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Introduction to Reform Bahai Faith, A Talk Presented to the Troy Interfaith Group
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The Prisoner of Akka, Baha’u’llah, lived much of His life deprived of liberty, harassed and suppressed by the tyranny of one despot or another, yet He envisions a world of global freedom and universal brotherhood. From His experience of the liberty of His own Mind, from His mystical experience of the oneness of God, He teaches the oneness of all religions and the oneness of humankind. His immortal and challenging proclamation is "The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens." His love of liberty resonates with the noblest reflections on liberty that run throughout human history, East or West. Like Edmund Burke, Lord Acton, and the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Baha’u’llah upheld a responsible liberty seasoned with a sense of duty to God and society, while preserving and protecting the sanctity of the individual from tyranny and debasement.

What the Baha’i Faith has become today contrasts sharply with His enlightened Writings: a prison house of oppression, coercion, deception, manipulation, employing all manner of "slanderous vilification" against its own members for the slightest ideological divergence from its interpretation of His Teachings, calculated to deprive the individual of religious liberty and freedom of conscience, demanding nothing less than complete, absolute, and servile obedience. From a secular perspective, the Baha’i Faith has become the antitheses of the liberty discussed by John Stuart Mill in his classic work and the antitheses of the virtues extolled by Baha’u’llah and his son in the societies of England and the United States of America.

To those who are unfamiliar with the complicated history of the Baha’i Faith during the last one hundred years, these claims may well seem extreme and unwarranted, if one only knows the version propagated by self-serving Baha’i sources; To those who have suffered at the hands of Baha’i administrative inquisitors and oppressors, these claims will ring all too true, evoking bitter and painful memories. For the past ten to thirty years, the Baha’i Faith has imposed one inquisition after another upon its members. It has been widely assumed by many Baha’is that these incidents marked a temporary aberration from Baha’i administrative conduct, which would soon be corrected once the Universal House of Justice became sufficiently apprised of the issues involved, and that it would reprimand the particular counselor or auxiliary board member involved. Time has gone by, and incident after incident has accumulated, bringing home to many that far from a temporary aberration, a prison house of tyranny has indeed supplanted the liberty of the individual mind and soul that Baha’u’llah and Abdul-Baha had guaranteed their followers.

It is the sheer number of these incidents that convey, more than any one of them, the truest picture of what has become of Baha’u’llah’s Faith. In the mid 1970s, a group of young students and scholars in Los Angeles loosely formed a study class for the sharing and encouragement of their research of Baha’i history and theology. They were harangued, harassed, and attacked, some leaving the Baha’i Faith in confusion and disbelief. Later in that decade, Bahai scholars at the University of Michigan and elsewhere who were commissioned, by the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States of America, to write a Bahai encyclopedia, met with a similar experience, many ending up having to resign from working on it, believing they could not do so in good conscience, given the interference of Baha’i authorities regarding historical fact and detail; some were driven out into the self-censorship of silence. The 1980s witnessed an increasing number of incidents. In 1987 "A Modest Proposal," intended for, but never published, in Dialogue Magazine, attempted to suggest improvements in procedure and operation of the national community, only to be publicly denounced at the national convention the following year, while its writers were handled in a most reprehensible fashion, some threatened with excommunication. Another group of scholars and writers in 1998 contributed to a paper known as "The Service of Women" which again met with a vehement crackdown all out of proportion to the issues and intentions of its authors. No brief highlighting of the shockingly dictatorial abuse of power by the Baha’i administration would be complete without mention of an open letter in 1996 by Steven Scholl, one of the Dialogue editors, which attempted to bring attention to the frequency and severity of these incidents and urged moderation and a more open and tolerant community. Many of the young editors and writers of Dialogue Magazine, as well as others, have been harassed and hounded into silence or driven out the door.

With the wide availability and development of the Internet during the 1990s, Baha’is all around the world, enjoying the liberty given them by God Himself and lauded by both Baha’u’llah and Abdul-Baha, entered into free and open discussion in a number of online venues. One of the first was Talisman, an email list sponsored through one scholar’s affiliation with Indiana University. Baha’i interrogators of conscience were quick to quibble and denounce members for their views and opinions expressed in emails to group members, ultimately denouncing, as had happened in previous incidents, individuals as "covenant breakers" or possibly holding opinions which were tending toward covenant breaking. Through such methods, the abuse of individuals was carried out "in the best interest of the Faith," driving more young, intelligent, inquisitive, vigorous minds and souls away in shock and horror over what the Baha’i Faith had become, not was.

