`ite and Sunni Muslims uneasily coexist in some Los Angeles mosque congregations [7]. It is therefore no surprise that the Los Angeles Bahai community should experience difficulties that arose in part from the immigration of an ethnically distinct group of believers.

           This study is based in part on unpublished interviews and drafts done by anonymous reporters for the short-lived Bahai magazine, dialogue, which was forbidden to publish these materials by the NSA, as well as upon follow-up interviewing with members of the Los Angeles Bahai community (I was myself a member of the Southern California Bahai community during the period 1979-81 and 1983-1984) [8]. To understand the following events it is necessary to have some notion of Bahai power structures, which are lay and either elected or appointed by elected bodies. The nine-member local spiritual assemblies are elected directly, without nominations or campaigning, by secret ballot and universal adult suffrage among all the registered believers in a particular municipality or other civil unit. Local communities meet every nineteen days at feast, actually a combination worship service and church business meeting that is closed to non-believers. The National Spiritual Assembly (NSA) is indirectly elected, insofar as individual Bahais vote every fall for a delegate to the annual April National Convention, where the delegates elect the nine-member national body. Every five years since 1963, the national spiritual assemblies of the world have elected an international or universal house of justice, with its seat in Haifa, Israel, which is the religions highest executive and legislative body. Bahai governance is characterized by an episcopal ecclesiastical structure and by demands for conformity and obedience to the Covenant [9]. The authoritarianism characteristic of the upper levels of the organization, however, is in contradiction with the relative freedom believers usually exercise at the local level in creating Bahai subcultures and electing local officers. The NSA intervenes occasionally to dissolve any local spiritual assemblies, the members of which it deems morally corrupt (or, it is alleged, which are thought insufficiently loyal to the national). The Los Angeles assembly faced many unique problems, given the unusual and vast geography of the city, the relatively large size of the community (in U.S. Bahai terms), and the need for feasts to be held in thirteen area locations. These area feasts perpetuated ethnic and economic divisions of long standing.

           The announcement of the dissolution of the Los Angeles local assembly was made to a large convocation of believers at the recently-completed Bahai Center, by then NSA member James Nelson, a Reagan-appointed Los Angeles municipal court judge. The initial reasons given for this step had to do with what was felt to be widespread immorality in the community and the local body’s refusal or inability to deal with it. Nelson announced:

           “The Local Spiritual Assembly … has found itself disabled from performing the functions of guiding the community in taking care of its administrative affairs. Over too long a period, instances of bad behavior in the community have gone unrecognized or, if recognized, uncorrected … This runs the gamut from fraud and corruption to gambling, to sexual deviations, to-well, all of the things that can possibly go wrong, including drug abuse things which every urban society has in ample measure and to which our community is not immune” [10].

           In fact, immorality was only one of a number of concerns that drove the dissolution, and it, like the entire event, was deeply entwined with ethnic conflict in the community. That is, Nelson’s casting of the issue as one of simple morality and local capitulation to it had the effect of universalizing the conflicts and stripping them of their rootedness in financial difficulties and in identity politics among Bahais in the city.

           The immediate reaction of the old local spiritual assembly members was shock and disbelief. Lois Willows, who had been the corresponding secretary, observed, I’m sure we didn’t do as good a job as we should have, but we did as good a job as we could have … My feeling is our problems were no grater than those encountered in other large communities in the United States [11]. Most former LSA members, including all four Iranians, declined to speak for the record. Manila Lee, a long-time member of the local assembly and a respected elderly African-American school teacher, had resigned from the assembly in mid-April, 1986, but because that body was slow to announce her departure she was reelected on the twenty-first of that month anyway. Lee thought the dissolution should have been done a year ago. She recalled a closed ninety-minute meeting of seven members of the NSA with the Los Angeles local assembly held to discuss the decision to dissolve the local body, chaired by James Nelson. One assembly member asked, What about our prestige? She reported. Nelson replied, Your prestige is way down. She criticized some members for looking for prestige, but this reaction seems too unsympathetic [12]. It was perfectly understandable for the elected members of the Local Spiritual Assembly to be concerned about what the dissolution would mean for their reputations in the local Bahai community.

          Nelson’s oral declaration of the dissolution was followed up by a letter to the Bahais of Los Angeles from Robert H. Henderson, the full-time secretary-general of the NSA. Henderson, an African-American former businessman elected to the national body in 1984, was from a Bahai family and was brought up in Los Angeles. These events therefore had special meaning for him, though he had left the city some time previously. Henderson wrote that after prolonged and agonizing consultation the NSA had concluded that the situation required remedial action [13]. The first step was the July 19 dissolution of the local assembly. He added, the major reason for this regrettable but necessary action was the inability of the Spiritual Assembly to cope with the demands of the administration of the community’s spiritual and operational affairs … He explained that in order to revitalize the community, the NSA had appointed an administrative committee, to which local believers were to give their wholehearted support and cooperation. He concluded by quoting a letter of Bahai holy figure Abdul-Baha to the early Los Angeles Bahai community, in which he urges them to promulgate the religion, and to remain firm in the Covenant (most Bahais interpret the covenant as unswerving obedience and submission to the Bahai ecclesiastical authorities).

