Control Mechanisms and Sanctions in Baha’i Faith

 Baha’i leaders employ a number of important control mechanisms to shape the speech and behavior of Baha’is. These include removal of voting rights, shunning, demands for conformity, accusations of “weakness in the covenant,” informing and surveillance, and various forms of censorship. Many of these tools are employed primarily against persons who are somehow prominent or appear to have leadership potential but do not seem easy for incumbents to control, or against intellectuals and some businessmen engaged in Baha’i-related businesses.

The prohibition of nominations and campaigning leads administrators to feel a need for strict controls on Baha’i discourse, and often to the avoidance of even mentioning leaders by name in public, which would be construed as “backbiting.” The ban on campaigning can become a ban on visibility or on any sort of critical thinking. A group of Californian believers began a Baha’i magazine, Dialogue, in the mid-1980s. Although all the articles were submitted for prepublication censorship to the National Spiritual Assembly, a feeling of distrust toward the magazine’s left-liberal editorial line grew up in Wilmette and in Haifa. In spring of 1988 the editors proposed the publication of a 9-point reform program, “A Modest Proposal,” which they submitted for censorship (Dialogue Ed. Board 1987). The article pointed to the decline in conversions, argued against continued censorship, and proposed term limits for N.S.A. members. They offered to (but did not) make the document available beforehand to delegates to the national convention. The response of N.S.A. secretary Robert Henderson and Firuz Kazemzadeh was to accuse the editors of engaging in “negative campaigning.” The editors were denounced at the 1988 national convention in Wilmette, and were interrogated by N.S.A. members, who privately expressed concerns that the publication of such a document might have prevented incumbents from being reelected, and who raised suspicions that an independent magazine such as Dialogue might prove a vehicle for gaining popularity in the community for the editors such that they might get elected to the N.S.A. The editors, dismayed at this barrage of what they felt were false charges and violations of due process, and worried that Dialogue could not survive such official condemnation, closed the magazine (Scholl 1997). The ban on campaigning leads to a situation where a great deal of suspicion falls on any active intellectual or any medium of communication not directly controlled by the N.S.A.

Baha’i administrators put a high premium on enforcing relative conformity of views within the religion, taking steps to prevent the emergence of self-conscious subcultures, which are seen as “parties” and as divisive. Despite the clear ideological divide in the community between liberals and conservatives apparent on email forums, Baha’is are forbidden to label one another in this way, which effectively prevents liberals from complaining about the conservative ascendancy. Although the early Baha’i faith had a place in it for cohesive sub-groups of mystics and scholars, the contemporary American community places a premium on homogeneity. Legitimate leadership is held to be collective, though cults of personality do grow up around Baha’i officials. Great suspicion attaches to any Baha’i teacher or lecturer who is not an elected or appointed official and is thought to be “gaining a following.” The story of one such popular Baha’i lecturer in the 1980s, an immigrant from Iran whose name I have disguised, is told by a friend:

Under the auspices of the California Regional Teaching Committee he began to do classes . . . on personal reading of the [sacred] Text. These were very widely attended . . . One day after about 4 or 5 months a representative of the CA RTC said that the N.S.A. was very concerned about the extreme adulation being shown to [Ibrahim], some of which was expressed in letters to the National Center. Tragically, this person said that the friends could think what they wanted to, but to please just change what they wrote to the N.S.A.. This was subterfuge, and this, combined with [Ibrahim’s] silence on the matter instead of public renunciation of the adulation, was the death knell. The classes were closed down. The rumor was that it was because he was developing a following (personal communication, 16 April 1997).

While a Baptist preacher would have been rewarded for such activities with his own congregation, the collectivist ethos of the American Baha’i community demanded that this popular preacher actually be silenced for his success.

Among important control mechanisms at the disposal of Baha’i leaders is the removal of a believer’s “administrative rights.” By virtue of joining the Baha’i faith, all adult believers have the right to vote directly for members of their local spiritual assembly, and to vote at District Convention for their delegate to the annual National Convention, who in turn elects the members of the National Spiritual Assembly each year. Elections of local and national assemblies are conducted according to the “Australian” system, such that the nine persons garnering the most votes win. Every five years, members of the world’s National Spiritual Assemblies elect the members of the Universal House of Justice.

