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Abstract:
Argument that the current provisions for review may be anachronistic and that the benefits of deregulation might outweigh possible disadvantages. Includes responses by Roxanne Lalonde and Sepideh Taheri.
Notes:
See also commentaries and author's response, below (both from Baha'i Studies Review 6, 1996).

See also newer letters written by the Baha'i World Centre on this topic, at uhj_publishing_internet, and a compilation, Reviewing: Practice and Functions of Literature Review.


Bahá'í Review:
Should the 'red flag' law be repealed?

by Barney Leith

published in Bahá'í Studies Review, 5:1
London: Association for Baha'i Studies English-Speaking Europe, 1995
Abstract: Pre-publication review is a long-standing practice in the Bahá'í community. When questioned about it in the past, the Universal House of Justice has defended review and stated that it will continue for the foreseeable future. This paper argues that the current provisions for review may be anachronistic and that the benefits of deregulation might outweigh the possible damage.

Origins of review

On 5 March 1922, writing to his "Fellow-workers in the Cause of Bahá'u'lláh," Shoghi Effendi states his "firm conviction" that "the dignity and unity of the Cause" should be the focus of the love and dedication of the Bahá'ís.(1) He reviews 'Abdu'l-Bahá's guidance on consultation and on the obligations of Spiritual Assemblies, and the Master's strictures on the necessity of submitting to their authority. Shoghi Effendi recalls that 'Abdu'l-Bahá directed Shaykh Faraj to submit his translation into Arabic of the Ishráqát, corrected by 'Abdu'l-Bahá in his own handwriting, for approval to the Spiritual Assembly of Cairo. He comments:
    This is indeed a clear indication of the Master's express desire that nothing whatever should be given to the public by any individual among the friends, unless fully considered and approved by the Spiritual Assembly in his locality.(2)
Shoghi Effendi emphasises the need to present a "solid united front to the world" and, in so doing, he exhorts the Bahá'í community to be a disciplined body that will promote Bahá'u'lláh's Cause. The interests of the Cause transcend personal freedom as a value, important as that value is.

Justifications for review and current regulations

This discipline has most certainly had the effect of protecting the Bahá'í Faith from the spread of distorted versions of its teachings. The benefits of this protection have been both external and internal: pre-publication review has ensured, by and large, a consistent presentation of the Faith to the rest of the world at a time when the Bahá'í community was very small indeed and extremely obscure; review has also been a means by which the believers' knowledge of Bahá'í doctrine could be improved. Needless to say, these two aspects reinforced each other.

One Bahá'í scholar has persuasively argued for the role of review in the future:

    at this still formative stage in the world-wide development of the Bahá'í Faith when we seem to be on the verge of "entry by troops" in many parts of the world, I think it would prove unwise to do away with review at this time. As "entry by troops" continues to happen, we can envision all kinds of people entering the Bahá'í Faith–unity notwithstanding–amidst a great welter of cultural backgrounds, dissimilar attitudes and various temperaments. In the intellectual realm, such a mix can lead to powerful ideological storms which may serve to undermine the very unity the Bahá'í Faith aims to create.(3)
The Universal House of Justice, in defending the continuation of the practice of review, now and into the future, has made the same moral appeal as did Shoghi Effendi. It has done this in a number of documents, notably in Individual Rights and Freedoms in the World Order of Bahá'u'lláh (of 29 December 1988),(4) and in a letter dated 5 October 1993, written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual,(5) which restates the case for review in a specifically academic context.

The 1971 Memorandum on Bahá'í Publishing(6) (supplemented by various other communications)(7) provides the clearest statement of the regulations currently governing the practicalities of review. It quotes statements of Shoghi Effendi in support of the obligatory and temporary ("in these days when the Cause is still in its infancy")(8) nature of review and gives as its purpose the protection of Faith from misrepresentation and ensuring dignity and accuracy of presentation. Review is to be applied to "all works by Bahá'ís which deal with the Faith."(9)

    What are reviewers to look for? How are they to judge whether or not a work is suitable to be passed for publication? The House states: "The standards to be upheld by reviewers are the following: (a) conformity with the Teachings, (b) accuracy, (c) dignity in presentation."(10) No definitions or criteria are prescribed for these key terms and it is left to the reviewing body to judge what constitutes "accuracy" and "dignity".
Problems & questions

There are considerable difficulties in interpreting these concepts. How "dignified" would a tape of rap songs be with Bahá'í content, recorded by a Bahá'í rap artist? Just such a tape was turned down by the UK Reviewing Panel as undignified. The Reviewing Panel's decision was appealed to the UK National Spiritual Assembly, which overturned the decision on the grounds that the presentation would be regarded as dignified by the audience for which it was intended, even if not by the middle-aged, middle-class reviewers. How "accurate" is a book written by a Bahá'í scholar who presents well-researched information about the history of the Faith unfamiliar to the reviewers, particularly if he constructs an argument about the development of the Faith which the reviewers find unpalatable, since it does not accord with what one might call "folk-wisdom" about Bahá'í history? Reviewers rejected one such book, and the decision was appealed to the National Assembly, which overturned the review and passed the book.