           The members of the six-person administrative committee that the NSA put in charge of the Los Angeles community were hand-picked from neighboring communities. But one problem in addressing the issue entirely through outsiders, with local elections in abeyance, was that there would be no obvious way to train potential new Local Spiritual Assembly members from within Los Angeles. In order to aid in the creation of a new cohort of potential leaders, the NSA in August of 1986 appointed a Council of Nineteen local Bahais to oversee the day-to-day teaching, administration, finance, consolidation and proclamation activities of the Los Angeles Bahai Community [14]. At the Feast of Asmaon 19 August, long-time NSA member Firuz Kazemzadeh (and then professor of Russian history at Yale University) was asked when fresh elections for an LSA would be held and replied that it perhaps will be determined through a process of consultation between the Council of 19, the administrative committee, the community at large and the NSA. It cannot be decided locally. It will be decided jointly [15]. Dialogue interviewed Mark Sisson, who had served on the Local Spiritual Assembly of Los Angeles from 1983 till 1984, when he had resigned in frustration, and who was the only former LSA member to be appointed to the Council of Nineteen. He explained that The Council of 19 are trainees, as it were, in preparation for assembly members [16]. It was expected that local Bahais with leadership potential would be rotated onto the Council of Nineteen to create a wider base of administrative experience. Sisson expressed concern, however, about the publication of the pictures of the Council of Nineteen on the cover of the September issue of the Los Angeles Bahai Journal. In Bahai elections, campaigning and canvassing are supposed to be strictly forbidden, and this photograph appeared to many to function as a subtle campaign poster. Sisson admitted,

           This is a concern of many of the council members themselves. And this has been voiced by myself and others. I’ve been really concerned about this issue … I was very uncomfortable with the fact that our pictures were plastered all over the journal. I am concerned with the fact that we are constantly referred to as council members before the community at large. However, it is premature to say whether or not the outcome will be another crude form of electioneering. It will result in that if the Bahai community at large does not pursue their individual and independent responsibility as active members of the community [17].

           In fact, the techniques of subtle campaigning had long been mastered by several members of the NSA, who had become perpetual incumbents, so the spread of these tactics to a large urban community is not surprising.

          Around the same time as the Local Spiritual Assembly was dissolved, one of its members, an Iranian refugee and ex-academic, faced possible Bahai administrative sanctions over alleged financial irregularities in his business. This simultaneity of charges raised the question of whether the businessman’s actions had helped precipitate the NSA intervention. A dialogue correspondent wrote to Anna Lee Strasburg, head of community affairs at the national Bahai center in Wilmette, Ill., asking, among other things, whether it were true that:

  1) the NSA discussed the possibility of dissolving the LSA of Los Angeles as early as 1983

  2) the Universal House of Justice advised the National Assembly not to postpone the dissolution

 3) the timing of the sanctions against the Iranian businessman and the dissolution of the LSA was coincidental [18].

           That these questions were being widely posed in the community at the time demonstrates that local Bahais were seeking to establish some timeline and chain of authority for the dissolution.

           Only months later, on March 14, 1987, did the general community receive a more extended explanation of what had happened, during a talk given at the local Bahai center by NSA Secretary Robert Henderson [19]. He expressed regret that the NSA had felt forced to intervene, acknowledging that Bahai values favored emphasizing the good points in an individual or body.(Most Bahais have a strong commitment to internal peace and quietism, and condemn backbiting or internal conflict, which might lead them to be uncomfortable with the hardline NSA actions.) He went on to give three categories of serious problem with local administrative functioning that had precipitated the crisis. The first was administrative and financial. The Local Spiritual Assembly had become disorganized, even though the NSA had around 1983 appointed an executive committee to work with it. For several months prior to the July 1986 dissolution, the local assembly of Los Angeles had neglected to keep minutes, leaving no permanent record of decisions. Beginning in the late 1970s, the NSA had required all local assemblies to submit copies of its minutes for spot-checking at the national headquarters in Wilmette, Illinois, as a means of national oversight over local affairs. Henderson complained that the lack of minutes allowed individual LSA members to voice opinions not necessarily consistent with the majority, and allowed informal decision-making outside the chambers of the assembly [20].

           The Local Spiritual Assembly’s financial situation had, Henderson explained, become perilous. The Bahai bookstore had incurred a $35,000 debt to the Bahai Publishing Trust (an organ of the NSA), with poor bookkeeping and no effective plan to pay it off. He alleged that evidence of pilferage had been ignored, and that the bookstore continued to operate at a loss of $1,000 per month. The debts to the Bahai Publishing Trust were sufficiently large that steps had had to be taken to avoid allowing them to push it into financial instability. He added, The financial affairs of the community were in complete disarray. The community would have gone into bankruptcy had not certain dramatic actions ultimately been taken by the NSA through the agency of the administrative committee … [21]. The NSA had appointed an executive committee of hand-picked experts to advise the Los Angeles assembly on how to reorganize its affairs, but the latter had proven contentious declined to take direction, even though public disagreement with higher authority is greatly disparaged among Bahá’ís. A member of the LSA confirmed the financial problems, saying that by spring of 1986 less than 125 members out of the 1200 adults were contributing to the national fund because they had lost faith in the local leadership [22]. The great expenses incurred in the building and opening of the new Bahá’í center in 1983 appear also to have discouraged local congregants, insofar as they were continually dunned for increased sacrifices, with no end in sight. Henderson did not mention the fall-off in contributions. As we shall see below, another major money-maker for the Los Angeles community was the rental of space to a medical clinic, the collection of which the disorganization of the local assembly ultimately made impossible. What should have been a major profit center for the national assembly had ceased contributing to Wilmette and, indeed, threatened to require investment from the center to cover local shortfalls.

