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[Note: A sidebar introduction, plus corrections to the article submitted by two Baha'is, and finally a Baha'i report on the article, including a list of the newspapers which ran it, all follow. Some Baha'is interpreted these articles as excessively critical; see for example the NSA response at "Attacks on the Faith". -J.W.]

Eds: RNS Online,, printed this with color photos of Cole, Henderson and the Baha'i Worship Center in Wilmette, Ill, accompanying this story.

NEWS FEATURE: "Critics chafe at Baha'i conservatism"


c.1997 Religion News Service

UNDATED - The first 19 days of March are a special time for Baha'is, members of a worldwide religion with a liberal reputation based on its vision of the underlying unity of all faiths, the oneness of humanity and the harmony of science and religion.

The Baha'i faith grew out of Islam, and like the Muslim month of Ramadan, Baha is set aside 19 days - the month of Ala according to the Baha'i calendar - as a period of dawn-to-sunset fasting and spiritual reflection. The month ends with the Feast of Nawruz, the Baha'i new year. It's a festive time of community gatherings featuring prayers, spiritual readings, socializing and lots of food.

For ex-Baha'i Juan Cole, though, this year's feast will be anything but festive.

Cole, a professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan, is among the nation's leading experts on the faith. Until last May, when he formally resigned from the movement, he had been a Baha'i for 25 years. Now, however, he counts himself among a small but influential group of past and present liberal Baha'is angry over what they say is the hijacking of the faith by a cadre of conservative leaders more interested in preserving their authority than the Baha'i principle of "independent investigation of reality. "

That principle is among the core tenets of the Baha'i faith first articulated by its founder, the l9th-century Persian prophet known as Baha'u'llah (the Glory of God) and who is revered by the faithful as an incarnation of God akin to Jesus.

According to the critics, the National Spiritual Assembly (NSA), which oversees the American Baha'i movement, is dominated by a tight-knit group of authoritarian officials who keep the lid on free expression by threatening dissidents with excommunication and by manipulating the process by which. NSA members are elected.

In the Baha' i faith, excommunication call include total shunning by family members and friends.

Spreading their message via the Internet, the dissidents - many of whom, like Cole, once were members of the faith's intellectual elite - say the nine-member NSA also hides the truth about the faith's shrinking American following.

"Baha'is are not open - repeat, not open - about how controlling this organization is, " said Cole. ``Virtually no one who comes into this faith realizes that by becoming a Baha'i you are making your individual conscience hostage to the dictates of the leadership.

"The Baha' is started out Unitarian and ended up Calvinist. "

For their part, American Baha'i leaders, headquartered in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, I11., dismiss the critics as an inconsequential group of disgruntled elitists who - blinded by their attraction to the faith's more liberal aspects - overlooked its deeply conservative side.

This includes an emphasis on " administrative order" as a prime religious goal. Baha'u'llah taught that religions fail in large part because, of the disunity that tears them apart following their initial burst of spiritual energy.

As a result, tight controls are placed on all public statements made by Baha'is -- including the works of scholars, who are required to submit their writings for pre-publication review.

"The Baha'i community as a whole does not encourage antagonistic confrontation, " said Firuz Kazemzadeh, an NSA-member and its secretary for external affairs. "We always seek consensus. But if there is no unanimity then the majority must prevail.

Not all Baha'i scholars find fault with this.

"I personally don't buy 'the totalitarian argument, " said Canadian Baha'i B. Todd Lawson, an assistant professor of Islamic studies at Montreal's McGill University.

"The Baha'i faith posits a non-confrontation version of problem solving. My view is if you opt out of that mode, that's your prerogative. But there are others who take a longer view of things. ... Baha'i ideals are extremely demanding. "

Michael McMullen, an assistant professor of Sociology at the University of Houston at Clear Lake, said prior review "makes sense" because much of the writings of Baha'u'llah and his successors remain untranslated from their original Persian and Arabic, and are therefore inaccessible to the majority of American Baha'is.

