Originally published in The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Volume 37, No. 2 (June 1998): 234-248. Digitally republished here with additional notations, May, 1999.

The Baha’i Faith in America as Panopticon, 1963-1997

Juan R. I. Cole

Despite the large literature on American religious bodies, some groups remain curiously off-limits to careful investigation. In many instances, these largely unstudied contemporary faiths carefully cultivate public images that hide important facets of their outlook and internal workings. Thus, the collapse of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s Oregon commune surprised many observers. Some of these groups have developed control mechanisms that discourage adherents and often even apostates from writing about these workings. Scientology, for instance, employs techniques of harassment against critics. Others employ shunning which can be an extremely powerful deterrent, endangering a lifetime of friendships and even family relationships. The problem with strict internal controls for missionary religions, however, is that they are most often incompatible in Western societies with significant growth. One solution to this difficulty is to attempt to control what are thought of as key pressure points—vocal intellectuals, media, prominent institutions—and to give greater leeway to ordinary believers. This solution has the further advantage of making charges of repression less plausible to the rank and file, who have not personally experienced such constraints.

Here I wish to examine social control mechanisms in the American Baha’i community. These include mandatory prepublication censorship of everything Baha'is publish about their religion, administrative expulsion, blackballing, shunning and threats of shunning. What are the ideological bases of these control mechanisms? How is power attained and managed in a lay community without a clergy? I wish to stress here that this article is not concerned with the essence or scriptures or theology of the religion, but with the actualities of its day-to-day technologies of control. Many of my remarks cannot be generalized to other national communities, and concern mainly the U.S.

Anyone familiar with the public relations literature produced by the movement will be surprised at the description of control mechanisms given above, since Baha’is are often grouped in the media with Unitarian-Universalists. Why should the Baha’i authorities wish to project an image more liberal than the reality? First, the movement’s scriptures are liberal in their orientation, and as a result even administratively conservative Baha'i leaders support the U.N. and race unity, and pay lip service to the rule of law. But when it comes to the internal governance of the religion, the same leaders wield these control mechanisms to enforce on prominent believers what might be thought of as “party discipline” in the Marxist sense. Second, Baha’i leaders are aware that if the U.S. press understood how their administration actually operates, journalists might be far less favorable to them than is now the case. Third, the Baha'i leadership and intellectual class includes some powerful liberals, and some of the contradictions between self-presentation and policy derive from conflicts among the leadership. Fourth, since the 1960s this non-Christian Iranian religion has not attracted many white evangelicals or working-class Catholics, whereas more pluralist college-educated persons have been much more open to it. Thus, an open insistence on a fundamentalist orthodoxy and a clear condemnation of human rights principles might deprive the religion of an important recruiting ground. Although antiliberals have captured the key posts, they shape the community’s ideology subtly, by controlling media and silencing liberals who begin to become prominent. Because of these techniques of dissimulation, power can remain in the hands of conservatives, while liberals can continue to be recruited at the local level, and often remain unaware of how marginalized they really are.

In the past, the paucity of anything but official literature formed a difficulty in studying the approximately 60,000 adult American Baha’is, but the emergence of Baha’i electronic mail forums in the 1990s has led to the airing of Baha’i individual opinions in public. I will outline some key control mechanisms employed in the U.S., based on published literature, following email debates, and participant observation. The author has been studying the Baha’i religion for a quarter of a century, and spent much of that time as an adherent. This movement originated as a messianic offshoot of Twelver Shi`ite Islam in nineteenth-century Iran. By the time it came to the United States, in the 1890s, it was already an established religion in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East (Smith 1987). It is now among the more widely-spread religious bodies in the world, and since the mid-1980s has officially claimed about five million adherents (Smith and Momen 1989)--a number that has remained stagnant since then and which was probably somewhat exaggerated even at the time. Let us begin with a brief historical overview.

Historical Background of the American Baha’i Community

The religion was founded in the Middle East in 1863 by the Iranian prophet Baha'u'llah (1817-1892), who taught the unity of the world religions and the unity of humankind from his place of exile in Palestine (Cole 1998). It came to the U.S. in the early 1890s, and was nurtured by the religion's second leader, `Abdu'l-Baha (d. 1921) (Stockman 1985-1995). From 1921 to 1957, the world community was headed by Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, Baha'u'llah's great-grandson, who died childless and without a successor as "Guardian" or interpreter of the religion. After a hiatus, the Universal House of Justice, consisting of nine men, was elected by the members of the National Spiritual Assemblies of the world in Haifa, Israel, in 1963, in the wake of a Baha’i world congress held in London (Smith 1987). This legislative body, which had been called for by Baha'u'llah but was now elected for the first time, quickly confirmed that no further Guardians could be appointed (Universal House of Justice 1973:11). The Universal House of Justice created a new appointive institution, the Continental Boards of Counselors, to carry out the functions of propagation and protection—that is, of encouraging proselytizing and imposing orthodoxy (they are assisted by regional “auxiliary board members” and their “assistants”). Some members of the Universal House of Justice were drawn from the ranks of Americans who had served on the U.S. National Spiritual Assembly, and for a time vacancies on the UHJ tended to be filled by former secretaries-general of the U.S. body. More recently vacancies have been filled by counselors appointed by the UHJ. The Universal House of Justice presided over a vast expansion of Baha’i numbers among peasants in the global South, especially India (Smith and Momen 1989). Growth remained slight in Europe.