Unjustified rejections by reviewers have made some scholars and artists reluctant to invest time, energy and emotion into work with Bahá'í content. Problems arise when the reviewers are not knowledgeable enough to make considered judgements, when their views about dignity are too "conservative" or even differ wildly from the views of the target audience or when the reviewers exceed their remit and begin to make editorial judgements about the suitability of the work for publication.(11)

Is it possible to establish useful criteria for "accuracy" and "dignity" that would guide reviewers and be acceptable to both the competent institutions and the authors of materials under review? The dictionary, offering only circular definitions for these words, doesn't help us here. The central authority of the Faith offers no criteria. It falls, therefore, to the National Assemblies (or their appointed reviewers) to arrive at some definition. But how can they do this? Potential audiences for Bahá'í material are diverse; criteria for dignity are equally diverse. Furthermore, notions of dignity change over time, and perhaps never as quickly as now. So reviewers tend to fall back on the "we know it when we see it" kind of criterion–dignity as a form of justified prejudice, as illustrated in the case of the rap tape mentioned above.

Defining "accuracy" is no more straightforward than defining "dignity", especially when the history and teachings of the Bahá'í Faith are subject to research and investigation by scholars, Bahá'ís and others, who are not constrained by the "received" understanding of the Bahá'í Faith with which many Bahá'ís tend to live. The case of the scholarly history I mentioned above shows how difficult it can be to judge "accuracy".(12)

    I submit that it would be impossible to arrive at a set of agreed criteria for either "dignity" or "accuracy". Definitions will be either (a) circular and therefore useless for practical purposes, or (b) so general as to be useless because they do not respect cultural differences, or (c) so local as to be useless because they run counter to the global nature of the Bahá'í Faith and of publishing in the late twentieth century. In addition, any criteria chosen may reflect the prejudices of a dominant group in the Bahá'í community–such as white males–who may lack understanding of the cultural expressions of other groups.

Review and Bahá'ís in academia

It is amongst Bahá'í scholars that concerns about Bahá'í review have been most forcefully articulated. The point has been made repeatedly in discussions on an Internet mailing list called Talisman that having work on the Bahá'í Faith reviewed by a separate Bahá'í procedure poses serious problems for academics. One Bahá'í academic put it in this way:

    "Review" is problematic in academic terms because it constitutes a third-party intervention between the author (the truth-seeker) and the academic publisher (which will have the work refereed in any case, but solely for intellectual cogency and soundness of sources). While some publishers may accept it (Cambridge did, for Peter Smith's book), it is not the sort of thing other academics would approve of. Nor, in my view, should they. If it is the same as academic refereeing, it is redundant, since the press has referees. If it is not the same, then it is adding some criterion on to the publication process beyond simple intellectual cogency and accuracy, which is academically unacceptable.(13)
The cost for Bahá'í academics of maintaining this practice can be heavy in terms of lost credibility with academic peers, loss of publication opportunities, and, in extreme cases, loss of access to tenured posts.

Beyond this pragmatic concern, there is a matter of principle that concerns scholars. Some believe that review is a prime cause of what they see as the intellectual and spiritual stagnation of the Bahá'í community in the twentieth century. As a Talisman contributor wrote:

    Defenders of Review still have not replied to my major criticism of it, which is that it leads to intellectual and spiritual stagnation because it discourages thinking, writing and publishing. The Bahá'í Faith in 19th century Iran was a cauldron of imaginative thinking, which was actively encouraged by Bahá'u'lláh. There was then no review.... The best argument for getting rid of review is that Bahá'í thinkers would then feel free to think again, after the (Bahá'í) intellectual dark age of the 20th century. I know for a fact that some prominent Bahá'í intellectuals of the previous generation refused to write about the Faith because they could not reconcile Review with their academic consciences.(14)
Another put it more starkly:
    Bahá'í review is censorship intended to protect the Faith from outside criticism. Personally, I believe that censorship is wrong on both moral and practical grounds except under abnormal conditions, as in a war.(15)
There is anecdotal evidence(16) to suggest that the national institutions of the Faith have used review to suppress the work of Bahá'ís which has been perceived as threatening, possibly even as dissident, with respect to the Covenant. Artists and scholars who have asked "awkward" or unsettling questions, or who have produced material which challenges received or "orthodox" notions about the Bahá'í Faith, have found their material rejected by review and, therefore, unpublishable. In some cases, this may have led to their withdrawal from active participation in the community.(17)

However, there is another side to this particular coin. Changes are taking place in the attitudes of at least some National Spiritual Assemblies, guided by the Universal House of Justice. Its letter of 14 May 1994 to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States makes it clear that National Assemblies have to learn to relate in a more open and less authoritarian way to the believers.