"My experience has been that what is corrected are factual errors not interpretation, " said McMullen, who is also a local Baha'i leader in League City, Texas.

The dissidents also claim the Baha'i prohibition against public campaigning or nominating candidates for spots on the nine-member NSA serves to keep it a closed body controlled by the American Baha'i establishment.

Baha'i leaders say they are only following an orthodoxy established by Baha'u'llah and his successors - his son Abdu'l-Baha and his great-grandson, Shoghi Effendi, who died in 1957.

"It is extremely deprecated if anyone even talks about how the voted " said Kazemzadeh. "Voting is supposed to be a very spiritual act."

Assembly members are elected annually by a fixed number of 171 delegates who represent local Baha'i assemblies across the continental United States.

Robert C. Henderson, a former Atlanta businessman who is the NSA's secretary-general, making him the highest ranking American Baha'i (the faith has no ordained clergy), said there have been 12 changes in the NSA' s membership over the past 15 years.

"That's not indicative of a closed group ," he said.

However, Cole said each change resulted from retirement, death or a member moving out of the country. No incumbent who has sought re-election has been defeated since 1961, he said.

Cole also noted that family and other close associations are common among American Baha'i leaders. Six of the nine current NSA members have family or professional connections.

For example, Henderson's mother, Wilma Ellis, is married to Kazemzadeh. Ellis herself is a former NSA member who has held d a variety of prominent Baha'i' i positions. Currently she is a member of the Continental Board of Counselors of the Americas, which provides advice and other services to elected Baha'i bodies throughout the hemisphere.

Two other current NSA members are husband and wife James arid Dorothy Nelson. He is a former presiding judge of the Los Angeles Municipal Court. She is a judge of California's Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. '

Two other members are Juana Conrad, a retired administrator for the Los Angeles Municipal Courts, and William Davis, former administrative executive of the Ninth Circuit Court.

Yet another current assembly member is South Dakotan Patricia Locke, the first American-Indian woman to serve on the NSA. She replaced her son Kevin: Locke.

McMullen, the University of Houston sociologist, acknowledged that the prohibition against nominations and campaigning has made it hard for those outside the Baha'i establishment to win election to the NSA.

But on the local level, he added, there is a much higher leadership turnover. Moreover, on this level of authority, he said, issues, even controversial ones, are freely debated without fear of official disapproval.

Henderson also said that "Baha'is are specifically asked to air their grievances" at local and national conventions. "There are specific channels for such expression, but it must remain within these established channels."

"The Baha'i faith is outwardly liberal but inwardly conservative, " he continued. " It's a matter of scripture."

Baha'is claim a worldwide membership of more than 5 million people living in more than 200 nations and territories. About 2.5 million Baha'is live in India.

In Iran - where the faith first emerged in the 1840s when Baha'u'llah proclaimed himself to be the divine manifestation for the modern era there are about 300,000 Baha'is. Considered heretics by the Muslim authorities, the live as a persecuted minority.

The heresy charge stems from Baha'u'llah's claim to prophet status some l,200 years after Muhammad, the founder of Islam, proclaimed himself God's final prophet.

In the United States, Baha'is claim some l30,000 members - a third of whom are African-Americans. About 2l,000 live in California, with the largest concentration - more than 6,000 - in greater Los Angeles.

Baha'is are also relatively strong in South Carolina, Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Illinois, Arizona and Washington state.

However, Baha'i critics say the religion's membership numbers are wildly inflated. Citing friendly but unnamed sources at Baha'i headquarters 1n Wilmette, the dissidents say no more than 30,000 names represent active Baha'is with verifiable addresses.

"Wilmette has no idea who most of these so-called 130,000 Baha'is are,"said Steven Scholl, a Baha'i for 27 years until he withdrew his membership last October.