In 1963, the American Baha’i community had about 10,000 adherents. Here, the religion felt the impact of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the youth counterculture, and Watergate. The late 1960s and the 1970s were for many Americans a period of profound disillusionment with their social norms and government institutions (Bellah 1976; Wuthnow 1976). This dissatisfaction significantly raised the number of potential converts to less well known religious bodies. Suddenly, the Baha’is' proselytizing ("teaching") efforts, which had had only desultory results previously, reaped tens of thousands of converts. "From 13,000 in 1969, the U.S. Baha’i community grew to 18,000 in 1970; to 31,000 in 1971; 40,000 in 1972; and 60,000 by 1974" (Stockman 1994:18). (Note, however, that Stockman is reporting all the persons who ever registered as members without formally withdrawing, whereas Baha’i authorities soon lost track of about half of them; these persons are unlikely still to be Baha’is.). There were relatively few Baha’i youth (ages 15-21) in the community in 1968, but by the early 1970s there were some 19,000. The influx of youth created frictions with the older Baha’is. Some large proportion of the converts from the youth culture subsequently withdrew (cf. Caton in Hollinger 1992:264-271). Some of those who remained went on to obtain higher degrees, giving the community for the first time a significant number of intellectuals, though these remained poorly integrated into the Baha’i milieu. The Baha’i administration was to have increasing problems with these intellectuals’ “culture of critical discourse” (Gouldner, 1979) in subsequent years. By 1978, the Baha’i administration claimed 77,396 members, though it had confirmed addresses for only 48,357 of these, and the number of youth had fallen to only about 3,500 (National Spiritual Assembly of the U.S. 1979).

In the early 1970s, as a result of proselytizing by young people, thousands of rural African-Americans in South Carolina and northern Georgia adopted the Baha’i faith, attracted by its emphasis on the elimination of prejudice, though most of these converts did not give up their identification with their Christian churches (Hardesty 1993). The members of the U.S. National Spiritual Assembly (based in Wilmette, Ill.) had for the most part become adults in the 1940s and 1950s when the Baha’is numbered only five thousand or so and constituted a relatively closed club. They appear to have worried that the previously-existing community might be swamped by the newcomers. The rolls were becoming cluttered with many declarations of faith based on misunderstandings, and newcomers often had no conception of the rules of Baha'i administration. According to one eyewitness Firuz Kazemzadeh, a longstanding member of the N.S.A. and then a professor of Russian history at Yale, was worried that the community did not have the resources, financial or human, to manage a further influx of poor southern Blacks, and felt that resources should be put into absorbing the thousands that had already come in (personal communication, 16 May 1997). Other, less conservative N.S.A. members strongly argued for allowing the chain conversion to take its course, but these lost the debate. The N.S.A. then deliberately halted the teaching campaign in the South. This is corroborated by a number of sources, including a message posted to the Talisman listserv discussion group (which was run 1994-1996 by John Walbridge, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Indiana University), in which a correspondent reported that he was told by an older African-American Baha'i who had been prominent in teaching the South Carolinian converts more about their religion that

his study of 25 years of national elections led him to think that there would be very little variability in the ethnic makeup of the N.S.A. membership, that a specific ratio of racial diversity was carefully being maintained (sort of an enhanced tokenism?), and that there were lots of fears by the powers that be that if the mass teaching in the south had been allowed to go forward at full steam that a black N.S.A. majority would probably have been elected, so the mass teaching was stopped. (Talisman, April 1996)

Of course, this is only one opinion, and my be incorrect, but the quote shows that some African-American Baha’is entertained these doubts. It does seem clear that the U.S. Baha'i authorities (unlike their Indian counterparts) chose to impose the sort of controls that might risk stagnation rather than take a chance on vast but uncontrolled growth. An eyewitness told me that House of Justice member Ali Nakhjavani deplored the decision as having set back the U.S. Baha’i community “by a generation.” On the other hand, the N.S.A. did show concern to socialize the new Southern African-American converts to Baha'i values; admitted a representative of that community to the N.S.A.; and has done community service work, including setting up a radio station in South Carolina.

The next large-scale event involved the immigration to the U.S. from 1978 through the mid-1980s of some 12,000 Iranian Baha’is fleeing persecution at the hands of the Khomeinist government in Iran. The American rank and file responded to these events with active campaigns on behalf of their beleaguered Iranian co-religionists and enhanced monetary offerings. The House of Justice in Haifa, however, took a different approach. At first it was reluctant to abandon its quietism in order to protest the persecutions. Moreover, it offered no support to Iranian Baha’is attempting to flee, and even punished many who succeeded, on the grounds that they could only have gotten out by denying their faith. In many instances it refused to certify such Baha’is as members, preventing them from being granted asylum and thereby putting them in severe difficulty and sometimes even danger. The U.S. N.S.A. also took this hard line, refusing to welcome large numbers of the escapees into the U.S. community. House of Justice member Ali Nakhjavani vocally and sternly defended these policies on trips to the U.S. The House of Justice did come to support the U.S. N.S.A. in its policy of putting pressure on the Iranian government through cooperation with human rights organizations, though it sometimes continued to balk at certifying escapees as Baha’is.