Concomitantly, the Bahá'ís themselves have a responsibility in this respect:

    The maintenance of a climate of love and unity depends largely upon the feeling among the individuals composing the community that the Assembly is a part of themselves, that their co-operative interactions with that divinely ordained body allow them a fair latitude for initiative...(18)
Although some, perhaps most, scholars perceive themselves as being denied "fair latitude for initiative"–a perception that leads to anguish and anger–it has to be said that National Spiritual Assemblies have the difficult (perhaps impossible) task of reconciling conflicting roles: defending the Faith and co-ordinating its activities, for instance, whilst encouraging individual initiative, or maintaining confidentiality while remaining open to criticism. National Assemblies have tended to err–often heavy-handedly–on the side of caution (in order, as they would see it, to protect the Faith), with detrimental effects on scholars and scholarship. The above quoted letter from the House leaves National Assemblies in no doubt about how they have to change. But change in the Bahá'í community is the responsibility of all. Nothing will be resolved if scholars and institutions perceive themselves as being somehow in an adversarial relationship.

In a letter written on its behalf to an individual (dated 5 October 1993) the Universal House of Justice acknowledges that it is aware of the effects of the continuation of review on both the good name of the Faith "in the eyes of certain non-Bahá'í academics"(19) and the careers of Bahá'í academics. However, the House believes that scholars and other Bahá'ís are well placed to taking a leading part in exploring new scholarly methodologies which will help solve the world's problems; the development–through consultation–of essential new resources and methodologies will protect the reputation of the Faith in the long run, whatever the short-term misunderstandings and criticisms.

The letter seems, in part, to be intended to discourage special pleading on the part of Bahá'í scholars; it implies most clearly that Bahá'í scholars are not a special case and appeals to them to consider that they may have to make sacrifices in their lives, just as other Bahá'ís have had to do in the path of service to Bahá'u'lláh.

I have to say that I am not entirely comfortable with this approach. By way of example, the letter sets up–unfairly, it seems to me–a parallel between Bahá'ís in academic professions and Bahá'ís in developing countries who have sacrificed political careers. The sacrifice of a career that is entirely off-limits to Bahá'ís seems to be reasonable (if difficult). But why should Bahá'í scholars have to sacrifice careers of importance to defend a temporary practice within the Bahá'í community? Bahá'ís who work in academic fields are far more likely to influence the development of the new methodologies called for by the House when they are in professional contact with other thinkers in their field than they would be if they were to sacrifice their professions.

I cited above a Talisman contributor who blamed review for what he saw as the intellectual and spiritual stagnation of the community. It would seem clear that the Bahá'í community does not generally celebrate intellectual achievement. Nor is it universally humming with artistic and spiritual creativity, although there are, of course, many vigorously creative Bahá'ís. However, review cannot alone be held responsible for this; other factors, such as the conservatism of many Bahá'ís and their lack of understanding of scholarship and of the arts also have their effect. Probably the most potent stimulus for the development of a spiritually and intellectually vibrant community will come from the Faith's numerical growth. When the UK Bahá'í community, for instance, reaches six million instead of its current 6,000 members, the range of possibilities for high quality scholarly and artistic interchange will have grown out of all recognition.

Review and electronic publishing

Another serious difficulty about the review process is that the guidance on review, even though it lists works of various kinds, seems to be based on an assumption that the work in hand is a book published in the traditional way. The Memorandum makes a distinction between author and publisher, assumes that publication takes time, that publication is in a relatively static form, that the finished work is easily recognised as a "publication", and that publication happens in one place and is geographically limited.

None of these assumptions is any longer automatically true. Electronic and on-line media have eroded print-based assumptions and distinctions: an author may also be the publisher; publication can be virtually instantaneous; geographical boundaries no longer have any relevance; publication is dynamic and documents may change at any time and rapidly; there may be multiple and collaborative authoring; the distinction between "internal"/private and published documents is increasingly hard to maintain; publications may be open-ended and include a series of dynamic hypertext links that can change from day to day (in other words, there is no closed, contained document; indeed, a document may even consist mainly of links); even in a contained publication such as CD-ROM, the hypermedia links may be so extensive and labyrinthine as to be impossible to be sure that one has followed them all. In such a case the reviewer could never be certain that the presentation is "accurate" or "dignified" (whatever those terms are taken to mean).

Even the more "traditional" non-print media, such as drama, radio, TV, films and recordings are difficult to review in the manner prescribed. Where the message is largely in the performance, review of the script alone could never be sufficient to certify accuracy and dignity, even if suitable criteria could be established. Furthermore performers and producers would be justifiably angered if their investment of time and money were to be negated by rejection at, say, dress rehearsal.

Where do we go from here?

Between 1878 and 1896 British law limited the speed of mechanical vehicles to 4 mph and insisted that each vehicle be preceded by a man with a red flag. I believe that the provisions for review are now in a "red flag" law situation. Traditional "vehicles", such as books, are subject to review (the man with the red flag). But, newer faster vehicles are now increasingly coming into use. On the information super-highway the man with the red flag is in danger of being run over.