            The second general area of problems, Henderson said, had to do with the deterioration of the social and spiritual life of the community. He used these words as a code for race relations and immorality. The Los Angeles Bahá’í community consisted of about 300 African-American adults and 500 Iranians, with most of the remaining members being white (there were only two or three Latino families and no East Asian ones). Henderson alleged that the Iranian Bahá’í immigrants had not been greeted with sufficient warmth into the Los Angeles community, giving the example of the enthusiastic and self-sacrificing manner refugees from Karachi had been accepted by an Oregon community. Another of his concerns in the area of social and spiritual dysfunction had been violations of Bahá’í laws against gambling, drinking, drug use, extramarital sex, shady financial dealings, and tax evasion. Henderson complained that most in the community had been unwilling to report such violations, where they knew of them, to the Local Spiritual Assembly. And the assembly, even where it did learn of such behavior, had refused to take any action. Here, two central traditionalist Bahá’í norms had been violated. There is a strong sense among conservative Bahá’ís that one should report to the authorities any behavior or speech of another  Bahá’í that seems out of the ordinary, that every believer should serve as a spy on all the others. The second is that public immorality as defined by  Bahá’í law should be investigated by the local assembly, that the perpetrators should be cautioned, and, if they continue in the activity, they should be disfellowed (in Bahai terminology, their administrative rights should be removed). Those so disfellowed cannot attend the Feast-held every nineteen days, cannot vote, stand for election, give money to the religion, or even give a public talk on the Bahá’í Faith. Henderson’s second complaint, about race relations, had to do with the African-American Bahá’ís. He reminisced that in his childhood he attended the old  Bahá’í center on New Hampshire Avenue and that this community was a model of interracial fellowship and unity that went way beyond anything being done anywhere, I am convinced [23]. He complained that this achievement had been lost, and that gradually, the non-white members of our community began to feel estranged. Black  Bahá’í attendance at community affairs and worship meetings had somewhat declined in the 1980s. Others at the time questioned Henderson’s idyllic portrayal of race relations among Los Angeles  Bahá’ís in the 1950s and 1960s.

            The final category of problem according to Henderson was a persistent set of conflicts among the members of the Los Angeles local assembly. Individual members of the assembly were engaged in gossip about the assembly’s affairs and engaged in public backbiting about the unwise of this decision and that decision. He stressed that the Bahá’í  norms called for unswerving and silent obedience even to decisions of the assembly with which one disagrees. He further alleged that electioneering had occurred, in addition to the problem of informal decision-making and backbiting. Criticism of a Bahá’í  institution by a Bahá’í is considered a serious offense, and even if private can sometimes result in the loss of administrative rights. For it to emanate from a member of an institution was even more threatening.

            Henderson concluded by blaming the problems not only on the nine members of the local assembly, but on the entire community, in part for not following the LSA. He said that there would be no election in Ridvan (April) of 1997 for a new Local Spiritual Assembly. When asked by an audience member what needed to be done, Henderson replied that during his four years on the national assembly he had seen other local spiritual assemblies dissolved, and had seen other local communities restored. He said that the ethnic problems had to be resolved, and that the blacks, Iranians and Hispanics had to be brought back together as parts of the family, and that the community members had to engage in putting the faith first, devoting themselves to proselytizing (teaching the faith), and build bridges of understanding, connections from one heart to another [24].

           Henderson’s account of why the local assembly had been dissolved was challenged at the time and by my Angeleno interviewees years later. The first gap in the explanations given has to do with the issues of power, control, and conflicts between local assemblies and the NSA. The Local Spiritual Assembly of Los Angeles had had a long-standing reputation as insufficiently obedient to the national body, as too willing to take the initiative and to strike out on its own. In the 1970s and until the early 1980s its members had been relatively youthful and probably affected by the youth culture of the 1960s, which was despised by conservatives in Wilmette. Under this group the decision had been taken to build a new Bahá’í center on the edge of a middle class black neighborhood, a project guaranteed to divert substantial resources to local needs, which was therefore disliked by some NSA members. Although this group of young people was perceived as somewhat maverick by Wilmette, they were also acknowledged to be relatively efficient and intelligent about avoiding a complete breakdown in relations with the national body. In the 1980s an older group of leaders was elected, including several Iranian-American expatriates. These leaders maintained the tradition of relative local autonomy, but were less adept politically. They inherited all the problems of finances and staffing related to the opening of the new local Bahá’í center in 1983, and appear to have been unequal to the challenge. In 1984, Robert Henderson was mysteriously elected to the NSA (in a way filling a slot vacated by his mother, Wilma Ellis), and he became its paid, full-time secretary-general. He was concerned, in tandem with authoritarian older members of the national assembly such as Firuz Kazemzadeh (who later married Ellis) and James Nelson, to assert the authority of the NSA over local bodies. To that end, the NSA ordered the dissolution of a number of local spiritual assemblies, and threatened others, such as San Francisco, with this step. They imposed national control by means of appointed Administrative Committees, and took advantage of their moment of local power subtly to promote candidates for local office who were acceptable to them. The failure of a local spiritual assembly to contribute any substantial sums to the national fund may well have helped determine which local bodies were dissolved. Certainly, Los Angeles was by 1986 sending on only risible contributions to Wilmette.

            With regard to the finances of the Local Spiritual Assembly of Los Angeles, Henderson’s account appears to have put unusual emphasis on some factors but to have ignored others entirely. His assertion that the Los Angeles Bahá’í bookstore was $35,000 in debt was challenged by Manila Lee, the manager, as being an old figure much larger than the actual debt in 1986. It was also alleged that this debt in fact included large amounts of book stock, which should rather have been counted as capital. In addition, Lee complained that the Bahá’í Publishing Trust had refused to give her the sort of discounts routinely offered to other Bahá’í communities, which exacerbated her difficulty in running the bookstore profitably. Although outside observers do agree that the bookstore was not run in good capitalist fashion, with Lee too willing to give away materials to those who pled inability to buy them, it appears that Henderson greatly exaggerated the bookstore’s straits. On the other hand, he did not mention on this occasion the rent from the medical clinic, which had its offices in a building at the new Bahá’í center complex and paid on the order of $5,000 per month. The local assembly very badly mismanaged this office complex, leading the physician renter to refuse to pay, and ultimately provoking a lawsuit that he won. Since the rent from the clinic was required to cover the costs of staffing the new Bahá’í center, inability to collect it threatened in the most dire manner the finances of the local assembly. This issue, which Henderson elided, was far more important than the bookstore. Finally, the local assembly had decided to lend one of its members, an Iranian businessman with very shaky finances, $40,000, a step that had led one alarmed member of the assembly to contact Wilmette, which in turn led to the dissolution. Henderson did not mention this incident. One interviewee, responding to Henderson’s charges of incompetence against the LSA, said that he was confused when the secretary then insisted that among the problems had been the failure of the local community to follow its local assembly. Why, he asked, should the community have followed a body so maladroit as to require dismissal?