The period after 1979 was a time of big changes in the U.S. The influx of Iranians, some of whom eventually were accepted into the community, was sufficiently geographically dispersed to require Baha’i communities to come to terms with a more multi-cultural ethos, and most Baha’i communities now included white, Iranian and African-American members. South Carolina and California are the two biggest population centers, but Baha’is have made strenuous efforts to build communities in every state, having by the mid-1990s some 1300 local spiritual assemblies throughout the country and a national annual budget of around $20 million (though contributions to the national fund in 1996 were only $11 million and were not keeping up with inflation). The N.S.A. claims 130,000 Baha’is in the late 1990s, but this is a vast exaggeration, even if one counts the children. The N.S.A.’s own survey of 300 communities showed that only a third of members regularly attended the nineteen-day feast (National Spiritual Assembly of U.S., 1997). Wilmette insiders give a figure closer to 60,000 for adults in good standing for whom the authorities still have a confirmed address, and probably only half of these could be considered “active” or committed. After all, converts can only be removed from the rolls by writing a formal letter to the National Spiritual Assembly explicitly renouncing belief in Baha’u’llah. Most of those who leave the religion do not bother to do so. One Baha'i tells the story of how an attempt was made in the 1980s to contact the Baha’is in Compton, California. Official records showed 22 Baha’is there for which the N.S.A. had addresses. But an exhaustive search turned up only two who still considered themselves Baha’is (personal communication, May, 1997). This case cannot be typical, but it is suggestive. It is sometimes argued that those converts of whom the authorities have lost track may not have entirely given up their allegiance to the religion. In 1990 CUNY conducted a poll of 110,000 U.S. households with regard to religion, and, only finding 24 adults who reported themselves as Baha’is, estimated the size of the community as 28,000 adults. These findings, while perhaps on the low side, confirm that there are not large numbers of lost Baha’is floating about in the general population (Kosmin and Lachman 1992:17, 151, 287).

Isolating Beliefs and Practices

What are the beliefs and practices that underpin the control mechanisms practiced by Baha’i institutions? Baha’is are encouraged to relocate so as to serve as lay missionaries in a place with few Baha’is, in their own countries or abroad. Since these policies began in the 1930s and 1940s most Baha’i communities have been small, ranging from a handful to forty members, with only a few communities much bigger. Participation in the larger communities can be quite demanding, since the Baha’i faith lacks a professional clergy and all the religion's work must be done by lay officials and by volunteers. A secondary effect of these practices is that an active Baha’i often moves far away from or is too busy to see much of non-Baha’i family and friends and is left highly dependent on Baha’i social networks, and is thus vulnerable to pressure for conformity from Baha’i institutions.

A significant way in which Baha’is are isolated from mainstream society is the ban on participation in politics. Things were not always thus. In nineteenth-century Iran Baha’is sometimes held high political office, and some Baha’i intellectuals were important in agitating for constitutionalism and an end to absolutism. `Abdu'l-Baha made a distinction between those living under absolute monarchies and those living in republics. "Now, as the government of America is a republican form of government, it is necessary that all the citizens shall take part in the elections of officers and take part in the affairs of the republic" (`Abdul-Baha 1909-1916: II, 342-343). Early U.S. Baha’is likewise were active in U.S. politics, belonged to political parties, and in some instances held civil political office.

In the 1930s Shoghi Effendi called a halt to Baha’i involvement in party politics, and his policy has hardened into a Baha’i principle (Hornsby 1982:329). He took this step in part because the Iranian community under the Pahlavi dictatorship withdrew or was excluded from public affairs, and he appears to have felt that Iranian Baha'i values should be normative world-wide. He also was concerned that partisan political disputes had polarized major Baha’i communities such as that of New York. Shoghi Effendi's secretary wrote on his behalf in 1951 that "we must do two things--shun politics like the plague, and be obedient to the Government in power in the place where we reside" (Hornsby 1982:332). Shoghi Effendi's sentiments in this regard were reaffirmed in a major encyclical addressed to African Baha’is by the House of Justice in 1970 (Universal House of Justice 1976:44-50), and remain a strong value. U.S. Baha’is typically condemn active participation in politics, and their attitudes can generally be described as “anti-liberal” (Holmes 1993), as in the following posting to an email forum: "The political culture in the U.S. is strongly influenced by these revolutionary developments and by thinkers, such as Locke, Jefferson, and Mill, that promoted them. The characteristics of this political culture include suspicion toward authority, the promotion of individualism, and the use of adversarial processes, protest and rebellion in order to check the abuse of power. So steeped are many of us in this political culture that we have difficulty imagining real change without some process of opposition or partisan conflict" (Aull 1993).

The Baha’is’ inability to belong to political parties, vote in primaries that require party affiliation, contest partisan elections, contribute to political campaigns, or even express political views, detracts from their ability to participate fully in the affairs of the republic and in some important respects isolates them from the larger U.S. society. Indeed, Baha’is are not only excluded from belonging to political parties, but also from membership in activist organizations such as Amnesty International (Universal House of Justice 1993). Baha’is do partipate in some institutions of civil society, especially at the local level. But on the whole they have fewer institutional affiliations outside their religion than is common among Americans, which gives Baha’i leaders greater leverage over them.

Another way in which many Baha’is are isolated from non-Baha’i social supports is their disparagement of the institutions and values of mainstream American society. Many Baha’is exalt their own community, values and procedures, and denigrate those of what they call the "Old World Order." The U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights are often criticized by conservative Baha’is as embodying Old World Order values inferior to those found in Baha’i writings. Baha’i antagonism to existing American society is expressed in a number of ways. Among the symbolically most powerful is a widespread Baha’i belief in what is called the "Calamity," an apocalyptic event or set of events that will radically change American society and lay the foundation for the mass adoption of the Baha’i faith (Smith 1982; Caton in Hollinger 1992:269). Mainstream Baha’is seldom set precise dates for the Calamity, in contrast to tiny sectarian movements such as the Jensenites in Montana.