What is to be done? The Universal House of Justice could (a) insist that the new "vehicles" obey the red flag law along with the traditional ones; (b) place the "vehicles" into different categories and make different regulations for each category; or (c) deregulate entirely and trust to the good sense of each driver.

In many respects the Bahá'í community is being decentralised and deregulated as it grows in size and maturity. Its diversity and plurality are increasingly being acknowledged. Greater emphasis is being placed (by the House of Justice) on the need for individual initiative, and institutions are learning how to facilitate rather than control Bahá'í activities. These are processes that will continue and become more pressing as the community grows explosively in many places. I submit that it is no longer possible or right for National Assemblies to try to control the kinds of things Bahá'ís publish about their Faith.

Sincere Bahá'ís will always have "the dignity and unity of the Cause"(20) at heart, even if they differ on how these are to be achieved. Responsible Bahá'í publishers of traditional printed matter and in the newer media will exercise (as most do now) editorial control and responsibility over what they publish. Attacks on the Faith can continue to be answered by individuals suitably briefed by the institutions or, indeed, by the institutions themselves and their agencies. In my view, the life and richness of the Bahá'í community will be greatly enhanced if it is freed from review as a form of control and is encouraged, instead, to explore ways of using consultation, formally and informally–within authorial and editorial teams, between individuals and institutions (and their agencies), and so on–to create new and exciting presentations about the Faith and to ensure that the best interests of the Cause are served.

End Notes

  1. From a letter of Shoghi Effendi dated 5 March 1922, cited in Bahá'í Administration, 5th rev. ed., (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1981) 18.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Jack McLean, personal communication with the author, 20 September 1995.
  4. Individual Rights and Freedoms in the World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, a Statement by the Universal House of Justice, dated 29 December 1988, addressed to the Followers of Bahá'u'lláh in the United States of America (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1989).
  5. Cited in The Bahá'í Studies Review 3.2 (1994): 43-45.
  6. The Universal House of Justice, "Memorandum on Bahá'í Publishing," Ridván 1971.
  7. For example, unpublished letters written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to Dr Moojan Momen, dated 23 December 1979, and to George Ronald Publisher, dated 16 October 1985.
  8. The Memorandum quotes from a letter written by Shoghi Effendi to the Bahá'ís in America and Great Britain (amongst other countries) on 12 March 1923–that is, over 70 years ago, when the Bahá'í community was small, weak, and almost entirely lacking the administrative framework that now exists. The Memorandum itself is now 24 years old.
  9. Universal House of Justice, "Memorandum on Bahá'í Publishing."
  10. Ibid.
  11. As one who has reviewed several works on appeal, I have to say that it is difficult indeed to bracket one's editorial and personal preferences when considering whether or not to pass the work.
  12. Indeed, one reviewer turned down this particular manuscript on the grounds that the facts and arguments presented would not be familiar to the least educated Bahá'í. It is worrying that a reviewer should consider the understanding of the least educated to be a suitable criterion by which to assess any work by a Bahá'í.
  13. Cited from an informal compilation of contributions to a thread on the subject of review on the Talisman Internet mailing list, sent to the writer by Seena Fazel, November-December 1994.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. It is not my intention to write here about particular cases. I refer to the evidence as "anecdotal" because I am not aware of any published critical research into the episodes which some have alleged strongly (indeed, with considerable outrage) as evidences of the repressive use of review. Such research would be difficult because it would require access to confidential minutes and other documents of the National Spiritual Assemblies concerned, and the scholar would have to take great care to present a balanced assessment of the situation.
  17. This assertion is based on "anecdotal" evidence.
  18. From a letter dated 19 May 1994 written by the Universal House of Justice to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States.
  19. Cited in The Bahá'í Studies Review 3.2 (1994): 43-45.
  20. From a letter of Shoghi Effendi dated 5 March 1922, cited in Bahá'í Administration 18.

Commentaries and response published in Bahá'í Studies Review, vol. 6 (1996).

Commentary on Barney Leith's "Bahá'í Review: Should the 'Red Flag' Law be Repealed?"

By: Roxanne Lalonde

Barney Leith suggests that it is "no longer possible or right for National Assemblies to try to control the kinds of things Bahá'ís publish about their Faith" (35). With all due respect, I disagree with both Leith's suggestion and his choice of words.

My first concern is with the use of the term "control" in characterizing the environment in which National Spiritual Assemblies function. The implications of that term bring to mind one of the central themes of the Universal House of Justice's 19 May 1994 letter to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States, in which Bahá'ís are called upon to free themselves of suspicion of the institutions that serve them. The House of Justice reinforces the need for cooperation between the institutions and the members of the community.

Leith's assertion that it is no longer "right" for National Assemblies to "try to control" what Bahá'ís publish is unclear. Is he saying that it is now incorrect for National Assemblies to do so or that they no longer have the right to do so? To what incident or phase in the evolution of the Faith is he referring when he distinguishes between this period in time and some time in the past when it was right for National Assemblies to do so? Questions quibbling with semantics or murky writing aside, given that authority held by the institutions is divinely conferred, the entire notion has no foundation.