"The large number of inactive members on the roles speaks to the number of people who have simply walked away from the faith out of their upset with the leadership, " said Scholl, a publisher of spiritual books based in Ashland Ore. '

A 1993 book on Americans' religious affiliations, " One Nation Under God" by demographers Barry Kosmin and Seymour Lachman, estimated the number of adult Baha'is in the United States at about 28,000.

"Every new religious movement that is in a missionary phase tends to overestimate its members," Kosmin, currently at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London, said in an interview. "They count people coming in, but never count those who leave."

Kazemzadeh, the Baha'i official, insisted that the 130,000 figure is "essentially accurate." But he also said that "if active means contributing funds and serving locally, it's probably about half the names on the list."

Sizable Baha'i communities in the South are traceable to the influx of mostly rural African-Americans who joined the faith in the 1960s and `70s, drawn by its strong rejection of racial prejudice. Jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie is probably the best-known African-American Baha'i.

During those same years, relatively large numbers of white liberals, attracted by the faith's emphasis on a society free of social injustice, also joined. It is mostly members of this group - many of them scholars of Baha'i texts, the Middle East and its languages - that today lead the dissident movement.

Linda Walbridge, an anthropologist at the University of Indiana specializing in the growth of Islam in America, became a Baha'i in l966 when she was a 19-year-old VISTA volunteer on the Navajo Reservation. Despite her anger at the hierarchy, she remains a Baha'i.

Raised Roman Catholic, Walbridge said she was attracted to the Baha'i faith by its promise of a universalist vision. "It was far more open than anything I had experienced. "

Walbridge's public dissent has prompted Baha'i officials to threaten to label her a "covenant breaker" - a form of excommunication that would require her Baha'i husband to divorce her or risk his own excommunication.

"It was supposed to be the most liberal, broad-based religion on the face of the earth, " said Walbridge. " Instead, it turned out to be a straight jacket."

For liberal academics like Walbridge, the lack of free expression is a prime bone of contention. However, they also take issue with the Baha'i claim of inclusiveness when only men can serve on the Universal House of Justice the faith's international authority based in Haifa, Israel, near Baha'u'llah's, burial place. Established in l963 in accordance with Baha'u'llah's dictates, the Universal House of Justice is considered an infallible body by Baha'is.

The critics also take issue with the harsh attitude taken by Baha'i leadership toward sexually active gay and lesbian members, who are subject to official sanction under the faith's general prohibition against all forms of extra-marital sex.

"I understand that this conforms to understanding of Baha'i orthodoxy that the leadership shares, but how is this inclusive? " said Walbridge. " For heaven's sake, let's at least discuss it. Things have changed since the l9th century."

To members of the Baha'i establishment, Walbridge's challenge to some of the faith's basic tenets are indicative of the critics' misreading of the movement's conservative side.

"These so-called dissident Baha'is like to be among Baha'is because they were liberal and we appear liberal,'' said Kazemzadeh. "But they did not y believe in God as Baha'is define it. That raises the question of hypocrisy.

"This is a religious community united by a set of beliefs," he said. " So if a person says he does not believe in these beliefs, why is he a member of the community?"

Sidebar: Thumbnail guide to the beliefs of the Baha'is

by Ira Rifkin

c. 1997 Religion News Service

UNDATED -- A cornerstone of Baha'i beliefs is the principle of progressive relvelation, which holds that God repeatedly sends divine messengers to Earth and that the latest in a line running from Abraham to Jesus and Muhammad was the 19th-century Persian prophet known as Baha'u'llah. Missionary-minded and pacifist-oriented, the Baha'i faith teaches the unity of mankind and the commonality of all religions. It also emphasizes the harmony of science and religion, rejection of all prejudice, independent investigation of truth, equality of the sexes and compulsory education. "The Baha'i Faith's progressive approach to human society originates with Baha'u'llah's emphasis on unity," said a 1992 official profile of the movement. "Indeed, if one were to characterize His teachings in a single word, that word would be unity."

