Saturday, March 22, 2008

Correcting "Baha'i Views"

Here's something that I wrote some time ago, but was holding on to until after the Fast -- I generally make an effort to stay out of controversy during that period:

Ever since Moojan Momen's paper "Marginality and Apostasy" came out, George Wesley Dannells of Baha'i Views has become inordinately fond of the term "apostate", and has posted several times about how terrible we all are. But you know who else is fond of that term? The Iranian government, who applies it to all Baha'is. Google "Baha'i apostates" sometime and see what comes up. Yes, the term can be used in a social science context; it is also a vicious epithet on the lips of the orthodox. Baha'i Views is not a social science journal and George is not studying us. He is using "apostate" in the exact same sense that an Iranian mulla would -- as a way to condemn and to warn others about the people in question.

In any case, some of the things he says seem to indicate a profound ignorance of who we are, and what we're saying. So, at the risk of putting myself in the middle of the maelstrom, I think some corrections are in order:

Claim: The "apostates" don't teach the Faith.

False. Alison Marshall has a teaching website. Baha'is Online and Baha'i Rants have a variety of positive stories about the Baha'i community, as well as critical ones.

Claim: "Have you noticed they never post about children?"

False. I have a lot of posts here about education -- I am. after all, a teacher. This critique seems particularly bizarre to me, because the lack of resources for my kids is one issue that greatly frustrated me when I was enrolled. No use talking about "core activities" now -- childhood passes swiftly; they can't wait years for the local community to get its act together. Our children's classes here were active when my kids were infants, then largely dropped out of sight. It's true my kids aren't Baha'is, but most of the kids that attended those long-ago classes are estranged from the community now. So, it's not like the Baha'i community has done such a stellar job at retaining these children after they grow up. The old saying about people who live in glass houses not throwing stones come to mind.

Claim:"Death to Baha'is" is being scratched on doorways even today in Iran. And yet the Internet Anti-Baha'i Society is not moved, and is focused instead on its own apostate narratives and mythology."

False. Both Baha'i Rants and Baha'is Online, the two main websites that George complains about, are replete with stories about what the Iranian Baha'is are suffering -- almost every news story that comes out finds its way to one or the other. Several on the list of Moojan's "apostates" have made public statements about the Iranian government's shameful violation of human rights and religious freedom that Baha'is must endure in that country.

There is also another jab, that while not exactly false is exceedingly silly: George put both "Baha'i" and "unenrolled Baha'i" into a search, and found that the latter had an infinitesmal percentage of the "Baha'i" total. I'm not sure what this is supposed to prove, but search engines look for words, and even on unenrolled sites, the word "Baha'i" is likely to be used far more often than the specific term "unenrolled Baha'i" -- so a comparison like that tells you nothing. Not only do I use the word "Baha'i" much more often, I also use the abbreviation "UB" which wouldn't be picked up on a search. In any case, not all religionists are as obsessed with numbers as the administrative Faith is. For example, nobody knows how many Sufis there are in the U.S., because they simply don't keep those kinds of statistics; trotting out numbers to prove their progress just isn't important to them. I don't see why it ought to be important to unenrolled Baha'is, either -- I wouldn't even try to hazard a guess at the numbers.

Besides, the whole premise of this kind of numbers game is wrong: I don't view unenrolled Baha'is as being in competition with the Baha'i Faith organization. Why should we be? We're all believers in Baha'u'llah, after all. But not everyone's a joiner -- as the growing number of unaffiliated religionists in this country indicates. It would be nice if Baha'is took the approach that Christian churches do towards unchurched Christians -- they ask themselves how they can attract such people into community activity, instead of sneering about how "insignificant" they are.

There are other things I could get into -- it seems that George feels the need to mention the apostates/marginals/opposition about twice a week. But one thing I will agree with him on: The Internet is changing; people have backed away from the turmoil of debate that seems almost inevitable on forums. It's one reason I started blogging, and I'm sure that's true for others as well. I'm sure that's all to the good -- may we all generate more light than heat!