Leith also suggests that "it is no longer possible" for National Assemblies to "try to control" what Bahá'ís publish. Divorced from the discussion of the liberties associated with the electronic media, this statement may look like an attempt to limit the purview of a divine institution. Granting Leith the benefit of the doubt that that was not his intent, let us remind ourselves that "the power to accomplish the tasks of the community resides primarily in the mass of the believers".(23)

Therefore, any action we take that ignores or disobeys the guidance of our institutions retards the progress of the Cause. Loving cooperation is the key to ensuring that the relationship between individuals and their institutions, regardless of the circumstance, flourishes in a harmonious and unifying environment.

A carte blanche dismissal of the review process as a solution to the challenges it creates is not a constructive option. In fact, such a dismissal would ultimately do more harm than good in this early phase in the development of the Bahá'í Faith. The Universal House of Justice has reminded us in recent letters that the international Bahá'í community is still in an immature phase in its development, both in the evolution of its institutions and in its standing in the world. Protection is just as important as propagation for the foreseeable future.

In the interests of making a constructive rather than merely critical contribution to this discussion, I address three issues: (1) interpretation of reviewing criteria, (2) Bahá'í academics, and (3) electronic communications, all of which rest on the quintessential matter of the individual believer's attitude toward the standards set by Bahá'u'lláh and enacted through the Administrative Order.

Review criteria

In Leith's account of two overturned review decisions, a National Spiritual Assembly rendered a judgement that reflected one of the operating principles articulated by Shoghi Effendi: be rigid in principle, flexible in application. When a National Assembly delegates its authority, the onus is on the members of the appointed committee to strive to meet the standards set by the Universal House of Justice, ensuring that the principles of the Faith remain at the forefront of their vision. The appeal process serves as a protection when an apparently unjust decision is made by such a committee. In all cases, the standard that Bahá'í scholars, editors, reviewers, and publishers must strive for is that of Bahá'u'lláh and the Covenant, not of the secular or academic world that surrounds us. It is only when we lose sight of that vision that we run the risk of producing/publishing work that does not meet those exalted standards.

The challenges in the review process are more a reflection of limited expertise during these early stages in the growth of the Faith than of problems inherent in the process itself. As more Bahá'ís devote their lives to acquiring expertise to serve the Faith and humanity, our still tiny pool of resources for these endeavours will become an ocean of wealth. One of the current knowledge gaps reflects a lack of sustained international cooperation among those interested in developing these resources. This gap is more indicative of the stretched resources of the Faith than a lack of will or desire. The Associations for Bahá'í Studies could work in conjunction with administrative institutions to compile a comprehensive database of international human resources. Such an endeavour would fall directly in line with initiatives currently being launched around the world through the development of teaching and training institutes.

Bahá'í academics

One of the more challenging issues involves Bahá'í academics seeking to publish works about the Faith in non-Bahá'í publications. Leith identifies situations and cites opinions that have contributed to a contentious atmosphere fuelled by the secular ethics of Western society. These are among the most stark examples of Bahá'ís applying non-Bahá'í standards and ethics to a Bahá'í process, an ambition ultimately doomed to fail, but which can cause much damage and grief.

Leith addresses apparent sacrifices that Bahá'í scholars make by submitting to the review process. Rather than being a restriction, the review process is a protection both for the Bahá'í Faith itself and for individuals who seek to publish works about it. By ensuring that the tone and content of such works meet Bahá'í standards, individual scholars are saved from making errors of interpretation that may need to be corrected later (surely an embarrassment any academic wants to avoid) and demonstrate their love and respect for the institutions of their faith in an era of dissent.

One source of guidance, now out of print, might assist Bahá'í academics by focussing on the standard associated with serving Bahá'u'lláh. In an article published in the inaugural issue of The Journal of Bahá'í Studies, Moojan Momen suggested five prerequisites that Bahá'í scholars should follow to acquire adequate armour to withstand the "tests that will arise in their work": (1) "absolute purity of motive"; (2) "a profound sense of personal humility"; (3) "loyalty to the Covenant"; (4) commitment to sustain one's personal deepening in the Faith parallel to scholarly studies; and (5) commitment to remain active in the Bahá'í community. Ignoring any of these guidelines, especially the latter two, can lead to estrangement from the Bahá'í community and spiritual stagnation and decay.(24) We would be well served by this article being reprinted. Perhaps some of the distress and alienation felt recently by some Bahá'í scholars who have felt penalised or punished by the review process might have been lessened or avoided if this advice had been more readily available and heeded. If we remain constantly focussed on Bahá'u'lláh as our standard and obedient to his institutions, especially the Universal House of Justice, our infallible source of guidance today, we will reap the benefits of whatever sacrifices we make in the process.

