Tuesday, March 22, 2005

New UHJ Members

The news has already flown around the Internet that Paul Lample and Payam Mohajer were elected on Naw Ruz to replace retiring members Ian Semple and Doug Martin. Just as was predicted, both of these gentlemen had been serving on the International Teaching Center.

The International Teaching Center, and the Continental Boards of Counsellors, were created, if I recall correctly, in 1968 to replace the "protection and propagation" functions of the Hands of the Cause. It was decided that since there is no longer a Guardian to appoint Hands, as is provided for in Baha'i scripture, a replacement institution appointed by the UHJ would be created. Over the years, the ITC has become tremendously powerful -- and its members are rather unknown to many Baha'is. Before I came onto the Internet, if you said "Counsellor", I would have automatically thought of a member of one of the Continental boards. The ITC does not even communicate with individual Baha'is, but only to institutions. Its "protection" feature is of special concern; it was the ITC that launched the Talisman investigation in 1996. It also was intimately involved in the administration's handling of the sexual abuse case that I wrote about last year. From the documents I was able to obtain, this body took a much harsher line than the UHJ itself -- which tended to hold itself aloof. But in its capacity of investigating "protection" issues, and making recommendations concerning the fate of those investigated, it wields enormous power.

The fact that the male membership of the ITC has become the main recruitment pool for UHJ members has become much talked-about online. Once upon a time, UHJ members tended to come from the NSAs of larger Baha'i communities -- that is, they rose through the ranks of the elected arm of the Faith, rather than the appointive one. Now, the UHJ essentially appoints its own successors. The reason this happens is that in Baha'i elections, name recognition is everything. There are no "candidates' per se, that deliberately run for office. In theory, any male Baha'i in good standing is eligible to serve on the UHJ. But the electors are the members of the world's NSAs, and the ITC members have considerable interaction with the NSAs of the world. This is a problem in virtually all Baha'i elections above the local level; the administration can control who is eligible for election by controlling who becomes visible. Baha'is often speak with pride about their "politics-free" elections, even claiming they are more democratic than the partisan elections that prevail in civil democracies. But what has happened is that the politics takes place behind the scenes. A charismatic, or just capable, teacher who is not approved of by the powers that be will soon find his activities curtailed. This happened locally, and I later found out that its not at all uncommon.

There are other significant factors that limit the democratic element of Baha'i elections. Many Baha'i communities are so small (most are between 9-15 members) that there just isn't much choice about who to elect. I found that "electing" a spiritual assembly is more about picking off the inactive; if you are really lucky, you can pick off the incompetant. Then, at the delegate level, the democratic element shrinks to almost nil -- the same well-known person is sent back year after year. In our unit, it was usually the person who was Chairman of the Convention -- which did vary some, until a Knight of Baha'u'llah moved in, then he was sent back to Wilmette every year. And the delegate, from what I've seen, generally makes his choice for NSA members based upon his experience at the National Convention. Again, this is a place where the current NSA controls who becomes visible.

The appointive positions aren't democratic at all, and one rises by cultivating ties of personal loyalty. I had some friends were did a brief stint as assistants, and they told me the ABM who appointed them openly asked them to "pledge loyalty" to her. There are multiple stories of would-be assistants who refused to spy and report on their fellow Baha'is, and therefore didn't accept the job, or were removed from it. So those who rise through the ranks of the appointed arm do so in part because of personal loyalty, and part because of their efficiency as heresy-hunters, particularly in the "protection" wing. These are now the people who are getting appointed to the ITC, and from there, elected to the UHJ.


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Joan said...

Appreciate your honesty