Baha'is have no ordained clergy and little ritual, and are led by elected officials. Despite the declaration of sexual equality, the faith's international authority, the Universal House of Justice based in Haifa, Israel, is doctrinally an all-male body. Baha'is consider the House of Justice to be infallible.

National Spiritual Assemblies direct Baha'i affairs in individual countries. U.S. Baha'i headquarters are in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, Ill., site of one of seven Baha'i Houses of Worship scattered around the globe.

Baha'is believe the world is destined to have one government, which will be led by Baha'is and will be based on the faith's administrative framework. The Baha'i faith grew out of Shiite Islam, and like Muslims, Baha'is are not supposed to consume alcohol and are to adhere to a strict moral code. They also believe in the sharing of wealth and the adoption of a universal language.

Considered heretics by Muslims, Baha'is have long been persecuted by Islamic leaders, particularly in Iran. Baha'u'llah spent much of his life in prison or under house arrest. He died while under house arrest near Acre, just north of Haifa, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. Since 1980, more than 200 Iranian Baha'is have been executed and thousands have been imprisoned, according to reports, leading to frequent condemnations of Teheran by the U.S. State Department. Because of this persecution, the recently organized, 20-member Secretary of State's Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad has a Baha'i member.

-END RIFKIN AP - NY-02-26-97 1528 EST

Note: Here follow two corrections sent to a Baha'i academics listserv in March, 1997:

On Thursday, March 6, a Baha'i wrote:

"Mr. Henderson was misquoted. Actually, he said, "The Baha'i Faith is SOCIALLY liberal and MORALLY conservative." Another factual error is that Linda Walbridge remains a part of the American Baha'i community; as many of us may remember with sadness, she withdrew from the Baha'i Faith almost a year ago."

Later, she added:

"I happened to be at the National Center last Friday, and Bob Henderson pointed out to some Baha'is that he was misquoted. Actually, it is something that happens all the time in journalism (in the rush of scribbling down notes and all). My guess is that Linda Walbridge was also misunderstood, as she would have no reason to believe that the institutions consider her to be a part of the American Baha'i community."

The US Baha'i Office of Public Information recently mailed their PI NEWS, April 1997, a bi-monthly publication distributed to Baha'i Public Information Reps. Here is the lead article regarding the RNS article: "News on Opposition National News Wire Article Criticizes the NSA"

"On February 27, 1997, the Religion News Service carried a news article by Ira Rifkin under the title "Critics Chafe at Baha'i Conservatism." The article presented the views of a small group of of disaffected former Baha'is who left the Faith because they rejected certain fundamental Baha'i teachings. The individuals attacked Baha'i institutions and their members attributing to them dictatorial attitudes, accusing them of controlling elections and claiming that Baha'i institutions were dominated by a tight-knit group of authoritarian officials. The article was published in the following US papers:

1) Muscatine, Iowa Journal
2) Akron, Ohio Beacon Journal
3) Kansas City, Missouri Star
4) North Carolina Times News
5) Charlotte, North Carolina Observer
6) Springfield, Massachusetts Republican
7) Mobile, Alabama Register

"Local communities responded to the article's publication in a variety if ways. For example, the Baha'is of Springfield, MA, formed a delegation which visited the executive editor of the Springfield, Massachusetts paper. The delegation explained to the editor the Baha'is eighty-year history in the area and noted its community service. During the hour long meeting, the executive editor's tone was apologetic, He stated that he had not read the article before it was placed. Additionally, he promised to feature a positive article on the Faith in the near future. Although published in only seven newspapers, the article is an excellent opportunity to identify issues and teachings to which American media might give a negative interpretation: free speech, the Baha'i electoral process and Covenant breaking to name a few. The Office of Public Information, in consultation with the Research Office of the Baha'i National Center, is developing educational materials for PI Reps which will address these issues.
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