            With regard to race relations, Henderson’s account oversimplified an extremely complex dynamic. The legal framework that permitted significant Iranian immigration was the 1965 change in immigration laws abolishing unequal country quotas, but the actual motivation for most Iranian immigrants to Los Angeles before the 1978-79 Revolution was largely economic. Because of turbulence and then revolution in Iran in the 1970s, impelling emigration, the Iranian population of Los Angeles increased six-fold in that decade, and although it grew at a smaller rate in the 1980s, its rate of growth was still far higher than for other Middle Eastern groups. Between 1970 and 1990 the number of Iranians in Los Angeles grew from only a few thousand to 76,000 (29 percent of all the Iranians in the country). Indeed, of 285,000 Iranians in the U.S., 100,000 or over one-third lived in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Jewish and Bahá’í Iranians were most likely to be political refugees, whereas Muslims (for the most part actually secularists) tended to be economic immigrants [25].

            There had for some time been a few Iranian Bahá’ís in Los Angeles, mainly as a result of chain migration (following family and friends), though some were drawn by UCLA or business interests. The arrival of several hundred Iranian Bahá’ís who fled from persecution at the hands of the Khomeinists from 1979 forward, however, changed the community enormously. Some twenty percent of the new arrivals did not speak English well enough to conduct committee business in it, and wanted everything that occurred at meetings to be translated into Persian, which alienated the English speakers. American Bahá’ís sometimes found the Iranian Bahá’ís cliquish (many of them were members of extended clans and so interrelated), and complained that the many wealthy among them tended to over-dress and to introduce class distinctions into Bahá’í social relations. Iranian Bahá’ís were instructed to follow American Bahá’í practices, such as not rising to their feet for certain kinds of prayer. For their part, many Iranian Bahá’ís felt a certain superiority to American converts, convinced that they knew better what the Bahá’í Faith was, though in fact many of them confused their folk customs with the high scriptural tradition. Persian Bahá’ís, in turn, take joy in pointing out, in an equally patronizing way, the faults of Western Bahá’í practices, such as the inconsistencies in the observance of the Bahá’í calendar and the omissions in Bahá’í laws of marriage and burial [26]. All these things were a bit off-putting to both sides. The overwhelming predominance in the 1980s of Iranian Bahá’ís in many Southern California Bahá’í communities such as Santa Monica led to a drastic fall-off in the participation of American Bahá’í in community events and a slowing of conversions to the religion. (Santa Monica had had perhaps 15 Bahá’ís in the 1970s, many of them white converts from the youth culture with a New Age orientation; by 1981 it had some 100 Bahá’ís, almost all Iranians, and many of the converts had ceased participating in community events). Contrary to what Henderson implied, the Los Angeles community, in part because of its sheer size, did much better at integrating the Iranians [27].

            Manila Lee observed, we had started (assimilation) programs around 1980-1981, and the assembly was very careful to appoint mixed committees, mixed as far as Persians and Americans. This effort, she said, had fallen into neglect in 1983, at a time when the local assembly was putting all its energies into the move to the new Bahá’í center, preoccupied by the minutiae of financing and construction. Lee added, that by that time, there was no systematic plan to assimilate anything … we didn’t devise any means. We lost white Americans who felt that the Persians were aggressive and encroaching and felt they heard too much translation (at feast) and all the petty excuses. They felt that the Persians were clannish and then the objection came that the Persians were class conscious … I just think we missed the mark entirely on assimilation. We had very little development of any ethnic programs [28].

            Not only did the local Bahá’í community not always work hard enough at assimilation, one contemporary Iranian-American observer suggested that Iranian Bahá’ís had substantial reasons not to assimilate. (The question of whether assimilation was even a good goal does not seem to have arisen in official Bahá’í discourse). The large Iranian immigrant community of Southern California, tens of thousands strong, offered social and cultural services not available elsewhere, including cultural functions, Persian-language media, and commercial and economic services and opportunities. These networks with non-Bahá’í Iranian immigrants helped overcome feelings of homesickness and of alienation in the new, surreal setting of the city of angels, as well as helping these businessmen, shopkeepers and service workers deal with the temporary downward mobility that is the lot of most immigrants. He felt that historically, immigrant groups with more extensive ethnic networks, such as the Chinese and Koreans of Los Angeles, have had a greater chance for economic success in the United States [29]. These observations are corroborated by social scientists who have found that Middle Eastern immigrants to Los Angeles are unusually likely to be entrepreneurs, self-employed, or professionals (especially the Iranians among them) and that they proved especially resistant to assimilation, tending to congregate in their own areas within white neighborhoods. Iranian Jews and Armenians also retained a distinct Iranian identity rather than melding in with local Jews and Armenians [30]. Unlike the Iranian Jews of Los Angeles, who began constructing their own synagogues, Iranian Bahá’ís were forced by Bahá’í law to attend the feast designated for their part of the city, and were forbidden to hold separate meetings or build separate buildings, on pain of being shunned.

            The exclusion of a fair number of Iranian Bahá’ís, moreover, was the fault of the international and national Bahá’í authorities, who adopted policies signaling that the Iranian refugees were not supposed to be in Los Angeles. Around 1981, Ruhiyyih Khanum (Mary Maxwell) Rabbani, a Hand of the Cause or lay bishop, spoke to the community harshly, upbraiding them for settling in a such a decadent urban center, implying they should never have left Iran, and that if they had insisted on doing so should at least have had the decency to settle as missionaries in some remote village of the global South. Many traditionalist Bahá’ís believe that cities are in imminent danger of evaporation. When someone from the audience asked where they should have settled instead, she replied in Persian that it was self-evident: Khar kih nistid (you are not asses). Many Iranian Bahá’ís came away from the meeting angry. One Iranian-American observer pointed out that most Iranian Bahá’ís who settled in Los Angeles did so to be close to family members, or for economic opportunities. Nevertheless, he noted, repeated admonitions from Bahá’í leaders and institutions about the dire consequences of living in Los Angeles has led to considerable confusion, thus making assimilation seem even less desirable to them, and added that their choice of domicile has become a religious question which led to a strong sense of guilt associated with their settling in Los Angeles [31].

