Rigid Hierarchy has Taken over Baha’i Religion, Dissidents Say


… but conservative leaders maintain that orthodoxy has not been altered.

Juan Cole, a professor at the University of Michigan,
is a former Ba­ha’i who thinks the faith has been taken over by its conservative leaders.

By Ira Rifkin

Religion News Service

             The first 19 days of March are a special time for Baha’is, members of a worldwide religion with a liberal reputation based on its vision of the underlying unity of all faiths, the oneness of humanity and the harmony of science and religion.

            The Baha’i Faith grew out of Islam, and like the Muslim month of Ramadan, Baha’is set aside the 10 days the month of Ala according to the Baha’i calendar – as a period of dawn-to-sunset fasting and spiritual reflection. The month rends with the Feast of Nowruz, the Baha’i New Year. It’s a festive time of community gatherings featuring prayers, spiritual readings, socializing and lots of food.

           For former Baha’i Juan Cole, however, this year’s feast will be anything but festive. Cole, a professor of Middle East History at the University of Michigan is among the nation’s leading experts on the faith. Until last May, when he formally resigned from the movement, he had been a Baha’i for 25 years.

              Now he counts himself among a small but influential group of past and present liberal Baha’is who are angry over what they say is the hijacking of the faith by a cadre of conservative leaders who are more interested in preserving their authority than the Baha’i principle of “independent investigation of reality.

           That principle is among the core tenets of the Baha’i Faith first articulated by its founder, the 19th-century Persian prophet known as Baha’u’llah (the Glory of God) and who is revered by the faithful as an incarnation of God akin to Jesus.

              According to the critics, the National Spiritual Assembly, which oversees the American Baha’i movement is dominated by a tight-knit group of authoritarian officials who keep the lid on free expression by threatening dissidents with excommunication and by manipulating the process by which NSA members are elected. In the Baha’i Faith, excommunication can include total shunning by family members and friends.

             Spreading their message via the internet, the dissidents – many of whom, like Cole once were members of the faith’s intellectual elite – say the nine-member National Spiritual Assembly also hides the truth about the faith’s shrinking American following.

            “Baha’is are not open – repeat, not open – about how controlling this organization is” Cole said. Virtually no one who comes into this faith realizes that by becoming a Baha’i you are making your individual conscience hostage to the dictates of the leadership. “The Baha’is started out Unitarian and ended up Calvinist.

  Emphasis on order

           For their part, American Baha’i leaders with headquarters in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, III dismiss the critics as an inconsequential group of disgruntled elitists who blinded by their attraction to the faith’s more liberal aspects overlooked its deeply conservative side.

           This includes an emphasis on “administrative order” as a prime religious goal. Baha’u’llah taught that religions fail in large part because of the disunity that tears them apart following their initial burst of spiritual energy.

           As a result, tight controls are placed on all public statements made by Baha’is including the work of scholars, who are required to submit their writings for pre-publication review.

We always seek consensus. But if there is no unanimity, then the majority must prevail,” said Firuz Kazem Zadeh, a National Spiritual Assembly member and its secretary for external affairs. Not all Baha’i scholars find fault with this.

           “I personally don’t buy the totalitarian argument.” said Canadian Baha’i B. Todd Lawson, an assistant professor of Islamic studies at McGill University in Montreal.

            Michael McMullen, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Houston at Clear Lake, said prior review “makes sense” because much of the writings of Baha’u’llah and his successors remain untranslated from their original Persian and Arabic, and therefore are inaccessible to the majority of American Baha’is.

          “My experience has been that what are corrected are factual errors, not interpretation,” said McMullen, who is a local Baha’i leader in League City, Texas.

           The dissidents also claim the Baha’i prohibition against public campaigning or nominating candidates for spots on the National Spiritual Assembly serves to keep it a closed body controlled by the American Baha’i establishment.

             Baha’i leaders say they are only following an orthodoxy established by Baha’u’llah and his successors — his son, Abdul-Baha, and his great-grandson, Shoghi Effendi, who died in 1957.

           Assembly members are elected annually by a fixed number of 171 delegates who represent local Baha’i assemblies across the continental United States.