Many Baha’is believe that their ecclesiastical institutions will eventually supplant the U.S. government (and other governments), so that a Baha’i theocracy will abolish the separation of religion and state. This belief is contested by Western Baha’i liberals, but has recently been favored by the Universal House of Justice (Universal House of Justice 1996c; Haukness 1996; Watler 1996; Johnson 1997). Only Baha’is may vote in Baha’i elections, and presumably only Baha’is would be allowed to vote in the unlikely event of a theocratic Baha’i government being established in the U.S. This policy would create religious minorities with less than full civil rights, as was and sometimes still is common in the Muslim Middle East. That late twentieth-century American Baha’is should advocate theocracy is ironic, since in the nineteenth century Middle East, its founding fathers Baha'u'llah and `Abdu'l-Baha argued for a separation of religion and state and for multi-party democracy as a way of gaining more tolerance for the new religion in Shi`ite Iran (Cole 1992). The theocratic ideal is clearly a radical Middle Eastern one, and is paralleled in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Most contemporary Baha’is do not realize that the various stances taken on this issue over the period of a century by Baha'u'llah, `Abdu'l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi contain some contradictions, and it is a late theocratic vision, present most radically in pilgrim's notes of remarks attributed to Shoghi Effendi in the 1950s, that many Baha’i institutions now uphold (Robarts 1993).

Baha’is invest their religious institutions with great authority, since many do not see them--as Protestants would--as a mere church, but rather as an embryonic theocracy (in this they resemble the Khomeinists). Many, perhaps most American Baha’is believe that the House of Justice in Haifa is infallible in all its doings. This belief derives from a particular understanding of the Arabic word employed by `Abdu’l-Baha to describe the institution’s authority, ma`sum, (which in the original means morally immaculate rather than “infallible” in the Roman Catholic sense). Many believers ignore Shoghi Effendi’s limitation of the sphere of “infallibility” of the House of Justice to legislation, which denied it the authority to engage in authoritative scriptural interpretation (Rabbani 1969:148-151). With the end of the guardianship, conservative Baha’is are eager to invest the House of Justice with de facto interpretive authority, and the House of Justice has come out vigorously against “secular humanism” and “materialist” methodologies in academic scholarship, which would appear to be interpretive issues (UHJ 1997). Many Baha’is believe they must subordinate their individual consciences to UHJ decisions and obey it implicitly, a value strongly at odds with American individualism. Baha’i liberals in the West frequently demur from this view in private, but they appear to be increasingly a minority. Belief in infallibility can act as a powerful control mechanism. A former British Baha’i describes how a vote at a national convention was overturned in the late 1970s when Philip Hainsworth, a member of the U.K. N.S.A., asked the delegates if they really desired to oppose the wishes of the infallible Universal House of Justice (private communication, Feb. 1997). Although national spiritual assemblies are not considered infallible, many American Baha’is view all Baha’i institutions as “divinely guided” under certain circumstances. Belief in divine guidance makes Baha’is especially susceptible to authoritarian control techniques on the part of Baha’i administrators, and inclines them to a “blame the victim” mindset wherein they condemn vocal victims of repression as a source of disunity (cf. Shupe 1995; Collins 1991).

Divine Elections

Many control mechanisms relate to the electoral system and the realities of power in the community. Early American Baha’is lacked a clergy, electing lay leaders. They allowed nominations to be made for Baha’i office, and also allowed campaigning for Baha’i office. When early American Baha’is asked `Abdu'l-Baha how they should conduct elections for local spiritual assemblies he replied that they should follow the rules for election common in their own country (`Abdu’l-Baha 1908-1916: I,7). Van den Hoonard points out that nominations and canvassing for Baha’i office were standard practice in North America in the time of `Abdu’l-Baha (van den Hoonard 1996:157-158). Shoghi Effendi abolished the practice of nominations and campaigning for elective Baha’i office in the early 1930s, in accordance with Iranian Baha’i practice. Although ending these practices appears to have had a basis in egalitarian ideals, as the community grew it became impossible for a large electorate to know and evaluate national candidates, and so informal mechanisms of nomination and campaigning developed, wielded especially by those already in power

Baha’i elective institutions are not beholden to the electorate, and may decide as they please. No public criticism of Baha’i institutions is permitted, though private criticism, in the form of individual letters to the institution or comments at Baha’i-only administrative gatherings is said to be allowed (Universal House of Justice 1988, 1989). Persistent public criticism of Baha'i institutions by a Baha’i is considered a contravention of the Baha'i “covenant,” and is often branded a “dishonest attack” on the Baha'i faith, punishable by shunning. After a vote has been taken, all the members of the Baha’i community must support the result, and defeated minorities may not continue to criticize (Hornsby 1983:31). This procedure assumes that after some time, if the adopted policy is a poor one, the community will come somehow to recognize its inadequacy, and will adopt a new policy. This theory of political behavior denies the need for checks and balances.

The placing of elected bodies above public criticism and the silencing of defeated minorities has had predictable effects at the national level. Since 1961, no member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States who has stood for reelection has been unseated. Since elections of the N.S.A. are annual and there are nine slots, over the past twenty years there have been 180 opportunities to elect a candidate. In this time there has been less than ten percent turnover, and these changes have always been the result of an incumbent not standing for reelection. Moreover, the current system seems especially open to penetration by kinship and patronage networks:

For example, [N.S.A.. Secretary Robert] Henderson's mother, Wilma Ellis, is married to [N.S.A. member Firuz] Kazemzadeh. Ellis herself is a former N.S.A. member who has held 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 N.S.A. members are husband and wife James and 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 N.S.A.. She replaced her son Kevin Locke. [Michael] McMullen, 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 N.S.A. 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. (Rifkin 1997 [misattributed to Cole]).

Baha’i critics of the system allege that electoral results are skewed in three ways.