Electronic communications

The Guardian's prediction of the development of an efficient system of international communication has been dramatically fulfilled. The numerous forms of multimedia insinuate themselves into our lives, or at least the lives of that minority of us with access to the technology. Bahá'í administrative institutions are in the awkward position of trying to address this technological explosion proactively, having to play catch-up much of the time due to activities in parts of the world where human and other resources are stretched to the limit.

The review process does not have to be revised to address these developments and challenges. It is founded on divine principles, which do not change to suit the audience or the medium. Again, Shoghi Effendi's guidance to be rigid in principle and flexible in application serves us well. It is the responsibility of individual Bahá'ís not to take advantage of the gap between the emergence of new media and direct and exact guidance from the institutions on how to function in these new and unfamiliar territories.

Bahá'í scholarship as service

Bahá'í scholars are at the forefront of endeavours to assist others to broaden their understanding of the Bahá'í teachings and to enlighten the masses of humanity to Bahá'u'lláh's message. We cannot do that effectively, however, if we allow ourselves to be distracted by the deficiencies of the society that surrounds us. The Universal House of Justice reminds us that the Bahá'í community "must increasingly become renowned for its social cohesion, and for the spirit of trust and confidence which distinguishes the relationship between believers and their institutions."(25)

We are reminded of Shoghi Effendi's longing for a loving, enthusiastic, and joyous relationship between Bahá'ís and the institutions serving their communities, instructing us to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to their support and, in turn, calling upon those serving those institutions to be "ever mindful of the attitude and manner prescribed for the conduct of their duties," striving "continually to approach the exalted standard set out in the Teachings."

These guidelines hold true for Bahá'í scholars, editors, reviewers, and publishers as we engage in our collective effort to bring Bahá'u'lláh's Message to greater numbers of people. By keeping Bahá'u'lláh's standard at the forefront of our vision, we contribute constructively to achieving a stage of maturity when the review process will be abolished by the Universal House of Justice because it is no longer necessary.

Commentary on Barney Leith's "Bahá'í Review: Should the 'Red Flag' Law be Repealed?"

By: Sepideh Taheri(26)



The Universal House of Justice

An impression gained from several sources(27) is the questioned validity and appropriateness of the decision of the Supreme Body to continue the practice of pre-publication review. The premise that informs our belief in the practicality and the incorruptibility of Bahá'u'lláh's "new and wondrous System" is that He has established an Institution that is protected "under the wing of His sanctity and infallibility,"(28) which "will take decisions and establish laws through the inspiration and confirmation of the Holy Spirit."(29) A situation where the Universal House of Justice may be "out of touch" with the changing needs of the times and the Bahá'í community, by definition, could never occur. To imply that the House of Justice has failed to make the correct judgement of the state of the maturity of the believers and has not understood the frustration of some academics, and to suggest a seemingly more up-to-date version of the truth, is evidence of the need to re-examine the basic premises of Bahá'í doctrine.

Freedom of expression

In 1989, the Universal House of Justice issued a highly significant document in reply to "evidences of a confusion of attitudes among some of the friends when they encounter difficulties in applying Bahá'í principles to questions of the day," and suggested that "at the heart of this confusion are misconceptions of such fundamental issues as individual rights and freedom of expression in the Bahá'í community." The House of Justice then clearly identified the source of the difficulties: "an inadequacy of Bahá'í perspective on the part of both the individual believers and their institutions."(30)

This document merits study in sufficient depth, for in it are enshrined answers to many questions that may cause confusion. Following a statement of several salient points, the House of Justice examines the theme of liberty as it is perceived from an adolescent, rebellious Western liberal democratic versus the Bahá'í perspective, which inevitably represents a departure from the former both in origin and concept. It then addresses more specifically the issue of freedom of expression—a fundamental principle of the Cause—for the exercise and maintenance of which the Administrative Order provides unique methods and channels, which "are amply described in the writings of the Faith, but they are not yet clearly understood by the friends." The concern of some of the friends regarding the temporary necessity of review before publishing is addressed:

    That the Faith has emerged from obscurity on a global scale is certain...but that it marks the attainment of the community's maturity is entirely doubtful...Can the friends forget the oft-quoted warning of 'Abdu'l-Bahá concerning the bitter opposition that will confront the Cause in various lands on all continents? Those who are anxious to relax all restraint, who invoke freedom of speech as the rationale for publishing every and any thing concerning the Bahá'í community, who call for the termination of the practice of review now that the Faith has emerged from obscurity - are they not aware of these sobering prospects?...

    The Faith is still in its infancy. Despite its emergence from obscurity, even now the vast majority of the human race remains ignorant of its existence; moreover, the vast majority of its adherents are relatively new Bahá'ís. The change implied by this new stage in its evolution is that whereas heretofore this tender plant was protected in its obscurity from the attention of external elements, it has now become exposed. This exposure invites close observation, and that observation will eventually lead to opposition in various quarters. So, far from adopting a carefree attitude, the community must be conscious of the necessity to present a correct view of itself and an accurate understanding of its purpose to a largely sceptical public. A greater effort, a greater care must now be exercised to ensure its protection against the malice of the ignorant and the unwisdom of its friends.