         Robert C. Henderson, a former Atlanta businessman who is the assembly’s secretary-general, making him the highest-ranking American Baha’i (the faith has no ordained clergy), said there had been 12 changes in the assembly’s membership the last 15 years. “That’s not indicative of a closed group,” he said. Robert C. Henderson is secre­tary-general of the National Spiritual Assembly and the high­est-ranking American Baha’i.

  Free local debate

            However, Cole said each change resulted from retirement, death or a member moving out of the country. No incumbent who has sought re-election has been defeated since 1961, he said. Cole also noted that family and other close associations are common among American Baha’i leaders. Six of the nine current assembly members have family or professional connections.

          McMullen, the University of Houston sociologist, acknowledged that the prohibition against nominations and campaigning made it hard for those outside the Baha’i establishment to win election to the National Spiritual Assembly.

           But on the local level, he added, there is a much higher leadership turnover. Moreover, on this level of authority, he said, even controversial issues are freely debated without fear of official disapproval.

          Henderson also said that “Baha’is are specifically asked to air their grievances” at local and national conventions There are specific channels for such expression, but it must remain within these established channels. “The Baha’i Faith is outwardly liberal but inwardly conservative,” he continued. “It’s a matter of scripture.”

          Baha’is claim a worldwide membership of more than 5 million people living in more than 200 nations and territories about half in India. In Iran – where the faith first emerged in the 1840s when Baha’u’llah proclaimed himself to be the divine manifestation for the modem era, there are 300,000 Baha’is Considered heretics by the Muslim authorities they live as a persecuted minority.

         The heresy charge stems from Baha’u’llah’s claim to prophet status some 1,200 years after Muhammad, the founder of Islam, proclaimed himself God’s final prophet.

  How many in America?

        In the United States Baha’is claim about 130,000 members a third of whom are African-Americans about 21,000 live in California and the largest concentration more than 6,000 is in greater Los Angeles. Baha’is also are relatively strong in South Carolina, Texas Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Illinois, Arizona and Washington state.

        However, Baha’i critics say the religion’s membership numbers are wildly inflated. Citing friendly but unnamed sources at Baha’i headquarters in Wilmette, the dissidents say no more than 30,000 names represent active Baha’is with verifiable addresses.

       A 1993 book on Americans’ religious affiliations One Nation Under God by demographers Barry Kosmin and Seymour Lachman, estimated the number of adult Baha’is in the United States at 28,000.

         “Every new religious movement that is in a missionary phase tends to overestimate its members,” Kosmin, currently at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London, said in an interview. “They count people coming in, but never count those who leave.”

         Kazem Zadeh, the Baha’i official, insisted that the 130,000 figures were “essentially accurate.” But he also said that “if active means contributing funds and serving locally, it’s probably about half the names on the list.”

           Sizable Baha’i communities in the South are traceable to the influx of mostly rural African-Americans who joined the faith in the 1960s and ’70s, drawn by its strong rejection of racial prejudice.

          During those same years, relatively large numbers of white liberals, attracted by the faith’s emphasis on a society free of social injustice, also joined. It is mostly members of this group, many of them scholars of Baha’i texts, the Middle East and its languages, that today lead the dissident movement.

          Linda Walbridge, an anthropologist at the University of Indiana, specializing in the growth of Islam in America, became a Baha’i in 1966 when she was a 19-year-old VISTA volunteer on the Navajo Reservation. Despite her anger at the hierarchy, she remains a Baha’i.

          Raised Roman Catholic, Walbridge said she was attracted to the Baha’i Faith by its “promise of a universalist vision… It was far more open that anything I had experienced.”

       Walbridge’s public dissent has prompted Baha’i officials to threaten to label her a “covenant breaker” – a form of Excommunication that would require her Baha’i husband to divorce her or risk his own excommunication.

           “It was supposed to be the most liberal, broad-based religion on the face of the earth,” Said Walbridge “Instead, it turned out to be a straitjacket.”

Source: The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Missouri) • 01 Mar 1997, Sat • Page 62


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