The National Spiritual Assembly enjoys all the advantages of incumbency, controlling the image of incumbents in the national newspaper, The American Baha'i (an organ of the N.S.A.), sending videotapes of the incumbents to local communities, and sending members around to conferences, which enhances their visibility (all this is paid for out of the national Baha'i fund). These advantages of incumbency are especially efficacious in a system where no campaigning for office by others is allowed. Second, they allege that sitting members often promote close associates onto the body, “flying them around to conferences,” appointing them to high-powered national committees, and giving them prominence at important events (personal communication, May, 1996). Since speaking openly about candidates is not allowed, subtle non-verbal signals have taken on extreme importance for delegates, who seem willing to be guided by the incumbents in these indirect ways. At the very least, there is a widespread perception among some portions of the community that such subtle signals from incumbents do form a sort of nomination procedure. In the 1970s an African-American prominent in the proselytization campaign in South Carolina said that:

he was asked if he wanted to be part of an orchestration of the N.S.A. [National Spiritual Assembly] election. He said that it was understood that the people that gained visibility when chosen to read prayers on the big stage at national convention had been "blessed" by the powers that be. He told them that he was not interested in being a prayer reader. (Talisman, April 1996).

Obviously, launching a campaign for the N.S.A. involves rather more than is indicated above, but this recollection does show how the semiotics of prominence are thought by many to operate at the National Convention. Third, some grassroots campaigns are launched by unannounced candidates who go about the country giving talks. Such informal campaigning is generally permitted as long as the candidate does not criticize the National Spiritual Assembly, does not explicitly ask for votes, and waits patiently for a slot to open up on that body. The National Spiritual Assembly occasionally stops such grassroots campaigns by ordering the person’s talks cancelled, or, if chairmanship of a national committee is becoming a platform for popularity, by firing the individual (Anon. 1992). Conservative Baha’is deny that there is any manipulation of elections, which they see as divinely inspired.

Control Mechanisms and Sanctions

Baha’i leaders employ a number of important control mechanisms to shape the speech and behavior of Baha’is. These include removal of voting rights, shunning, demands for conformity, accusations of “weakness in the covenant,” informing and surveillance, and various forms of censorship. Many of these tools are employed primarily against persons who are somehow prominent or appear to have leadership potential but do not seem easy for incumbents to control, or against intellectuals and some businessmen engaged in Baha’i-related businesses.

The prohibition of nominations and campaigning leads administrators to feel a need for strict controls on Baha’i discourse, and often to the avoidance of even mentioning leaders by name in public, which would be construed as “backbiting.” The ban on campaigning can become a ban on visibility or on any sort of critical thinking. A group of Californian believers began a Baha'i magazine, Dialogue, in the mid-1980s. Although all the articles were submitted for prepublication censorship to the National Spiritual Assembly, a feeling of distrust toward the magazine’s left-liberal editorial line grew up in Wilmette and in Haifa. In spring of 1988 the editors proposed the publication of a 9-point reform program, “A Modest Proposal,” which they submitted for censorship (Dialogue Ed. Board 1987). The article pointed to the decline in conversions, argued against continued censorship, and proposed term limits for N.S.A. members. They offered to (but did not) make the document available beforehand to delegates to the national convention. The response of N.S.A. secretary Robert Henderson and Firuz Kazemzadeh was to accuse the editors of engaging in “negative campaigning.” The editors were denounced at the 1988 national convention in Wilmette, and were interrogated by N.S.A. members, who privately expressed concerns that the publication of such a document might have prevented incumbents from being reelected, and who raised suspicions that an independent magazine such as Dialogue might prove a vehicle for gaining popularity in the community for the editors such that they might get elected to the N.S.A. The editors, dismayed at this barrage of what they felt were false charges and violations of due process, and worried that Dialogue could not survive such official condemnation, closed the magazine (Scholl 1997). The ban on campaigning leads to a situation where a great deal of suspicion falls on any active intellectual or any medium of communication not directly controlled by the N.S.A.

Baha’i administrators put a high premium on enforcing relative conformity of views within the religion, taking steps to prevent the emergence of self-conscious subcultures, which are seen as “parties” and as divisive. Despite the clear ideological divide in the community between liberals and conservatives apparent on email forums, Baha’is are forbidden to label one another in this way, which effectively prevents liberals from complaining about the conservative ascendancy. Although the early Baha’i faith had a place in it for cohesive sub-groups of mystics and scholars, the contemporary American community places a premium on homogeneity. Legitimate leadership is held to be collective, though cults of personality do grow up around Baha’i officials. Great suspicion attaches to any Baha’i teacher or lecturer who is not an elected or appointed official and is thought to be “gaining a following.” The story of one such popular Baha’i lecturer in the 1980s, an immigrant from Iran whose name I have disguised, is told by a friend:

Under the auspices of the California Regional Teaching Committee he began to do classes . . . on personal reading of the [sacred] Text. These were very widely attended . . . One day after about 4 or 5 months a representative of the CA RTC said that the N.S.A. was very concerned about the extreme adulation being shown to [Ibrahim], some of which was expressed in letters to the National Center. Tragically, this person said that the friends could think what they wanted to, but to please just change what they wrote to the N.S.A.. This was subterfuge, and this, combined with [Ibrahim’s] silence on the matter instead of public renunciation of the adulation, was the death knell. The classes were closed down. The rumor was that it was because he was developing a following (personal communication, 16 April 1997).

While a Baptist preacher would have been rewarded for such activities with his own congregation, the collectivist ethos of the American Baha’i community demanded that this popular preacher actually be silenced for his success.