One’s administrative rights also include holding elective office and attendance at the nineteen-day feast, a combination of worship service and church business meeting. Administrative rights are required for participation in a Baha’i marriage ceremony, and only those in possession of these rights may contribute money to the Baha’i faith. Many conferences, and even some email forums, such as Bahai-Discuss, are for Baha’is in good standing only. Local spiritual assemblies may not revoke a believer’s administrative rights, but may recommend that the National Spiritual Assembly do so. For the most part the National Spiritual Assembly takes such a step because a believer has repeatedly broken some Baha’i law in a public way–participation in civil politics, belonging to another religious organization, drinking alcohol, gambling, having an affair, homosexuality, failure to abide by Baha’i marriage laws (which require the consent of both parties’ parents), or breaking a civil law of some seriousness (Hornsby 1983: 39-51). Those whose rights are removed can no longer serve as public speakers in Baha’i settings, and, if writers, are usually unable to convince Baha’i publishers to publish them. In some instances the N.S.A. has removed rights for essentially political reasons, because a believer has publicly or even privately criticized (Baha’is would say “slandered”) the National Spiritual Assembly. A debate on this issue broke out in fall, 1995 on the email network, Talisman, in which liberals pointed out that here the National Spiritual Assembly acted as both plaintiff and judge. Most participants defended the current procedures, on the grounds that Shoghi Effendi had given this prerogative only to National Spiritual Assemblies and had specified that assembly members who were party to a dispute with an individual Baha’i should not recuse themselves in deciding that person’s fate.

Baha’is who publicly disagree (e.g. on email lists) with policies of the Baha’i institutions can also simply be dropped from the rolls and declared non-members, as happened to Canadian fantasy writer and editor Michael McKenny in July, 1997. The most serious sanction of all is being declared a “covenant breaker.” Although Baha’u’llah himself attempted to abolish the practices of shunning and ritual pollution, contemporary Baha’is, like members of the Watchtower and other cults, shun those who are excommunicated. Only the head of the Baha’i faith can impose this punishment, so that this authority now rests with the House of Justice. Whereas loss of voting rights does not necessarily speak to one’s spiritual well-being, being declared a covenant-breaker makes one spiritually condemned. Baha’is are not to speak to or have anything to do with covenant breakers (Hornsby 1983: 148-153). Baha’i friends and family, including the spouse, cut the covenant breaker off. Rank and file Baha’is take the obligation of shunning very seriously, and being cast out from one’s support network can be devastating. This punishment typically is imposed upon a Baha’i who has come into direct conflict with the head of the religion. Most often this is because the individual has put forth a competing claim and attempted to form a Baha’i sect, or because a Baha’i has chosen to join or associate with such a sect. Baha’i officials sometimes even declare ex-Baha’is covenant-breakers. In late 1996 in New Zealand a new Baha’i who refused to terminate her friendship with the daughter of a covenant breaker responded to pressure to do so by formally withdrawing from the Baha’i religion. She was nevertheless declared a covenant breaker (Universal House of Justice 1996d). Individuals can also be shunned for expressions of conscience. Recently, the House of Justice informed an American Baha’i liberal who had been critical of the U.S. National Spiritual Assembly and had urged reform of Baha’i judicial procedure that, should he continue on this path, “he and those with whom he has been closely associated” would “find themselves in direct conflict with the Covenant” (Universal House of Justice 1996b). In Baha’i terminology, they were threatening to have these Baha’is shunned if they continued publicly criticizing (“attacking and undermining”) Baha’i institutions or their policies, even though they were not fomenting a schism. Threats to use shunning for this purpose have increased with the rise of cyberspace.

Although Baha’i authorities do not appear to intervene in individuals’ secular businesses that are licit in Baha’i law, they do feel it their prerogative to interfere with Baha’i businesses that pursue activities directly related to the Baha’i faith. Thus, the making and marketing of Baha’i-related jewelry and decorations is strictly monitored and individuals can be ordered to desist from such activities. Music by Baha’i musicians with Baha’i lyrics must be “reviewed.” The National Spiritual Assembly claims the prerogative of telling private Baha’i publishers what Baha’i-related books they may or may not publish, and even of ordering the deletion of certain passages from both secondary and primary sources (MacEoin 1992:i). During the build-up to the 1991 Baha’i World Congress in New York, the National Spiritual Assembly encouraged all Baha’is to use its expensive official travel agency, and some private Baha’i travel agents report that the N.S.A. used threats of sanctions to pressure them not to offer competing, lower-priced packages (personal communication, March 8, 1996, and enclosures).

Conformity of views and behavior is a strong value, and deviation from stock phrases and ideas is looked upon with considerable suspicion (Johnson 1997). Despite the existence of New Age and liberal subcultures, the most widespread approach in the American Baha’i community to scriptural exegesis is literalism, as in fundamentalist Protestantism. Administrative practice is based largely on a literalist reading of Shogh Effendi’s English-language letters concerning the development of the Western Baha’i communities. Although Baha’is supposedly believe in the “unity of science and religion,” in practice most U.S. Baha’is put a literalist interpretation of scripture above science. Recently Counselors have begun demanding assent to a literalist approach to Baha’i scripture from liberal Baha’i academics, on pain of being shunned (Birkland 1996).