            The Bahá’í authorities also adopted from 1983 a punitive approach to any Bahá’í who escaped from Iran through the Tehran airport, since it was known that they could only have gotten visas to fly out by claiming to be Muslims. These were disfellowed for at least a year upon their arrival in the U.S. in 1983-1986 (the term was even longer in the late 1980s), and many so punished for preserving their lives became disaffected and fell away from the religion. The Universal House of Justice in Haifa felt that allowing such paper apostasies as a means of fleeing Iran might lead to a fatal weakening of Bahá’í identity, and had to be strictly sanctioned. (Escapees across the Baluchi desert into Pakistan were more acceptable, even though they had broken the law to cross the border without a visa). Henderson and the U.S. NSA had zealously pursued punitive measures toward those who flew out of the airport, rather as if the Jewish rabbis in the early 1940s should have rigidly excommunicated any Jew who eluded Hitler by pretending to be a Catholic. The Los Angeles LSA was notorious for overlooking these apostasies under duress and recognizing escapees as Bahá’ís in good standing (provided two other Bahá’ís could vouch for their membership in the community), so that it was ironic that it should be berated by Henderson for mistreating the Iranian Bahá’ís.

            Finally, the Bahá’í national electoral system, with no formal campaigning or nominations wherein the top nine vote-getters win, is extremely vulnerable to bloc voting by a distinct group. The U.S. NSA appears to have been worried that the large influx of Iranian Bahá’ís would create a new voting bloc and throw up candidates for national election, displacing current members. In response, the NSA acted behind the scenes to close down regular scripture study sessions hosted by popular Iranian immigrant lay preachers, who were becoming prominent and therefore had a chance of being elected to the NSA. One contemporary writer observed,

            Unlike their Jewish and Armenian compatriots, who have at times been encouraged by their leaders to preserve their traditions by means of separate meetings from their host communities, Persian Bahá’ís have come under considerable pressure to quickly integrate and adapt to the ways and practices of American Bahá’ís. In the past five years, Persian meetings have been discouraged or banned (with the exception of memorial gatherings and fund raisers) while local Persian affairs committees have been dissolved on more than one occasion [32].

             These actions were so successful that from 1978 when the influx of some 12,000 Iranian Bahá’ís began, till the eve of the twenty-first century, no Iranian Bahá’í immigrant from the wave of the 1970s and 1980s was ever elected to the NSA. That many Iranian Bahá’ís felt unwelcome was therefore not only the result of local Los Angeles actions.

            With regard to the issue of immorality, what Henderson did not say was that many of those implicated in immorality were wealthy Iranian businessmen who brought with them the norms of behavior of the Pahlavi elite in Tehran under the shah. The Tehran Bahá’í community had been thousands strong and some of them had been tightly connected to the shah and his business class. As members of what had become an ethnic religion in Iran, they were defined in their original society by what families they came from, not by Bahá’í behavior. In a setting such as the United States, however, where most believers are converts, behavior becomes a crucial marker of identity. The concern about drinking and drugs was corroborated in an interview with dialogue given by former member of the Local Spiritual Assembly, Manila Lee: There were instances of violations of Bahá’í laws that were reported to the assembly, but the assembly failed to act … And then, there were some out and out cases of drunkenness that, for some reason, would die if they came to the assembly [33]. Of course, Americans may also have been among the transgressors of conservative Bahá’í norms, but most of the talk in the early 1980s, often in Persian so as to keep it secret, was about Iranian lapses.

            The African-American population of Los Angeles was also undergoing enormous changes 1970-1990, during which the black population grew from about 744,000 to 927,000. The city witnessed among the greatest rates of residential desegregation in the country during this period, with the dissimilarity index dropping from .90 in 1970 to .73 in 1990. African-Americans became substantially more educated, and even though their earnings continued to trail those of whites and Latinos, they made the most economic improvement in this period. Mayor Tom Bradley (in office 1973-1991) served as a symbol for this advance. Even more than among most ethnic groups, however, African-Americans witnessed a severe bifurcation between an increasingly educated and well-off middle class and an increasingly poverty-stricken underclass [34]. The black Bahá’ís tended to belong to the upwardly mobile middle class that was making such strides in this period. Although there were problems with African-American Bahá’í participation, it is not clear that these were greater than the fall-off in white attendance and giving. The new Bahá’í center was a refurbished bowling alley on the edge of a middle class African-American neighborhood, after all. In her dialogue interview, Manila Lee traced the alienation of some African-American Bahá’ís to early 1984, when the new Bahá’í center opened, a new staff was hired to run it, and committees were reshuffled. The new staff was all-white, and African-Americans felt they had been excluded from responsible positions, especially from the financial management committee, and it had been alleged to Lee by one African-American that the whites had said blacks don’t know anything about financing. She said that blacks … where they’re a minority in the United States … are very sensitive to people’s leadership if they feel there is any basic racism, and that the number of African-Americans who attended feast began dwindling, and those who had been active members gradually became inactive [35]. Other African-Americans living in Los Angeles at that time also remarked that they perceived the Iranian immigrants to have brought with them prejudices against blacks, and that some of the alienation stemmed from the new mix of ethnicities in the community [36]. Interestingly, this dynamic among non-whites was not mentioned by Henderson as a problem. In addition, some of the 300 black Bahá’í Angelenos allege that Henderson exaggerated their disaffection at that point, saying that they participated faithfully in the Gospel choir, the Sunday services at the Baha’i center, and as members on the local assembly.