Another major incident, publicly documented in the newsgroup databases of Google and other search engines, was the proposal of an open and unmoderated newsgroup, talk.religion.bahai. Given the pervasive censorship and manipulation of thought and discussion on the previously existing newsgroup, soc.religion.bahai, praised in The American Baha’i, many Baha’is and non-Baha’i observers believed such a newsgroup was essential for unfettered discussion about Baha’i matters of concern. The overwhelming opposition of Baha’is to its formation shocked many inside and outside of the Baha’i Faith, as many fundamentalists called upon Baha’is "in good standing" and "firm in the covenant" to vote NO against it, garnering more than 600 votes through such rabble-rousing techniques on private Baha’i-only email lists. It took three years and as many rounds of voting to create what is still, as of 2004, the only forum on the Internet that cannot technically prevent the expression of any opinion or point of view.

No survey of incidents should fail to mention the lawsuit of Deborah Buchhorn against the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States and the Assembly of Albuquerque, New Mexico for fraud and libel in 2001. The court’s dismissal of the lawsuit proved only that the government of the United States was wisely not about to adjudicate on issues of religion and conscience and in no way exonerated the Baha’i administration of the charges.

Throughout all these incidents and others, most Baha’is thought only in terms of an aberration, surely something had gone wrong, a miscarriage of Baha’i justice that the ultimate defender of justice, the Universal House of Justice, would rectify, restoring order and sanity to Baha’u’llah’s Cause. Yet the tactics used were virtually identical in each case, and have become widely known, through talk.religion.bahai, as The Baha’i Technique, essentially, "slanderous vilification," imputations of covenant breaking or incipient covenant breaking, frightening people involved into silence, fear, and self-censorship. To assist in this program of ideological terrorization of the Baha’i community, the uhj has on a number of occasions apparently, or purportedly, autocratically thrown people out of the Baha’i Faith, despite such a practice not existing anywhere in the Baha’i Writings, despite Shoghi Effendi* explicitly stating that only the Guardian could pronounce someone a covenant breaker. This indefensible, desperate tactic, non-doctrinal, has been wielded a number of times since 1997. All these incidents and more are documented on the Internet and elsewhere for those unfamiliar with them or for those who wish to independently investigate them further: https://www.fglaysher.com/bahaicensorship/

How often in religious history have the teachings and vision of the Founder become debased by the organization that rears itself upon His Sacrifice. No impartial, fair-minded observer who conscientiously explores, to whatever degree, these incidents, thus far recounted, can fail to perceive that the Baha’i Faith and what it calls its "administrative order" has become, in the most apropos words of Martin Luther, a "terrible tyranny." Its wolves in sheep’s clothing have turned far aside from the Middle Path, envisioned by Baha’u’llah and Abdul-Baha, universally condoned by the reason of all persuasions. On all sides Baha’i administrators see only heretics and apostates, point the finger, denounce people as breakers of Baha’u’llah’s covenant, or Abdul-Baha’s Will and Testament, or Shoghi Effendi’s* non-existent will, which, in disobedience to Abdul-Baha, he never wrote.

In 2004, H-Net, a scholarly website supported by Michigan State University and Humanities & Social Sciences Online, reprinted in digital format the works of Mirza Ahmad Sohrab, who for over eight years served Abdul-Baha as a secretary and translator in the Middle East and on his American and European journeys. In Sohrab’s several books, especially in Broken Silence: The Story of Today’s Struggle for Religious Freedom (1942) and The Will and Testament of Abdul-Baha: An Analysis (1944), Sohrab presents his opinion that the Baha’i Faith was already well on the road to becoming an oppressive organization in the 1920s and ‘30s, exploitative of the individual, and departing further, with every year, from the moderation and predominately democratic liberalism of Baha’u’llah and Abdul-Baha. Sohrab located the source of the emerging problems of conscience and religious freedom in the desire of some early American Baha’is for absolute control, modeled on the Roman Catholic Church and other forms of autocratic religious organization, leading to and encouraging Shoghi Effendi’s* increasingly fanatical interpretation of Abdul-Baha’s Will and Testament:

"To interpret this section of the Will in such a literal sense, is, to say the least, utterly short-sighted and a complete subversion of all the glorious teachings of the Bahai Cause" (53).

The young and impressionable Shoghi Effendi, a little dreamy and not entirely ready for it all, unsure of himself and what direction to chart after Abdul-Baha’s passing, increasingly came under the influence of people in both the East and West who wanted a rigidly controlled bureaucratic system, until his own hand became the dominating force shaping the now trademarked, incorporated, and copyrighted organization. H-Net’s digital reprinting brought home for insightful observers of the victimization of fellow Baha’is, during the purges and pogroms of the 1970s and after, the inescapable realization that, far from an aberration, the same pervasive fanaticism and censorship had indeed been experienced by Sohrab and earlier Baha’is in virtually the same form and manner. No amount of distorting and slandering the intentions and beliefs of Sohrab and Mrs. Chanler could deny the validity and eloquent truth of their own testimony, repeated and confirmed by the experience of subsequent generations of Baha’is.
Dying without leaving a will in 1957, Shoghi Effendi* left the Baha’i Faith with no infallible successor, no appointed Guardian, and no infallible interpreter of Baha’u’llah’s Writings. Shoghi Effendi’s own words state emphatically that without a Guardian the Baha’i Faith would be mutilated and completely deprived of the "unerring guidance of God." Subsequent to his death, Baha’i experience only corroborates his judgment. No matter to what extent the Hands of the Cause assumed, or presumed, an authority that neither Abdul-Baha’s Will and Testament nor any of the writings of Shoghi Effendi bestowed, their innovations and attempts to lay a credible foundation for the uhj failed, and time has proven it, made it open and blatant as the noonday sun.