Steve Marshall said...

George also doesn't like people politely questioning his assertions. Here's a comment I submitted recently:

Hi George,

You write:

To describe the episode you refer to as a "political dispute" is to fail to take into consideration what are the requirements for being a Baha'i. This is a Faith with laws to which Baha'is are expected to obey. There are those who cannot obey. The community has a right to determine what constitutes membership. From this perspective, Alision
(sic) Marshall put herself out of the Faith.

What law did Alison fail to obey?

It was rejected.

Karen said...

Hi Steve,

It's obvious from the various statements George has made that no one on Momen's list would be welcome to comment, nor would anyone that was in the least supportive of any of them. I wouldn't waste my time trying. The guy has a right to run whatever kind of blog he wants to -- far be it from me to intrude.

I just thought some corrections were in order, and I knew I could only make them here.

I can understand your frustration, Steve, but the documents about Alison's case are available on the web, for anyone to see and judge what happened. None of them mention Alison breaking any Baha'i law of any kind -- that's in black and white. George is just making assumptions.

Love, Karen

Anonymous said...

Alláh-u-abhá Karen and Steve,

As Steve knows, and Karen may, me and George disagree on how Bahá'ís should handle this "apostasy issue". However much I disagree with and disapprove of how George has handled this issue, I must step in on his defense here.

> George also doesn't like people
> politely questioning his
> assertions. Here's a comment
> I submitted recently:

No, George does not seem to want to open up the comments as a place for debate. He has deleted comments I made which questioned him politely, and then emailed me apologizing and explaining. He then went on to reply to my comments in posts. If he has not done the same for you it is most probably because it is a road he is not comfortable walking down in public. Try sending him and email and asking if he would be comfortable privately explaining what he meant, and I am sure he would. (Though I am not sure anyone can draw the conclusion that Alison broke Laws. Plus, if simply breaking Laws gets you expelled, most of us would be gone, and expulsion becomes something much different than it is, and much more vile.)

> It's obvious from the various
> statements George has made that
> no one on Momen's list would be
> welcome to comment, nor would
> anyone that was in the least
> supportive of any of them. I
> wouldn't waste my time trying.
> The guy has a right to run whatever
> kind of blog he wants to -- far
> be it from me to intrude.

This just is not true. While I am a "core Bahá'í" who supports the House's decisions regarding the people on Momen's list (support which ranges from confused support to wholehearted support) I have spoken out against the terms apostate and marginal, and explained that I view the paper as a breach of both scholarly and Bahá'í codes of ethics. I have spoken out on my blog in defense of Bahá'ís embracing those with varying opinions. (One of these specifically being Alison, who I deeply respect) And I have explained on forums that I reject terms like apostate and marginal in favor of a single term for all believers in Bahá'u'lláh, Bahá'í. Not only does George welcome my comments, and engage in friendly debate over the issue, I would call him a friend.

Plus, I think "far be it from me to intrude." is a silly attitude. Bahá'í blogging is a new field to explore, and we should interact with friendly criticisms. I have done this with George, and I would hope he would return the favor.

> I can understand your frustration,
> Steve, but the documents about
> Alison's case are available on
> the web, for anyone to see and
> judge what happened. None of
> them mention Alison breaking
> any Baha'i law of any kind --
> that's in black and white.
> George is just making assumptions.

Here I agree with you. It is one thing to support the House's decision out of faith, it is another to try and justify it without knowing the reason. That is a dangerous road I will not walk down, I think it only leads to corruption on the part of individual Bahá'ís. I support the decision regarding Alison because I don't see any other option. I even think I understand it somewhat, but I won't try and explain it until and unless I am a member of the Body and KNOW the reasons. (So probably never.)

God Bless,

Ruhi (Gerald)

Karen said...

Dear Gerald,

Thank you for your comments and polite critique. I really did mean it when I said that George has the right to have any kind of blog he wants -- some blogs have the comment feature turned entirely off, others moderate comments, and some have comment sections that are virtually forums. I'm pretty mellow about the comments here -- but I've never had so many that it becomes a problem.