            The attempt of the NSA to intervene in local Los Angeles affairs ultimately failed. At the Southern California district convention in October, 1986, the attendees passed a resolution with overwhelming support asking the NSA to dissolve the Administrative Committee and permit new elections for a Local Spiritual Assembly of Los Angeles. Members of the committee who were present at the convention asked that the conventions request be sent to the Administrative Committee itself rather than to the national assembly, but this suggestion was voted down. One interviewee recalls, A lot of people there felt that something was wrong about having an appointed committee running the community, regardless of the fact that the NSA has appointed it and the UHJ had approved it. Another interviewee said of the Administrative Committee that they were administrative types who all lived outside of Los Angeles,and were held in contempt by the local community. Even when Universal House of Justice Member Glenford Mitchell visited Los Angeles in this period, he was testily asked when the community would get its assembly back. The interviewee remembered, He was kind of flustered by the question and followed the party line that it was up to the local community, that if they met some (unstated) standard, the Assembly would be restored. Bahá’í scriptures recommend parliamentary governance, and U.S. Bahais see power exercised by unelected individuals as illegitimate.

              By March 19, 1988, the NSA had become convinced of the failure of their highly interventionist experiment, and seven members of its members were flown to Los Angeles for a meeting at the Bahá’í center to announce that annual elections for the Local Spiritual Assembly would be resumed that April. Only about 200 of the community’s some 1200 adult members attended the meeting, which seems likely to have been meant as a sign of local disgruntlement [37]. Henderson said that many of the mechanical administrative problems had been corrected. He was referring at least in part to the financial situation, both of the local treasury and of the Bahá’í bookstore: I remember meeting with the auditors of the NSA. They wanted us to write off the debt of the Los Angeles bookstore as a bad debt. And, we said, in Bahá’í terms, there is no such thing as a bad debt. Even if I don’t have the ability to pay now, I’m spiritually obligated to pay [38]. He noted that the bookstore debt of nearly $40,000 was repaid in full and it was now operating in the black. He also said that the bills of the Los Angeles Bahá’í community had been paid off, even though this effort had been impeded by the previous poor record keeping and financial disarray. Even the permit to hold meetings at the Bahá’í center had lapsed, and until renewed the gatherings there had been technically illegal. He continued to have financial concerns, since although the community broke even, it did so in large part because of the rent it received from the medical clinic. He said that without the rental income, the Los Angeles community would run an annual deficit of between $70,000 and $100,000.That is, if we were solely relying on contributions from the members, we would not be able to meet our financial responsibilities. He complained that only about 200 Bahais regularly contributed to the local fund. That is just not enough [39]. He also had concerns about attendance at the nineteen-day feast, which had jumped to 700 or about fifty percent soon after the assembly dissolution, but now averages 450 with some feasts as low as 350. He noted that there had been 50 conversions (declarations), and that a black teaching task force (for proselytizing among African-Americans) was operating, and that work still needed to be done on assimilating the Iranians.

            Pressed on what had gone wrong, Henderson admitted, Part of the (problem) is that we don’t know how to do this. We don’t know about the process of building a Bahá’í community in a metropolitan environment [40]. As an urban businessman, Henderson was well aware of the general Bahá’í bias against cities, which had ill fitted the religion for a place like Los Angeles. James Nelson, the municipal court judge, promised that an advisory council appointed by the NSA would work with the newly elected Local Spiritual Assembly. He emphasized the spiritual and moral challenges.

            It is clear that Kazemzadeh had a rather different reading of the problems than did Nelson or Henderson. Though he did not use these terms, he saw them as rooted in a lack of what Marxists would call party discipline. His remarks at the March, 1988 meeting are worth quoting in full:

           Friends, in our anxiety to improve the functioning of our institutions, we must not forget certain essential principles on which these institutions are built. Accountability can mean many things but if the question of accountability is put in the context of current practices of democratic nations, of the United States, for instance, that accountability does not exist in the Bahá’í community. Shoghi Effendi has said very clearly that the Bahá’í system combines the elements of various systems. The election is our democratic process, but the assemblies function as aristocracies. They are not accountable to the electorate. The consultation of the assembly is not open to the public unless the assembly wishes to consult with someone or some group of people on some specific subject. Otherwise, they consult in privacy, so that they would not be inhibited, so that they would not curry favor. Because if you are going to have a meeting of the assembly here on stage, the temptation of the members of the assembly to play to the gallery will turn the assembly into the Congress of the United States. That is not the Bahá’í way of conducting the business of the institutions. Shoghi Effendi did not permit the NSA to have a stenographer present at its deliberations … It also must be stated that, within the Bahai community, there are individuals, and sometimes they even become groups, who do question the activities of the Bahá’í institution. They are welcome to raise those questions in Nineteen Day Feasts. They are welcome to take those questions, objections, wishes, to higher institutions. If somebody is dissatisfied with a local assembly, he is not prevented from appealing to the NSA and actions of the NSA can be appealed to the Universal House of Justice. It is something else when whispering campaigns or petitions are sent around for signatures objecting to the activities of the institutions. That also may be something which is countenanced by American democracy but has nothing to do with the Bahá’í Faith. We must always remember that our institutions are an unusual and unique combination of theocracy in the best sense of the term with democracy. The institutions of the Bahá’í Faith have not been created by us, the institutions have been created by God. The membership is filled by us. We have the privilege of assigning who is going to be on the institutions, but the institutions themselves are the expression of God’s will, communicated to the world through a divine manifestation [41].

             Kazemzadeh clearly has a firm vision of the Bahá’í institutions as a sort of elective dictatorship, unchallengeable, beyond public criticism, and to be unhesitatingly obeyed. Nor is it to be responsive to community concerns, which would be a capitulation to public opinion. More worrisome, he wanted to see this system become the civil government.