Among important control mechanisms at the disposal of Baha’i leaders is the removal of a believer's "administrative rights." By virtue of joining the Baha’i faith, all adult believers have the right to vote directly for members of their local spiritual assembly, and to vote at District Convention for their delegate to the annual National Convention, who in turn elects the members of the National Spiritual Assembly each year. Elections of local and national assemblies are conducted according to the "Australian" system, such that the nine persons garnering the most votes win. Every five years, members of the world's National Spiritual Assemblies elect the members of the Universal House of Justice. One's administrative rights also include holding elective office and attendance at the nineteen-day feast, a combination of worship service and church business meeting. Administrative rights are required for participation in a Baha’i marriage ceremony, and only those in possession of these rights may contribute money to the Baha’i faith. Many conferences, and even some email forums, such as Bahai-Discuss, are for Baha’is in good standing only. Local spiritual assemblies may not revoke a believer's administrative rights, but may recommend that the National Spiritual Assembly do so. For the most part the National Spiritual Assembly takes such a step because a believer has repeatedly broken some Baha’i law in a public way--participation in civil politics, belonging to another religious organization, drinking alcohol, gambling, having an affair, homosexuality, failure to abide by Baha’i marriage laws (which require the consent of both parties' parents), or breaking a civil law of some seriousness (Hornsby 1983: 39-51). Those whose rights are removed can no longer serve as public speakers in Baha'i settings, and, if writers, are usually unable to convince Baha'i publishers to publish them. In some instances the N.S.A. has removed rights for essentially political reasons, because a believer has publicly or even privately criticized (Baha’is would say “slandered”) the National Spiritual Assembly. A debate on this issue broke out in fall, 1995 on the email network, Talisman, in which liberals pointed out that here the National Spiritual Assembly acted as both plaintiff and judge. Most participants defended the current procedures, on the grounds that Shoghi Effendi had given this prerogative only to National Spiritual Assemblies and had specified that assembly members who were party to a dispute with an individual Baha’i should not recuse themselves in deciding that person’s fate.

Baha’is who publicly disagree (e.g. on email lists) with policies of the Baha'i institutions can also simply be dropped from the rolls and declared non-members, as happened to Canadian fantasy writer and editor Michael McKenny in July, 1997. The most serious sanction of all is being declared a “covenant breaker.” Although Baha’u’llah himself attempted to abolish the practices of shunning and ritual pollution, contemporary Baha’is, like members of the Watchtower and other cults, shun those who are excommunicated. Only the head of the Baha’i faith can impose this punishment, so that this authority now rests with the House of Justice. Whereas loss of voting rights does not necessarily speak to one's spiritual well-being, being declared a covenant-breaker makes one spiritually condemned. Baha’is are not to speak to or have anything to do with covenant breakers (Hornsby 1983: 148-153). Baha’i friends and family, including the spouse, cut the covenant breaker off. Rank and file Baha’is take the obligation of shunning very seriously, and being cast out from one’s support network can be devastating. This punishment typically is imposed upon a Baha’i who has come into direct conflict with the head of the religion. Most often this is because the individual has put forth a competing claim and attempted to form a Baha’i sect, or because a Baha’i has chosen to join or associate with such a sect. Baha’i officials sometimes even declare ex-Baha’is covenant-breakers. In late 1996 in New Zealand a new Baha’i who refused to terminate her friendship with the daughter of a covenant breaker responded to pressure to do so by formally withdrawing from the Baha’i religion. She was nevertheless declared a covenant breaker (Universal House of Justice 1996d). Individuals can also be shunned for expressions of conscience. Recently, the House of Justice informed an American Baha’i liberal who had been critical of the U.S. National Spiritual Assembly and had urged reform of Baha’i judicial procedure that, should he continue on this path, "he and those with whom he has been closely associated” would “find themselves in direct conflict with the Covenant" (Universal House of Justice 1996b). In Baha'i terminology, they were threatening to have these Baha’is shunned if they continued publicly criticizing (“attacking and undermining”) Baha'i institutions or their policies, even though they were not fomenting a schism. Threats to use shunning for this purpose have increased with the rise of cyberspace.

Although Baha’i authorities do not appear to intervene in individuals' secular businesses that are licit in Baha’i law, they do feel it their prerogative to interfere with Baha’i businesses that pursue activities directly related to the Baha’i faith. Thus, the making and marketing of Baha’i-related jewelry and decorations is strictly monitored and individuals can be ordered to desist from such activities. Music by Baha'i musicians with Baha'i lyrics must be “reviewed.” The National Spiritual Assembly claims the prerogative of telling private Baha’i publishers what Baha’i-related books they may or may not publish, and even of ordering the deletion of certain passages from both secondary and primary sources (MacEoin 1992:i). During the build-up to the 1991 Baha’i World Congress in New York, the National Spiritual Assembly encouraged all Baha’is to use its expensive official travel agency, and some private Baha’i travel agents report that the N.S.A. used threats of sanctions to pressure them not to offer competing, lower-priced packages (personal communication, March 8, 1996, and enclosures).

Conformity of views and behavior is a strong value, and deviation from stock phrases and ideas is looked upon with considerable suspicion (Johnson 1997). Despite the existence of New Age and liberal subcultures, the most widespread approach in the American Baha’i community to scriptural exegesis is literalism, as in fundamentalist Protestantism. Administrative practice is based largely on a literalist reading of Shogh Effendi's English-language letters concerning the development of the Western Baha'i communities. Although Baha’is supposedly believe in the "unity of science and religion," in practice most U.S. Baha’is put a literalist interpretation of scripture above science. Recently Counselors have begun demanding assent to a literalist approach to Baha'i scripture from liberal Baha’i academics, on pain of being shunned (Birkland 1996).