Where do the deficiencies lie?

From a careful perusal of the above-quoted document and observation of the thinking current among some of the friends, it becomes clear that the problem lies not in the principle of review itself, but from one or more of the following sources:

- An inadequate Bahá'í (versus old world) perspective of the relationship between the individual and Bahá'í institutions, which may equally apply to members of the institutions themselves.

- An inadequate understanding of the spirit and form of Bahá'í consultation, which can release tremendous forces of inspiration into any endeavour.

- Sometimes individuals who have been appointed to a review body may not be appropriately qualified to pass judgement on a particular work.

- In some cases scholars may have used an inappropriate style, and even appeared to challenge, in their writings, "the veracity and honour of the Central Figures of the Faith or of its Guardian,"(31) or written in such a way that implications are made which are in conflict with the reality of the Faith.

- A sometimes underdeveloped atmosphere of tolerance and understanding among the believers towards approaches to the Faith in ways unfamiliar to them.

What is to be done?

If the concerns that have arisen are due to our own shortcomings, instead of labelling them as impossible of attainment, we should rejoice at the prospects of arriving at satisfactory solutions to each and every one of them:

- Rather than considering a review body as a "restrictive" agency, individuals might try to consult the institutions and other believers even before the formal review process, which may well inspire them to perfect their work in ways that they would not have appreciated before.

- A Bahá'í scholar will humbly supplicate Bahá'u'lláh to guide him and inspire him and make his will entirely absolved in the Will of God: "Inspire then my soul, O my God, with Thy wondrous remembrance, that I may glorify Thy Name."(32)

- Having placed his whole trust in Bahá'u'lláh, he should then rest assured in His unfailing promise: "He that giveth up himself wholly to God, God shall, assuredly, be with him; and he that placeth his complete trust in God, God shall, verily, protect him from whatsoever may harm him."(33)

If, therefore, the scholar produces a work, which after frank and prayerful consultation with the review body, is deemed unsuitable for publication, he may consider, with equanimity, the objections raised and see if they can be remedied. If despite his attempts to do so, the work is still deemed unsuitable, he should acquiesce to the judgement of the institutions and patiently continue to improve his work, beseeching Bahá'u'lláh to guide and inspire him. Indeed, far from withdrawing from the Faith and becoming apathetic, he would do well to remind himself of the admonition of Bahá'u'lláh: "He, Who is the Eternal Truth, beareth Me witness! Nothing whatever can, in this Day, inflict a greater harm upon this Cause than dissension and strife, contention, estrangement and apathy, among the loved ones of God."(34) The scholar will then remain assured that: "If ye follow in His way, His incalculable and imperishable blessings will be showered upon you,"(35) and will humbly seek Bahá'u'lláh's help in pursuing his calling in this world and serving the Cause for which he was created in the first place.

Where do we go from here?

Although the "red flag" law was repealed shortly after the introduction of the motor car, as the speed and the number of the vehicles increased, so did the number of rules and regulations controlling the manner of driving them, and far from leaving everything to the good sense of the drivers, the driving authorities made sure that everyone strictly adhered to a very rigid set of laws, which would ensure the freedom and safety of all people, and imposed heavy penalties for breaking even minor ones. So now that the information super-highway is here, it would be to the advantage of all the Bahá'ís to be increasingly vigilant that anything they write is in keeping with the spirit and form of the Cause of God.

Despite our sincere intentions, we can be far from wise or mature, and are constantly in need of guidance to ensure that maturity is attained with the minimum of trauma to the body of the Cause. We need not look upon this practice as a form of control or censorship, but both the scholars, the reviewers and the institutions of the Faith are challenged to grow to regard it as a form of constructive consultation which could significantly contribute to the richness, sense of freedom, and growth of the community, and take steps to make it as such. "The All-Knowing Physician hath His finger on the pulse of mankind"(36) through the instrumentality of the Universal House of Justice who will alter the practice of review at precisely the right moment—and certainly not one heartbeat later.

Author's response to Commentaries on "Bahá'í Review: should the 'Red Flag' law be repealed?"

Barney Leith

I am grateful to Sepideh Taheri and Roxanne Lalonde for their commentaries on my paper. However, I do not believe that they have adequately answered my concerns with the present practice of Bahá'í review. Taheri acknowledges some of the deficiencies of the current review process, but then places the duty of answering the question "What is to be done?" squarely in the lap of the scholars. Lalonde also places the onus for change on the individual. I do not deny that scholars need to find ways of working that are consistent with the spiritual and ethical prescriptions of the Faith, but, as the House of Justice has pointed out in the letter of 29 December 1988 to the followers of Bahá'u'lláh in the United States, there is a reciprocity built into the Administrative Order:
    Within this framework of freedom a pattern is set for institutional and individual behaviour which depends for its efficacy not so much on the force of law . . . as on the recognition of a mutuality of benefits, and on the spirit of co-operation . . . Thus there is a balance of freedom between the institution . . . and the individuals who sustain its existence.