            Again, there were dissenters from the image painted by Henderson and the other members of the NSA. Some alleged that not only had the bookstore had never actually been in as much debt as he said, but that it was only shown to have been put in the black by now counting book stock as assets rather than as debt (and, of course, some of the stock had sold during the two years of hiatus). The Bahá’í Publishing Trust retroactively extended to the Administrative Committee the sort of discounts they had denied to the old assembly, making paying off the debt much easier. It was also alleged that income from sources other than contributions was not reported at feast 1986-1988, making the financial situation look much more dire than it was. Henderson was silent about the problems that underlay the lawsuit over the clinic (which was eventually settled for $100,000), and most Bahá’ís never learned of it. The number of conversions Henderson cited as evidence of a recovery actually was unimpressive. Conversions had fallen to 80 in 1983, to 50 in 1984, and to 39 in 1985, numbers that, in the wake of the large conversions of the 1970s, had seemed to Manila Lee terrible. She would not have been impressed with the 50 conversions garnered in 1987 [42]. Although many Angeleno Bahá’ís agreed that the old assembly had become directionless, the real question for them was whether the NSAs intervention had had good results or bad. One of my interviewees, felt that under the Administrative Committee local morale was actually further undermined in ways that caused long-term damage to the community. When elections were held in April, 1988, three or four of the former members of the local assembly, including Lois Willows, were returned to office, which some saw as a vindication of the body that had been dissolved.

            Although Henderson and other members of the NSA fore-grounded, in their explanations for why the local assembly was dissolved, issues in immorality and race relations, I believe that these considerations were subsidiary to power and money. Although immoral behavior is considered very serious in the Bahá’í community, it would not normally impel the dissolution of a local assembly unless the assembly members themselves were persistently guilty of it, something not charged in Los Angeles. As for race relations, there is no reason to think these were substantially worse in Los Angeles than in other big urban Bahá’í communities of that period, and there are enough inconsistencies in Henderson’s story of Iranian refugees rebuffed and a vastly diminished African-American presence to raise serious questions as to whether these alleged situations even existed, much less forming causes for dissolving a local spiritual assembly. Other eyewitnesses appear to have perceived the situation very differently, with the Los Angeles local assembly exceedingly accommodating of Iranian escapees (perhaps too much so for Wilmette’s taste), welcoming them into the community and refusing to punish their peccadilloes, with continued substantial black presence despite some hurt feelings provoked by both white and Iranian insensitivity, and with the major change being dramatically decreased white participation in many community affairs as a result of frustration over issues such as culture shock at the influx of Iranians. But other communities, such as Santa Monica, suffered from much worse declines in non-Iranian participation than did Los Angeles.

        The issue of disunity on the local assembly was more serious, insofar as it threatened to undermine what Bahá’í administrators often privately refer to as party discipline. Kazemzadeh appears to have been particularly concerned that constituencies may have developed in the community, to which some members of the local assembly were consciously playing, a major sin in Bahá’í governance. The local assembly’s disunity was more likely an enabling factor in the dissolution than a causative one. That the local leaders were not getting along guaranteed that there would be no united opposition to the NSA plan of taking control of the local administration.

           Henderson’s own ambitions must be taken into account, as well. He had become secretary general of the national assembly 1984, after his company went under in Atlanta. The position of secretary has tended to be held for life or until election to the Universal House of Justice. In the hard-line Bahá’í political culture of the top administrators, success required him to demonstrate an ability to impose his will on the national community. The dissolution of a number of local assemblies early in his administration, and the threats made to others, functioned as a means for him to assert and consolidate national control. In Los Angeles, the opportunity presented itself to displace a cohort of local leaders who had proved overly independent, and to replace them with hand-picked loyalists of the sort appointed to the Administrative Committee and the Council of Nineteen.

            Money was probably even more important than power. Henderson’s various remarks on the economic situation contain strong clues as to the NSAs most pressing motivation in seeking to resolve the community’s leadership problems. Local contributors to the Bahá’í fund had slipped to only 125 out of 1200 adults as a result of lack of trust in the local assembly’s leadership, which reduced the NSAs receipts from the Los Angeles community to almost nothing. The poor management of the clinics office space, resulting in missed rent payments worth several thousands of dollars a month, and ultimately a lawsuit that had to be settled by the NSA for $100,000, was even more serious than the decline in giving. It threatened the ability of the local community to continue to staff the new Bahá’í center and perhaps even raised the specter of requiring substantial contributions from the NSA to keep it open. The mismanagement of the local assembly by spring of 1986 seemed very possibly poised to cost the NSA tens of thousands of dollars if it were allowed to continue. Henderson draws a full-time salary and perquisites, including free rent and upkeep at the nine-bedroom mansion that also serves as the secretary’s administrative headquarters, and some have estimated his package, in cash, kind and perquisites, as worth over $150,000 a year (such information is carefully withheld from the Bahá’ís). Four others among the nine NSA members drew stipends for their services on that body. The NSA was perpetually in need of money, and was usually in debt, often avoiding substantial indebtedness only because of bequests. Individual members of the National Assembly depended on the national fund. To have a major urban Bahá’í community like Los Angeles, full of wealthy business people and professionals, become a substantial drain on national finances rather than a major profit center, threatening national finances, clearly could not be allowed. It is not clear what resources were sent to Wilmette from the Los Angeles community by the appointed Administrative Committee in 1986-1988, but Henderson said that the alleged bookstore debt of $35,000 was completely paid down, and this figure may indicate the scale of such transfers.