The community employs a number of mechanisms to impose doctrinal and behavioral conformity. One is to charge that a speaker with whom one disagrees is weak in or actually undermining the Covenant by his or her words. This tactic was employed to disrupt an academic conference on Baha'u'llah's Most Holy Book held in Wilmette in March, 1995, where Baha’i intellectuals presenting other than conservative views were sniggered at by some in the audience and called, sotto voce, “covenant breakers” (personal communication, 1995). When, in the early 1990s, a left-liberal academic Baha'i took a job at Carleton College, Counselor Stephen Birkland of Minneapolis privately told Baha’is in the region to shun him as though he were a covenant breaker (pers. communication, July, 1997). With the rise of unmonitored email forums, where Baha’i liberals and other nonconformists are free to express themselves publicly, the difficulty of maintaining a monopoly on the media for Baha’i orthodoxy has increased. In response, the House of Justice encouraged Baha’is who hear something they think out of the ordinary to challenge the speaker to justify his or her statement with regard to the covenant (Universal House of Justice 1996a). On the Talisman email forum, for instance, an Iranian-American engineer alleged that Baha’i liberals constituted a sub-group who were “attempting to undermine the covenant" (Talisman, April 1996). This practice is similar to the Muslim principle that lay puritan volunteers should go about "enjoining the good and forbidding the bad."

Informing, which is officially encouraged, forms another important control mechanism. If accusations of covenant breaking do not cow the liberal, the conservative Baha’i will often "report" the offender to the spiritual assembly or to a member of the increasingly clergy-like Institution of the Learned. In the U.S. this body consists of four North American counselors, who command nearly 70 auxiliary board members, each of whom in turn has an average of 60 assistants. This cadre of over 4,000 persons forms a significant proportion of the active believers, and those concerned with “protection” in particular vigorously monitor the community for their superiors. An official will sometimes investigate the accused, and then meet with the offender in an attempt to persuade him or her to orthodoxy. The authorities keep files on those so reported, and sometimes blacklist them from prominent committee assignments, appointment as assistants, and from speaking at official Baha’i events and conferences.

Some anecdotes illustrate these practices. A Baha’i professional attended meetings of a special-interest group for Baha’is, in the mid-1980s. At one of these he suggested that the phrase "world government," employed by Baha’is, was off-putting to most Americans and that Baha’is should find a different terminology. (Conformity to the vocabulary of Shoghi Effendi is an especially strong value, which this individual's remark violated). He says that as a result, a member of the National Spiritual Assembly put a fellow conference participant "under secret orders" to keep an eye on him, but that the person recruited to spy on him later confessed this to him (personal communication, 1996). It was alleged to me that this National Spiritual Assembly member maintained a network of informers nationally.

Ross Summers, a health care professional in Seattle, relates that before going on pilgrimage to the Baha’i shrines in Haifa in the 1970s, he saw a newly-issued letter from the House of Justice that discouraged Baha’is from reading covenant-breaker material, but did not absolutely forbid it. Summers then went on pilgrimage, and while in Haifa casually mentioned the letter's contents to another Baha’i pilgrim. Many Baha’is seek out and destroy covenant-breaker materials in libraries, and believe it virtually a mortal sin to possess such books or pamphlets (though the Baha'i institutions discourage such extreme measures). So the Baha’i pilgrim disbelieved Summers' remark, and was alarmed. Back in the U.S. on the East Coast, the offended pilgrim contacted a former auxiliary board member and related the content of the conversation. This man then passed the information on to a counselor. Upon his return home to Seattle, Mr. Summers was contacted by a local auxiliary board member, who sought a meeting in his home about his statement to the pilgrim in Haifa. Mr. Summers accepted, and produced for the ABM the letter from the Universal House of Justice, vindicating his remarks. Neither the ABM nor the Counselors appear to have been aware of this letter previously. Summers felt that having been essentially spied upon rather spoiled the good feelings he had otherwise taken away from his pilgrimage (personal comm., 26 April 1996). As these anecdotes suggest, to be a Baha’i is to be under constant surveillance by one's community, and to be open to being reported on if one says or does anything that seems to another Baha’i out of the ordinary. The accused has no access to such reports and no right to face his or her accuser. The system of using rank and file informers has a venerable history in the Middle East.


The Baha’i faith imposes a system of in-house censorship on all Baha’is (Johnson 1997, Rifkin 1997), just as most Middle Eastern governments have practiced censorship since the rise of printing in the nineteenth century. Within the Baha’i religion, any piece of writing by a Baha’i author about the religion intended for publication is to be vetted by elected Baha’i officials at the appropriate level (local, national, international). This requirement has provoked many conflicts between Baha’i officials and writers over the years. Critics charge that it has led to a paucity of intellectually acute Baha’i literature, to a lack of independent magazines and to the withdrawal of a number of Baha’i writers. The innovative research findings of the new generation of Baha’i academics has in particular brought them into conflict with the conservatives in charge of the censorship apparatus. Although Baha’i officials insist that the censorship requirement (“literature review”) is “temporary,” it has already lasted nearly a century, and the House of Justice has made it clear that it intends to keep it in effect for a very long time. And although it is sometimes alleged that “review” protects Baha'i authors, in practice even work submitted for review, such as the Dialogue “Modest Proposal,” can attract sanctions. Prepublication censorship has been among the primary techniques by which Baha’i authors have been prevented from publishing on the controversies of contemporary Baha’i history, and it is notable that the history of the community since about 1950 has not been written about in any detail. Contemporary history is off-limits as a subject because it would involve making value judgments on present office-holders. It is often alleged by Baha'i conservatives that “literature review” does not actually impede the publication of research findings. But in 1988 the all-male House of Justice permanently suppressed an academic paper arguing that women could serve on the UHJ, insisting that only men could serve.