The community employs a number of mechanisms to impose doctrinal and behavioral conformity. One is to charge that a speaker with whom one disagrees is weak in or actually undermining the Covenant by his or her words. This tactic was employed to disrupt an academic conference on Baha’u’llah’s Most Holy Book held in Wilmette in March, 1995, where Baha’i intellectuals presenting other than conservative views were sniggered at by some in the audience and called, sotto voce, “covenant breakers” (personal communication, 1995). When, in the early 1990s, a left-liberal academic Baha’i took a job at Carleton College, Counselor Stephen Birkland of Minneapolis privately told Baha’is in the region to shun him as though he were a covenant breaker (pers. communication, July, 1997). With the rise of unmonitored email forums, where Baha’i liberals and other nonconformists are free to express themselves publicly, the difficulty of maintaining a monopoly on the media for Baha’i orthodoxy has increased. In response, the House of Justice encouraged Baha’is who hear something they think out of the ordinary to challenge the speaker to justify his or her statement with regard to the covenant (Universal House of Justice 1996a). On the Talisman email forum, for instance, an Iranian-American engineer alleged that Baha’i liberals constituted a sub-group who were “attempting to undermine the covenant” (Talisman, April 1996). This practice is similar to the Muslim principle that lay puritan volunteers should go about “enjoining the good and forbidding the bad.”

Informing, which is officially encouraged, forms another important control mechanism. If accusations of covenant breaking do not cow the liberal, the conservative Baha’i will often “report” the offender to the spiritual assembly or to a member of the increasingly clergy-like Institution of the Learned. In the U.S. this body consists of four North American counselors, who command nearly 70 auxiliary board members, each of whom in turn has an average of 60 assistants. This cadre of over 4,000 persons forms a significant proportion of the active believers, and those concerned with “protection” in particular vigorously monitor the community for their superiors. An official will sometimes investigate the accused, and then meet with the offender in an attempt to persuade him or her to orthodoxy. The authorities keep files on those so reported, and sometimes blacklist them from prominent committee assignments, appointment as assistants, and from speaking at official Baha’i events and conferences.

Some anecdotes illustrate these practices. A Baha’i professional attended meetings of a special-interest group for Baha’is, in the mid-1980s. At one of these he suggested that the phrase “world government,” employed by Baha’is, was off-putting to most Americans and that Baha’is should find a different terminology. (Conformity to the vocabulary of Shoghi Effendi is an especially strong value, which this individual’s remark violated). He says that as a result, a member of the National Spiritual Assembly put a fellow conference participant “under secret orders” to keep an eye on him, but that the person recruited to spy on him later confessed this to him (personal communication, 1996). It was alleged to me that this National Spiritual Assembly member maintained a network of informers nationally.

Ross Summers, a health care professional in Seattle, relates that before going on pilgrimage to the Baha’i shrines in Haifa in the 1970s, he saw a newly-issued letter from the House of Justice that discouraged Baha’is from reading covenant-breaker material, but did not absolutely forbid it. Summers then went on pilgrimage, and while in Haifa casually mentioned the letter’s contents to another Baha’i pilgrim. Many Baha’is seek out and destroy covenant-breaker materials in libraries, and believe it virtually a mortal sin to possess such books or pamphlets (though the Baha’i institutions discourage such extreme measures). So the Baha’i pilgrim disbelieved Summers’ remark, and was alarmed. Back in the U.S. on the East Coast, the offended pilgrim contacted a former auxiliary board member and related the content of the conversation. This man then passed the information on to a counselor. Upon his return home to Seattle, Mr. Summers was contacted by a local auxiliary board member, who sought a meeting in his home about his statement to the pilgrim in Haifa. Mr. Summers accepted, and produced for the ABM the letter from the Universal House of Justice, vindicating his remarks. Neither the ABM nor the Counselors appear to have been aware of this letter previously. Summers felt that having been essentially spied upon rather spoiled the good feelings he had otherwise taken away from his pilgrimage (personal comm., 26 April 1996). As these anecdotes suggest, to be a Baha’i is to be under constant surveillance by one’s community, and to be open to being reported on if one says or does anything that seems to another Baha’i out of the ordinary. The accused has no access to such reports and no right to face his or her accuser. The system of using rank and file informers has a venerable history in the Middle East.

Juan Cole

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