It is clear that the House of Justice is guiding the institutions to move from an authoritarian mode of decision-making to an integrative mode, in which they wholeheartedly promote unity in diversity, transformation and growth. It would seem to be congruent with this evolution of thought and practice in the life of the Bahá'í community to make review more of a consultative process.

The kernel of Lalonde's commentary addresses three issues. In relation to review criteria, she suggests that there is an onus on members of national committees to strive to meet the standards set by the Universal House of Justice. But this begs the question. The House of Justice has established two criteria, but leaves it to National Assemblies or their review bodies to define what these mean, presumably in the context of local culture and acceptability. To say that the standard Bahá'í scholars, editors, reviewers and publishers must strive for is that of Bahá'u'lláh and the Covenant does not dispose of the issue either. Clearly whatever is published should promote unity and be conformable with Bahá'u'lláh's teachings on wise utterance, but we still have to explore what that may mean in our particular circumstances. We have only to look at the different ways 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi related to and guided the Bahá'ís in the East and in the West to see that local susceptibilities matter.

In relation to the challenges faced by Bahá'í academics, I am interested to read an extract from a memorandum addressed by the Universal House of Justice to the International Teaching Centre on 10 February 1981:

    In the field of Bahá'í scholarship we feel that it is most important not to stifle the development of Bahá'í scholars by an attitude of censorship or undue criticism.

I believe that scholars have been less than tactfully treated in the past by the institutions and have even been marginalised. If this were not the case, why would the House of Justice have made this reference to "an attitude of censorship or undue criticism"? It is clear that change in the Bahá'í community is always a mutual process. The institutions, just as much as the individual believers, need to take the posture of learners if they are not to inhibit growth.

Lalonde asserts that the review process, founded as it is on divine principles, does not have to be revised to address developments in electronic communications. But it is a matter of fact that Bahá'í review is not now applied to the electronic media; I believe, for the reasons I stated in my paper, that the guidance in the 1971 Memorandum on Publishing could not be applied to the electronic media.

On 24 February 1995 the International Teaching Centre wrote to the Continental Boards of Counsellors to convey guidance that the Teaching Centre had received from the Universal House of Justice about Bahá'í involvement in electronic communications:

    It will take wisdom on the part of the institutions to utilize the positive aspects of the technology for the benefit of the Faith, while at the same time protecting the Faith from its ill-advised or malicious use.

Interestingly, National Assemblies are advised not to have "different policies for their national communities on certain matters raised on electronic forums" as this may cause confusion. Rather, "...there are many knowledgeable Bahá'ís involved with the discussion groups who help provide accurate information about the Faith as well as thoughtful ideas." The House even goes so far as to advise against interference by the institutions with postings on public forums.

In relation to electronic communications, the House of Justice seems to leave much to the judgement of individuals. The institutions are not to be proactive in reviewing material on the Internet, but should react to the concerns of individuals.

I suggest that, far from needing no revision, review requirements have already been varied for electronic communications. The institutions are not having to "play catch-up" as Lalonde asserts. They don't actually have to do anything at the moment other than deal with questions and concerns that individuals bring to them.

It seems that two standards now exist: the stricter standard of Bahá'í review applies to printed matter; the more relaxed approach outlined above applies to the electronic media. Undoubtedly printed documents, especially books, still carry more authority than matter on the Internet, and are likely to be more permanent. However, this is already changing, and it will be interesting to see if the two standards will persist or if the Universal House of Justice will find it needful, in the fullness of time, to change the guidance either on review of printed matter or on review of electronic material.

End Notes

  1. Universal House of Justice, letter to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States of America, dated 19 May 1994.
  2. Moojan Momen, "Scholarship and the Bahá'í Community," The Journal of Bahá'í Studies 1.1 (1988): 30-31.
  3. Riván 153 letter to the Bahá'ís of the world.
  4. The following is an extract of a longer article written regarding the practice of pre-publication review.
  5. For example, the Leith article and various postings on Bahá'í Internet discussion lists.
  6. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, cited in Compilation of Compilations, vol. 1 (Australia: Australia Bahá'í Publications, 1991) 322.
  7. Ibid. 323.
  8. Universal House of Justice, letter to the followers of Bahá'u'lláh in the United States of America dated 29 December 1988, published as Individual Rights and Freedoms in the World Order of Bahá'u'lláh (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1989) 3.
  9. From a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer dated 18 July 1979, cited in The Bahá'í Studies Review 5.1 (1995): 136.
  10. Bahá'u'lláh, Prayers and Meditations by Bahá'u'lláh (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, rev. ed. 1987) LVI.
  11. Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1976) 233.
  12. Ibid. 9.
  13. Ibid. 9.
  14. Ibid. 213.
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