Although the emergence of email discussion groups and of the World Wide Web pose profound challenges to the Baha’i system of internal censorship, Baha’i institutions have moved aggressively to retain control in the new environment. For instance, the major usenet list, Soc.Religion.Bahai, which is the most prominent site for posting about the religion, is a moderated list; its editors tend to be fairly conservative; and they report to a local spiritual assembly and an auxiliary board member about policy, and sometimes receive directives from counselors. They limit the posting of criticisms of Baha’i institutions or any statements that too profoundly challenge Baha’i orthodoxy (sometimes posting a few such criticisms and then “calling a halt” to the discussion). When Baha’i Frederick Glaysher began a campaign for an unmoderated usenet list, the rank and file Soc.Religion.Bahai posters were overwhelmingly negative about the idea, and heavily voted against it. (Admittedly Glaysher, a pugnacious poster, was not the ideal publicist for the idea). One Baha'i wrote, “This is not a first amendment issue, I must tell you. As I understand it, the Faith, our part in the Covenant, implies that we remain silent and accept certain things that we, as Americans, are culturally trained to disobey or complain about in public.”

Baha'i authorities have dealt with email forums through post-publication censorship, similar to that practiced by governments in the global South such as Singapore. Electronic mail, while it allows open discourse, is nevertheless also a useful tool in monitoring members of the religion, given that informants forward unusual messages to the authorities. Many Baha’i officials and ex-officials are given the opportunity to read these communications (some of them personal). The following description of an ex-official who monitored e-mail traffic in the community illustrates the point:

This person . . . when he was an ABM [auxiliary board member] he developed a lot of contacts who would say something like `this situation might interest you. Do you want me to forward the info to you.’ And he always said yes. And these people continue forwarding stuff to him. Consequently he claims to get scads of mail – much of which he simply doesn't even read. But he does read some, including [confidential messages] (personal communication, 23 September 1996).

Active officials receive many more such forwardings of confidential material and reports. An example of how this system works concerns a woman on the email forum, Bahai-Discuss, who argued to a believer in Florida that in the future women would serve on the currently all-male Universal House of Justice. The Florida woman faxed a copy of the offending email message along with commentary to her opponent’s spiritual assembly, which passed the material on to an auxiliary board member. Officials sometimes act on such reports by summoning the offender to a meeting and silencing him or her.

Even more serious charges can be made. In April, 1996, the counselors launched charges against a number of prominent liberal posters to the Talisman@indiana.edu listserv, alleging that the posters had "made statements contrary to the Covenant" (Johnson 1997). The list had been a site for discussing issues such as the need to contextualize Baha'i scripture in Middle Eastern history in order to understand its implications, the potential limits on the infallibility of the House of Justice, the possibility of women serving on that institution, and the pros and cons of official “literature review.” Criticisms were also voiced of past administration actions. The Baha'i authorities, viewing such discussions as a form of public dissent and even “slander,” threatened to have these individuals shunned if they continued posting on such subjects. As a result, the list-owner closed the list down in May of that year, some of the accused withdrew from the religion (the author among them [though he maintains his private faith]), and others fell silent. A prominent academic who had posted on Talisman received a threatening letter from Counselor Stephen Birkland stating that

“the International Teaching Centre has asked me--with the knowledge of the Universal House of Justice--to warn you that your promulgation of views contrary to the Teachings was damaging to the Cause. If you were to resume in any fashion this course of action, the effect would be to bring you into direct conflict with the Covenant” (Birkland 1996).

This is a warning that the recipient will be declared a covenant breaker if he does not fall silent. The archived email messages the counselor had collected from the academic, which he sent along as examples of what would not be tolerated, included statements that Baha’i metaphysics had a Neoplatonic background, that contrary to `Abdu’l-Baha’s statements Socrates had not conversed with Hebrew prophets in the Holy Land, and that the Universal House of Justice was not infallible in its choice of building materials for construction projects in Haifa. More serious was a private posting the academic had accidentally sent out making light of the Wilmette administration, expressing pleasure that it had so far not dared close down Talisman, and batting down the idea broached by one angry liberal of forming an organization. This posting was seen as evidence of a conspiracy.


Baha’i authorities exercise a great deal of control over discourse in the community, maintaining a virtual monopoly on mass media with a Baha’i audience. This control is felt necessary in part to prevent electioneering and coalition-forming, which are formally barred (despite the informal campaigning discussed above). It is perhaps not incidental that the controls on electioneering and other forms of communication have the side effect of ensuring that criticism of those in power cannot achieve wide circulation, and that the incumbents who exercise that control are reelected every year. Incumbents act aggressively against Baha’i owners of media who demonstrate too much independence. They monitor the speech of individuals extensively through a system of informants, and intervene behind the scenes to silence dissidents with threats of sanctions. They require prepublication censorship of everything Baha’is write about their religion. They intervene in the private businesses of believers where they think the interests of the administration are at stake. They tell private Baha’i publishers what books and even what passages in books they may and may not publish. They employ the threats of loss of administrative rights, humiliation in the national Baha’i newspaper, and even of shunning, in order to control believers.

Having Baha’is inform on their co-believers allows the administration to discover nonconformists who might not toe the party line, and to monitor their activities. The system operates so as to maintain the “orthodox” ideology in power and prevent the election to that institution of dissenters through identifying them and ensuring that they do not become visible in the community. The practice of informing creates a panopticon, as described by Michel Foucault in his discussion of Jeremy Bentham's ideas on penal reform (Foucault 1979). Bentham argued that putting the criminal constantly under observation would deter him from further criminal acts, and would even cause him eventually to internalize the sense of constantly being watched, thus becoming permanently reformed. Conventional Baha’is often never discover the informant system, since they never trip the wire that would lead to their being informed on. The independent-minded, however, usually discover it fairly early in their Baha’i careers, and then have to decide whether they wish to live the rest of their lives in a panopticon. This practice, like many other control mechanisms, discourages spiritual entrepreneurship and keeps the religion from growing in the West.


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+ Juan R. I. Cole is Professor of History at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1003. He can be contacted by email at jrcole@umich.edu. Note: This file contains the original diskette of the paper, and does not reflect copy-editing and other late authorial and editorial changes in the published article, to which it is therefore not quite identical. - JRIC

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