            Nor could the problem have been solved locally. Current rules make it impossible for a local community to exercise effective oversight over its assembly, which members are not allowed to criticize publicly, and to which unswerving obedience is inculcated. One particularly active feast was aware of the problems in LA, and even drew up a plan to resolve them, but the local assembly declined to implement it, and there was nothing those 200 more informed believers could do about it. The major obstacle to dealing with these sorts of problems by a large, urban Bahá’í community such as Los Angeles, is the electoral system. The extremely low-information elections, the manner in which nine persons each with only a handful of votes can be elected if their tallies are higher than all the others, the tendency of the system to perpetuate incumbency in larger communities, the lack of reporting requirements on the precise use of funds in the budget or other means of judging the performance of the incumbents all of these features of the system militate against local electorates finding solutions for dysfunctional local assemblies. The alternative, of having the NSA intervene from above to fire LSA members at will, has the severe disadvantage of lacking in legitimacy in the eyes of rank and file Bahá’ís. These problems, however, cannot be addressed in a thorough going manner in the terms of contemporary Bahá’í discourse, which is why the planned dialogue magazine article on the dissolution was never allowed to appear. No trace of the events I have discussed remains outside the memories of the participants, and that there might be systemic problems was disallowed by all the officials involved, who chose instead to speak of lapses in personal morality. Norman Klein called his book on Los Angeles The History of Forgetting. If he is right, Bahá’ís are perfect Angelenos.


   [1]. Bob Ballenger/Steve Scholl, 21 July 1986, Dialogue Magazine Archives (hereafter DMA).

  [2]. Juan R. I. Cole, Modernity and the Millennium: The Genesis of the Bahai Faith in the Nineteenth Century Middle East (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998); Peter Smith, The Babi and Baha’i Religions: From Messianic Shi`ism to a World Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

  [3]. Robert H. Stockman, The Baha’i Faith in America , 2 vols. (Wilmette, Ill. and Oxford: Baha’i Publishing Trust and George Ronald, 1985-1995); R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram, Music, Devotions and Mashriqul-Adhkar: Studies in Babi and Baha’i History Volume 4 (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1987).

  [4]. Mike Davis, City of Quartz (New York: Vintage Books, 1992); see especially chapter one, Sunshine or Noir, and chapter six, New Confessions; and Norman M. Klein, The history of forgetting : Los Angeles and the erasure of memory (London and New York : Verso, 1997).

  [5]. John Gregory Dunne, Angels of L.A., New York Review of Books, vol. 45, no. 9 (May, 1998), p. 17; this article is also the source for the statistics cited.

  [6]. Paul Numrich, Schism in the Sinhalese Buddhist Community of Los Angeles, forthcoming.

  [7]. Kambiz  Ghanea Bassiri, Competing Visions of Islam in the United States: A Study of Los Angeles (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996).

  [8]. For the story of dialogue Magazine see Juan R. I. Cole, Press Censorship in the Bahai Faith and the dialogue Affair. forthcoming.

  [9]. Juan R. I. Cole, The Bahai Faith in America as Panopticon, 1963-1997, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 37, no. 2 (June, 1998), pp. 234-248.

  [10]. Transcript of tape of James Nelson speech, 19 July 1986, DMA.

  [11]. L.A. LSA Reaction, typescript, summer, 1986.

  [12]. Manila Lee in Ibid.

  [13]. Robert C. Henderson/Bahais of Los Angeles, California, 21 July 1986, DMA.

  [14]. Aftermath, anon. typescript, circa August, 1986, DMA.

  [15]. Kazemzadeh quoted in ibid.

  [16]. Sisson quoted in ibid.

  [17]. Ibid.

  [18]. Richard Hollinger/Anna Lee Strasburg, 23 September 1986, DMA.

  [19]. Robert Henderson Talk, Los Angeles Bahai Center, 14 March 1987, partial transcript. DMA.

  [20]. Ibid.

  [21]. Ibid.

  [22]. Manila Lee quoted in The Decline and Fall of the Los Angeles Local Spiritual Assembly, typescript, 1987, DMA.

  [23]. Robert Henderson Talk.

  [24]. Robert Henderson Talk.

  [25]. Mehdi Bozorgmehr, Claudia Der-Martirosian, and Georges Sabbagh, Middle Easterners: A New Kind of Immigrant, in Roger Waldinger and Mehdi Bozorgmehr, eds., Ethnic Los Angeles (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1996), pp. 350-352; Mehdi Bozorgmehr, Iranians, in David W. Haines, ed., Case Studies in Diversity: Refugees in America in the 1990s (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1996), pp. 85-103; for this point see pp. 92-93; idem, Internal ethnicity: Iranians in Los Angeles, Sociological Perspectives 40, no. 3 (1997):387-408; and for a textured overview see Ron Kelley, Jonathan Friedlander, and Anita Colby, eds., Irangeles (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993)

  [26]. The Persian Bahais of Los Angeles, typescript, summer, 1986, DMA.

  [27]. Kelley, et al., Irangeles, pp. 125-131.

  [28]. Lee in.

  [29]. The Persian Bahais of Los Angeles, typescript, summer, 1986, DMA.

  [30]. Bozorgmehr et al., Middle Easterners: A New Kind of Immigrant, pp. 359-373; Bozorgmehr, Iranians, pp. 98-101.

  [31]. The Persian Bahais of Los Angeles, typescript, summer, 1986, DMA.

  [32]. The Persian Bahais of Los Angeles, typescript, summer, 1986, DMA.

  [33]. Manila Lee quoted in Decline and Fall.

  [34]. David M. Grant, Melvin L. Oliver, and Angela D. James, African-Americans: Social and Economic Bifurcation, in Bozorgmehr and Waldinger, Ethnic Los Angeles, pp. 379-411.

  [35]. Lee in Decline.

  [36]. Personal communication from an African-American Bahai of Los Angeles, Dec. 3, 1997.

  [37]. LA/LSA Restored: NSA Meeting in L.A. 19 March 88, typescript transcript, DMA.

  [38]. Henderson in Ibid.

  [39]. Ibid.

  [40]. Henderson in LA/LSA Restored: NSA Meeting in L.A. 19 March 88.

  [41]. Kazemzadeh in LA/LSA Restored: NSA Meeting in L.A. 19 March 88, typescript transcript, DMA.

  [42]. Lee in Decline.

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