As for I myself attempting to comment on George's blog, his attitude is so harsh that I pretty much felt that he'd ax me the minute he saw my name. I sure don't want to write up a long and thoughtful comment just to have it deleted. But if you think he'd be more amenable than that, I might sometime try a very short comment, maybe on a more neutral topic, to see how it flies.

I don't think I can be blamed for being a bit skittish, though. The guy does spend an awful lot of time denouncing us. That's not exactly a welcome mat. It's too bad, because aside from that, he's got a pretty good blog.

I wouldn't delete George if he commented here, even if he called me an apostate or something equally awful. Might not answer if he took that approach, though.

I appreciate you taking the time to tell me your views, Gerald.

Love, Karen

Kurt said...

"For it behooveth no man to interpret the holy words according to his own imperfect understanding, nor, having found them to be contrary to his inclination and desires, to reject and repudiate their truth. For such, today, is the manner of the divines and doctors of the age, who occupy the seats of knowledge and learning, and who have named ignorance knowledge, and called oppression justice. Were these to ask the Light of Truth concerning those images which their idle fancy hath carved, and were they to find His answer inconsistent with their own conceptions and their own understanding of the Book, they would assuredly denounce Him Who is the Mine and Wellhead of all Knowledge as the very negation of understanding. Such things have happened in every age."
-- Bahá'u'lláh

Jim Habegger said...

I just posted the message below in George's blog. I'm curious what he will do.



Freedom from sectarian hatreds and other shackles

In the foreword to "One Common Faith," the Universal House of Justice wrote:

". . . the disease of sectarian hatreds, if not decisively checked, threatens harrowing consequences that will leave few areas of the world unaffected."

". . . the concern of Baha'is must be with their own responsibility in the matter."

". . . the accelerating breakdown in social order calls out desperately for the religious spirit to be freed from the shackles that have so far prevented it from bringing to bear the healing influence of which it is capable."

The best response I see for Baha'i is, as the document states "the culture of systematic growth taking root in the Bahá'í community."

In my understanding, in addition to that, the responses will also include a variety of individual initiatives, including initiatives that directly address sectarian hatreds, and other shackles on the religious spirit, among Baha'is.

One example I see of sectarian hatreds among Baha'is, which I've tried to address, is a kind of Hatfield-McCoy feud on the Internet that has stifled and defamed a liberation movement in the Baha'i community. The feud is most visible in the talk.religion.bahai Usenet newsgroup, but it lurks in every Baha'i forum on the Internet, and stifles discussion of vital social issues, including issues raised in "One Common Faith" and in The Advent of Divine Justice. It can also be seen in a few books, magazine articles and academic papers, and in numerous Web pages and blogs. I've also seen it off line in the efforts of a few Baha'i celebrities and members of institutions to stigmatize some people associated with the movement.

Since I learned about the feud in 2001, I've responded to defamation campaigns from both sides in a variety of ways. One way I've responded to campaigns from the liberation side has been by providing a counter-example to their caricatures of followers of the House of Justice. Another way has been by inviting people to read what the House of Justice itself says about the reasons for its actions.

One way I've responded to campaigns from the defense side has been by writing "Glimpses of the dialogue/Talisman chronicles," a story about my personal experiences with some people associated with the liberation movement: Wahid Azal (formerly Nima Hazini), Karen Bacquet, Juan Cole, Fred Glaysher, Susan Maneck, Alison Marshall, Steve Marshall, Michael McKenny and Dermod Ryder. I wrote the story to help people relate to them personally, but as I was writing it, it evolved into a prelude to some wonderful possibilities I see in the liberation movement, to help free the religious spirit from its shackles.

In an article about the Talisman discussion list, Karen Bacquet wrote:

"Old-time members of Talisman describe those early days as a time of excitement and wonder . . . Outspoken feminists found themselves corresponding with old-fashioned Middle Eastern men; legalistic administrators talked to mystics; scriptural literalists went head-to-head with scholars using academic methods."

