Baha’i Leaders Vexed by On-Line Critics

K. Paul Johnson

The Baha’i faith is the newest world religion, claiming more than 5 million followers around the globe.  Its founder, Baha’u’llah (1817-92), was an Iranian nobleman who proclaimed the unity of humanity and the unity of all religions.

Generally regarded as a peaceful, liberal, and forward-looking movement, Baha’i proclaims itself to be devoted to “independent investigation of Truth.” But it has become the only major religious group to launch an inquisition against prominent members for their opinions expressed on an Internet discussion group.

In the early 1970’s, Baha’i membership in the United States quadrupled to nearly 100,000 after an influx of idealistic baby-boomers and rural Southern blacks.  But despite a strong emphasis on numerical growth, Baha’i membership levels in the United States have been nearly stagnant for the last twenty years.  Some of the young converts of the 1970s became scholars in Persian, Arabic, Middle Eastern history and related fields.  This generation of Baha’i scholars, now in middle age, has become a source of irritation to the faith’s leadership.

In October 1994 the electronic mail list Talisman was created by Indiana University professor John Walbridge for scholarly discussion of Baha’i history, doctrines, and current affairs.  Walbridge is a specialist in Islamic philosophy, and his wife Linda, an active participant in the list, is an anthropologist specializing in contemporary Islam in the United States; she also teaches at Indiana University.

Talisman’s initial core group of participants with scholarly and literary backgrounds included Juan R. I. Cole, then-director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Michigan and now professor of history there.  Two participants were publishers:  Anthony Lee of Kalimat Press, a Baha’i publishing house; and Steven Scholl of White Cloud Press, publisher of the annual “Common Era: Best New Writings in Religion” and other interfaith-oriented titles.

Beginning with a dozen or so subscribers, Talisman grew in the first year to more than a hundred, most of whom were not academians.  After eighteen months of existence, Talisman became the focus of a series of investigations ordered by authorities at the Baha’i World Center in Haifa, Israel.

Liberal scholars on Talisman scrutinized several aspects of current Baha’i theology and administration, including the exclusion of women from the Baha’i governing body, the Universal House of Justice, even though Baha’i claims to teach the equality of the sexes.  Academians familiar with source documents debated whether or not Baha’u’llah had intended this exclusion, and advanced textual arguments in favor of reconsideration.

Another frequent bone of contention was the policy of literature review, which requires that any Baha’i who writes about the faith for any publisher submit the work for prior censorship by a “review committee” composed of the Baha’i National Spiritual Assembly in the country of publication.  Scholars were particularly emphatic about wanting to abolish this policy – which had been deemed “temporary” when introduced early in this century – on the grounds that it compromises scholarly independence and integrity.

Perhaps the most interesting debates were about the future of Baha’i institutions, which most rank-and-file members believe are destined to take over all functions of local and national government and to create a new international government in a Baha’i-dominated world.  The scholars disputed this totalitarian vision, citing evidence that Baha’u’llah envisioned no such future.  There was also extensive discussion of the Baha’i electoral process, which allows no nominations or public discussion of candidates.  Almost no incumbents on the American National Spiritual Assembly have been unseated in elections during the last 30 years.  Term limits were proposed as one possible way to open up the system to new blood.

Although the questions and criticisms expressed by the scholars in Talisman were generally respectful of Baha’i authorities, many of the newer members of the list became irate that such matters were discussed at all.  The worldwide Baha’i community has rigid controls for discourse on internal matters, with all publications controlled or censored by the administration; even mild dissent is regarded as treasonous.

Complaints may be made through the process of “consultation” with various levels of administrators, but may not be expressed outside that context and especially never in public.  Thus Talisman offered participants the first chance to discuss flaws in the Baha’i community outside administrative channels, and many were shocked by the debate that ensued.  Soon it became common for more conservative Baha’is to insinuate that the scholars and their sympathizers were “Covenant-breakers,” which is the greatest of sins in Baha’i theology. The “Covenant” is the line of succession from Baha’u’llah to the Universal House of Justice, the world governing body, which was first elected in 1963.  To break the Covenant is to attack the center of authority within the faith and to advocate an alternative source of authority; such disputes have arisen with each change in leadership.  Baha’is are ordered to avoid all contact with Covenant-breakers.

None of the Talisman scholars challenged the legitimacy of the governing body, nor did they show sympathy for past “Covenant-breakers,” a few thousand of whom continue in various small sects.  Nevertheless the Talisman discussions were viewed with alarm by authorities at national Baha’i headquarters in Wilmette, Illinois, and in Haifa.  This generated an investigation by Stephen Birkland, a member of the Continental Board of Counselors for North America, acting under direction of the Haifa authorities.

Birkland personally interrogated Langness, Lee, Cole, and John Walbridge.  Scholl agreed to meet with Birkland only on condition that the meeting be recorded for accuracy, a condition that was deemed unacceptable. Cole and Walbridge refused a second meeting requested by Birkland.  David Langness had his rights to voting and attendance at major functions removed by the American National Spiritual Assembly, which never specified the charges against him but implied that it was punishing him for a posting he made on Talisman.

Cole, upon being told he was being investigated for “statements contrary to the Covenant,” resigned his membership, as did Linda Walbridge after similar remarks.  Birkland had chosen to confront Cole and the Walbridges in late-night telephone calls.  The ultimate fate of Langness, who appealed his punishment to the Universal House of Justice, and John Walbridge, who has not resigned, remains to be determined. When contacted by e-mail, Birkland declined to comment on the controversy.

Defending its actions, the Universal House of Justice wrote to a family member of one of the accused; the letter later appeared on the front page of the journal “The American Baha’i.”  It argues that Talisman was the continuation of a conspiracy born in the mid-1980s involving a liberal Baha’i journal, “Dialogue,” which closed after Baha’i authorities accused it of being subversive.

The letter goes on to describe the Talisman scholars as a “dissident group of Baha’is who are attempting to arouse widespread dissatisfaction in the community and thereby to bring about changes in the structure and principles of Baha’i administration, making it accord more closely with their personal notions.”  It accuses them of “publicly and privily assailing the institutions of the Cause” and “generalizing specific accusations of injustice to such an extent as to accuse the entire system of corruption, not only in practice, but also in form and theory.”

John Walbridge closed Talisman in May of 1996.  Juan Cole, now an ex-Baha’i, opened a new Talisman list the following month.  Its e-mail address is talisman@umich.edu.

K. Paul Johnson was an active participant in Talisman from its beginnings through its demise. He was a Baha’i from 1969 to 1974.  His article on Edgar Cayce appears in this issue.

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