Friday, November 23, 2007

Heretic, Not Apostate

Baha'i cyberspace is abuzz with the latest article to come out in *Religion*, writen by Moojan Momen, called "Marginality and Apostasy in the Baha'i Community". It is, apparently, the long-awaited rebuttal to the many academic articles and books published by ex and unenrolled Baha'is. Since I'm one of the "apostates" named, it's probably appropriate that I respond. (Alison Marshall and Umm Yasmin have already commented on Baha'is Online.

The centerpiece of Momen's argument is that the all the ex-Baha'is, and unenrolled Baha'is, who have been active on the Internet, and have succeeded in publishing in academic journals are "apostates" i.e. former members of a religion that have formed an oppositional coalition. That we all, without exception, are motivated by "ressentiment", a driving hatred and need for revenge against our "spiritual past". Well, I'm not an apostate; I still believe in Baha'u'llah. If one wishes to apply a negative term about who I am and what I've done, probably "heretic" would be more accurate. Baha'u'llah is not my "spiritual past"; He is my spiritual present. But my beliefs differ in some respects from the orthodoxy established by the Baha'i administration.

The notion that our only motivation is hatred is just ridiculous. For one thing, some of the books Momen cites are not "attacks" at all, even though they do present a viewpoint of the Baha'i Faith that diverges from orthodoxy. Juan Cole's *Modernity and the Millenium* is not an attack. Bill Garlington's *Baha'i Faith in America* is not an attack. These are books who tell Baha'i history in a fashion displeasing to conservative Baha'is; that's all. To claim that they are attacks verges on the paranoid. And, I note, that there is no attempt at all to actually refute these academic works in any substantial way.

The thesis makes no sense; it verges on simple name-calling. For example, Momen says that Garlington, the gentlest of souls, only "recently" became an apostate. Let's see, Bill sat around quietly for nearly twenty years after his resignation, then suddenly felt a surge of "ressentiment" and was thus motivated to write his book? This is ludicrous. Juan Cole has scarcely said "Boo!" about the Baha'i Faith during the last four years. So, where's his "hatred"? Denis MacEoin spent most of his time as a pseudonymous novelist, and he was conspicuously absent during the Internet Wars. (He wrote one barbed review of an apolegetic book, is all I remember.) Where's his "need for revenge"? I myself have written very little during the past few years; I pretty much talked myself out. (My article came out last year, but it was actually written a few years ago. It just took a while to get published.)Readers of this blog will note that I haven't said anything here about the Baha'i Faith in over a year.

What Momen has done is interpret the events of the last twenty-five years strictly in terms of the old "covenant-breaker" paradigm. Basically, today's "apostates" are just CBs without the formal excommunication: haters of the light, no spiritual sustenance except for attacking the truth, spiritually poisonous, etc. I'll quote him:

"Although these apostate groups and the very similar 'covenant-breaker' groups, as they are known by core Baha'is, are often referred to as sects or splinter groups of the Baha'i Faith, this characterisation is in a sense incorrect. These groups are not developing their own distinctive beliefs and practices. They exist only to attack the main Baha'i community. In Scheler's terms, they are not living in their new faith community, but are engaged only in a series of acts against their former community. Their new community exists only as a 'point of reference' from which to attack the former community."

Well, one reason I haven't developed my own "distinctive beliefs and practices" is that I consider myself a Baha'i. When I get up to say my prayers in the morning, when I recite the Writings, when I meditate on the Most Great Name, I'm not doing it to spite the administration. But then, one's spiritual life is not what's at issue here. No doubt the good doctor would treat my spiritual practices as irrelevant, especially as I haven't invented any new ones to distinguish myself from other Baha'is.

Momen's wrong about the splinter groups anyway -- some of them, the BUPC for one, have evolved some very distinct, one might even say downright weird, beliefs. But he's just bringing out the old canards about covenant-breakers that Baha'is have been repeating for the last hundred years.

I would suggest a different paradigm, one which I refer to often on Unenrolled Baha'i: That disillusionment with one's religious community causes a grief that is similar to any other loss that human beings experience, such as divorce or death of a loved one. One goes through various stages to cope with it. I was initially frightened, then I felt a sense of disorganization, sadness and despair. Then, for a long time, I was angry -- which is where a lot of my writing on the Internet came from; the writing helped me make sense of what had happened. A lot of the anger got redirected from the Baha'i administration to the more vicious fundies active on the 'Net. But gradually, I put myself together again.

Momen treats this admittedly articulate "angry phase" as if it is endless and incurable. Now granted, there are a few people he points to where this seems to be the case, but these folks aren't playing with a full deck and can't even manage to get along with their fellow dissidents -- or much of anyone else, for that matter. But most of us are past it -- Juan is, Denis is, Alison is. I don't think Bill Garlington was ever that angry, or if he was, he got over it long ago. Paul Johnson is another one named that you just don't see around any more. To claim that he harbors an "obsessive hatred" towards the Baha'i Faith is just not credible. But to Momen we all fit in the same bag as the looneys on talk.religion.bahai. A covenant-breaker is a covenant-breaker is a covenant-breaker.

There were a few factual errors: Momen says my "Unenrolled Baha'i" group is on Beliefnet. The UB board there has been dead for ages. My list on Yahoo! predated it, has 230 subscribers, and continues to attract new ones, and buzzes along very nicely, often with scant attention from me. Some of those who were around at the time are disputing his account of the Talisman crackdown and the Majnun post. He also is very misleading when he mentions the *Dialogue* incident -- the administration did a whole lot more than refuse to allow an article to be published. The editors were denounced at Convention, and were grilled by NSA members, and one was sanctioned. The hostility shown on the part of the Baha'i administration, and which did so much to push these people into "marginality and apostasy" is severely downplayed. Baha'i liberals are "marginal" because they are deliberately "marginalized" -- that's an important aspect of this whole story. Baha'i liberals aren't so rare as is implied; they are still showing up on the Internet on a regular basis. I even know some in real life, locally. As one poster mentioned, if there are so many, in what sense are they marginal? We become inactive more often; we leave more often, because we are made so obviously unwelcome.

As for me, I virtually had to resurrect my blog from the dead in order to comment on this. So much for "obsessive hatred". The Internet gives the illusion of continuous commentary, because whatever you say, stays here. My words are still here, but I'm long past having any need to debate or wrangle with these people any more. I don't need to do it; I don't want to do it. When I do show up online, it's mostly to function as support-giver and moderator on Unenrolled Baha'i, or sometimes I'll muse a little on Karen's Path, but that's it. Anyway, I'm a heretic, not an apostate. If you've gotta insult me, at least do it accurately. :-)

[Postscript 11/24: I just had the thought this morning, as I re-read this article, that what Moojan has done is not so different from what we did. That is, he is trying to make sense of events which caused him distress. I disagree with his formulation, of course, but I think I understand the need to write what he has written. All the Baha'is who were aware of, or part of, the events on the Internet had to try to make sense of the post-Talisman environment. So, maybe I shouldn't think too hardly of him for it. But I'm not an apostate!! kb]