The end of the Guardianship and the innovations and attempts to fill in the gaps and unfulfilled portions of Abdul-Baha’s Will and Testament have continued unabated since the earliest schism between the Hands of the Cause, their unilateral and unauthorized attempt to fill the interpretive void left by Shoghi Effendi’s failure to foresee his untimely end and the commotions it would unleash upon Baha’u’llah’s Faith. Neither the custodians nor the Orthodox Baha’is had, or have, a credible claim to assumption of the mantle of authority. Nothing in Abdul-Baha’s Will and Testament nor Shoghi Effendi’s writings anticipated or justified what they did after the Guardian’s death. Similarly, the International Baha’i Council that the Hands put aside was not in the Will and Testament nor an instrument of the Master for the appointment of a new Guardian. That the Hands were nominated and appointed by Shoghi Effendi gave them no legitimate authority to assume, or usurp, the "rights and powers in succession to the Guardian," which they claimed, nor to change the method of creating a universal house of justice from what was stipulated by the Master in His Will and was already anticipated by the Guardian through the unfolding of the International Baha’i Council. Any pretense to "infallibility" ended with Shoghi Effendi, and subsequent Baha’i experience has proven it in the ruined and destroyed lives of many thousands of individuals, married couples, families, and Baha’i communities.

The eventual creation by the uhj of the continental board of counselors, a type of Baha’i college of cardinals, and the auxiliary boards, notorious for operating like the Jesuits at their worst, has only exacerbated the situation and deepened the rift between Baha’is in all walks of life and the barely concealed clergy that now exists and demands at every turn "obedience" to the covenant, as the "infallible" universal house of justice interprets it, ignoring that Abdul-Baha and Shoghi Effendi both explicitly stated that only the Guardian has interpretive guidance and that the uhj has only legislative authority.

For decades the fanatical interpretation of Abdul-Baha’s Will and Testament has demonstrated that not the slightest reform, or suggestion of reform, will be tolerated, let alone considered or acted upon. The uhj and its clergy have demonstrated beyond a doubt that they do not possess infallible powers or interpretive authority worthy of respect, let alone obedience.

Reform Bahais have watched or participated in all this. Many have been victims of intolerance and witch hunts; of coercion of conscience and denunciation, ostracism and shunning, and all the other tactics and techniques of The Baha’i Technique, suffered under the ferocious attacks of their fellow Baha’is who never hesitate to violate the Words of Abdul-Baha: "According to the direct and sacred command of God we are forbidden to utter slander."

Far from censuring such slander, a corrupted organization has encouraged among its cadre an ever more vicious campaign of slander, by what Mirza Ahmad Sohrab rightly recognized and scathingly called in the 1940s, "fawning, cringing, sniveling, mealy-mouthed sycophants, flatterers and flunkies."

Lessoned by time and history, by experience that cannot be taken but as a revelation of the Will of God, an unveiling of what lies behind the marble facade, acknowledging that the loss of the dream of unity and infallibility happened long ago, Reform Bahais seek to recover, restore, and return to Baha’u’llah’s central and pristine Teachings–the oneness of God, the oneness of religion, the oneness of humankind–to His vision of responsible individual liberty in service to humanity, to the Example of the Master’s Love, Wisdom, Kindness, Compassion, and Self-Sacrifice.

Reform Bahais choose to leave those who choose hatred, denunciation, shunning, endless and unproductive argument and recrimination over Abdul-Baha’s Will and Testament, seeking justification for fanaticism, over the Will of Shoghi Effendi, which he never wrote or implied, or over the successors he never intended or appointed, or over the oppressive organization Baha’u’llah Himself never envisioned nor proclaimed.

Reform Bahais invite all Bahais, all humanity, to a Convocation of celebration, peace, love, and brotherhood, to seek humbly His Will, during Ridvan 2006.

The Reform Bahai Faith
www.ReformBahai.org
October 4, 2004

 

* Please note that the Reform Bahai Articles depart from the acceptance here and elsewhere of the authenticity of the purported will and testament of Abdul-Baha and, hence, the legitimacy of any guardianship. See the pages for Reform Bahai Articles and Abdul-Baha's Covenant.