Jonah Winters wrote:

"I personally found it a most liberating experience. Like a large room full of multiple conversations, some corners of the room had conversations which I found distasteful and sometimes bitter, but most conversations I found engaging, enlightening, exhilarating, enthusiastic, and even the occasional epiphany."

That summarizes what I think of as the spirit of the movement at its best. I see the same spirit in a mysticism conference which took place at Bosch Baha'i School in 1996.

"From February 23 through 24th, a remarkable conference took place at Bosch Baha'i School, Santa Cruz, California. Envisioned as the first in an annual series of conferences focusing on the mystical teachings of the Bab, Baha'u'llah and 'Abdu'l Baha, the Baha'i Mysticism Conference enabled the 97 participants to develop a greater sense of devotion and mysticism in their personal lives, and to explore ways to enrich the devotional aspects of Baha'i community life in general. Although mysticism has always been part of the religious experience, until Islam it existed at only the individual level. With the rise of the Sufis (Islamic mystics) mysticism became a major flow of thought pursuing the knowledge of transcendent truth through meditation and prayer. By chanting verses from the Writings, the presence of God is invoked. Musical repetition of sacred verses sets up a rhythm which naturally unites people, uplifting them so that they are more receptive. Borrowing from this Sufi tradition, one of the highlights of the Mysticism Conference was its use of zikr (chanting sacred verses) in the devotional portions of the program. The program itself was an eclectic combination of scholarly presentations and uplifting experiential activities such as group zikr, song, art, nature walks and meditation."

- from the Talisman archives
( )

An appendix to my story discusses that spirit, and the possibilities I see in the movement. Another appendix links to some Web pages of people in my story, other people involved in the feud, and other people involved in the liberation movement. Another appendix links to some documents related to the feud and to the movement.

I see the spirit of the liberation movement at its best living on in some of the initiatives of people who were involved in it. I see some of the networking possibilities being carried on in the Baha'i Library Online, the Baha'i Association for the Arts, and Educators for Social and Economic Development.

I'm hoping that Moojan Momen's paper, "Marginality and Apostasy in the Baha'i Community," will help popularize the liberation movement as a topic for study, and that my story with its appendixes will help inspire research that highlights the best possibilities it represents.

Glimpses of the dialogue/Talisman chronicles

Karen said...

Dear Jim,

Good luck! The poor man doesn't know what he's talking about. He's claiming that "unenrolled" is equivalent to "expelled" -- when the vast majority of unenrolled Baha'is have never signed a card in the first place.

Ah, well. I actually feel pretty positive about the way things have been going, and it would be a mistake to give this stuff too much weight.

Love, Karen

Jim Habegger said...

Well, you know I've always felt pretty positive about what you've been doing, too.


Jim Habegger said...

My mind has been continually churning over this ever since I saw George's articles in his "Baha'i Views" blog, promoting and extrapolating Moojan Momen's apostasy stereotypes. Now I see that "Baha'i Views" has been featured in the American Baha'i newsletter.

As I see it, more than anything else, Baha'u'llah wants to see us in fellowship. He says that goal excels every other goal, and calls it the "monarch of aspirations." He says that nothing else can satisfy Him, and that nothing can do more harm to His cause than estrangement between us.

I see estrangement in some reactions of members and former members to Baha'i institutions and their followers, and in some reactions of other members to anyone who says anything uncomplimentary about the Baha'i Community or its institutions. I've posted an article on one of my Web pages ( ) about some of my responses to that. I also see responses to it in some parts of the goals and plans being promoted by the House of Justice. I've been wondering what more could be done, and I remembered that one way I've learned to recover from feelings of estrangement is to spend time with people I feel estranged from, doing things that interest them. I've been practicing and promoting that idea for years, on line and off, in relation to cultural divisions. Now I'm planning to practice and promote it in relation to divisions over Baha'i administration.