The Refutation of Francesco Ficicchia and the Dangers of Silence
by Jack McLean2001
This paper examines the prejudice caused to the good reputation of the Bahá'í Faith by Francesco Ficicchia, a Swiss, German-speaking, ex-Bahá'í and his 1981 Bahá'ismus monograph. The gross errors and deliberate distortions contained in that book were ultimately answered, but not until some fourteen years had passed. In the meantime, adverse opinions had formed against the Bahá'í Faith in German-speaking Europe, especially in academic and ecclesiastical circles. Ficicchia's 450 page monograph Der Bahá'ismus — Weltreligion der Zukunft? Geschichte, Lehre, Organisation in kritischer Anfrage was decisively refuted when the reputable Olms Verlag published the 685 page Desinformation Als Methode: Die Bahá'ismus Monographie des Ficicchia by Drs. Udo Schaefer and Nicola Towfiqh and Mr. Ulrich Gollmer. The complete translation of an English-language edition was published five years later by George Ronald Publisher as Making the Crooked Straight: A Contribution to Bahá'í Apologetics (2000), a solid work that met with praise from the Universal House of Justice and even from some academics who are not partial to polemics. The defensive measures taken by Udo Schaefer, Nicola Towfiqh and Ulrich Gollmer, brought a much needed correction to Ficicchia's Bahá'ismus. Desinformation Als Methode controlled and to some extent reversed the damage caused by Ficicchia's book.
It is not possible within these confines, nor is it the purpose of this paper, to present all Ficicchia's charges and their corresponding refutations. For a fuller treatment, readers are referred to Making the Crooked Straight. Instead, this paper intends especially a moral purpose: to examine the posture of the negative model of attack used by Ficicchia which is largely typical of the confrontational tactics taken by hostile critics of the Bahá'í Faith and its Administrative Order. While the impact of Ficicchia's book was felt mainly in German-speaking Europe, its effect and the decisive response it received have wider implications for the world-wide Bahá'í community. To make only a passing comparison, in the English-speaking world, Drs. Seena Fazel and Khazeh Fananapazir cite J. Boykin's The Bahá'í Faith (1982) and J. McCormick's The History and Doctrine of the Bahá'í Faith (n.d.) and F. Beckwith's A Christian Response to Bahá'ísm, The Religion Which Aims Toward One World Government and One Common Faith (1985) as works which are inimical to the Bahá'í Faith.
The Publication of Ficicchia's Bahá'ísmus (1981)
Ficicchia's book was published by the West German Protestant organization, founded in 1960, the Evangelische Zentralstelle für Weltanschauungsfragen (EZW), the Evangelical Central Agency for World Views. While the name may suggest an organization devoted to the open inquiry of theological questions, its main purpose was in fact to protect the evangelical Protestant churches of West Germany from the invasion of oriental religions, New Age sects and cults that were winning sizeable converts in the former West Germany. Under its former head, theologian Dr. Kurt Hutten, author of Seers, Brooders and Religious Enthusiasts: The Book of Sects, through its official organ Materialdienst, also edited by Hutten, the Protestant organization periodically published inaccurate and derisive articles of the Bahá'í Faith and eventually fully adopted the dissident views of a handful of covenant-breakers who opposed the organization and "legal establishment" of the Administrative Order as directed by Shoghi Effendi.
Academic Credibility Destroyed by "Definitive Enmity"
Francesco Ficicchia, an accountant and social worker (b. 1946), who lacked any credentials in the academic study of religion, adopted the spurious claims of Mrs. Ruth White and Mr. Hermann Zimmer that 'Abdu'l-Bahá's Will and Testament (1921) was a forgery, a claim that, ironically, had been categorically rejected by one who was no friend of Shoghi Effendi and the Bahá'í Administrative Order, Ahmad Shorab. Sohrab had acted as 'Abdu'l-Bahá's translator and copyist. By his own admission, he had seen "countless examples of his handwriting and [I] have watched him as he wrote letter after letter...I have in my possession numerous examples of his handwriting." Sohrab was unequivocal that "...the Will and Testament was written, signed and sealed by 'Abdu'l-Bahá, every word being in his own handwriting." But unlike the cleric-theologian, Kurt Hutten, Ficicchia had been a one-time three year member of the Faith he determined to denounce. After being persuaded by the arguments in Zimmer's book, Ficicchia experienced an acute crisis of faith, what Udo Schaefer aptly called "a road to Damascus experience in reverse."
Ficicchia adopted Mrs. Ruth White's and Hermann Zimmer's conclusion that the Will and Testament was a forgery, allegedly perpetrated by Shoghi Effendi, the appointed head and Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith (1897-1957). Ficicchia charged that the Guardian had subsequently reorganized and devalued the Bahá'í Faith, using Zimmer's phrase, into recumbent "political Shoghism." Ficicchia then began to manufacture his own version of odium theologicum. In 1974, he wrote an "Open Letter" to the Bahá'í community, vehemently attacking the institutions of the Bahá'í Faith and the Guardianship in particular.
For the systematic, public denunciation of the provisions of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's Will and Testament, clear and explicit violations of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's covenant, and for repeatedly challenging the authority of the Universal House of Justice, Ficicchia was excommunicated from the Bahá'í Faith in the same year (1974). But he continued to publish his views and to agitate within the Bahá'í community for their acceptance. In the meantime, he continued to vacillate. In a markedly ambivalent letter of February 10, 1977, containing either a self-congratulatory or self-condemnatory note of distinction, Ficicchia declared himself to be "currently perhaps the greatest enemy of the Bahá'í Administration." But in the same letter, he claimed that he still felt "associated in spirit with the Cause of Bahá'u'lláh." Despite the clear cognitive dissonance between himself and the Bahá'í community, he launched "an appeal for dialogue," ... "an offer to discuss all the questions raised here in a spirit of mutual respect." He admitted that his actions had "inflicted great harm" and wrote in the same letter that he "would like to return to the bosom of the community." This vacillation is one of the familiar motifs in the pattern of the history of covenant-breaking. Bahá'u'lláh's youngest son, Badi'u'lláh (d. 1950), also confessed his transgressions, then re-established relations with the Bahá'ís, but later definitively broke with the community.
Despite the request to renew his membership, the offer to engage in dialogue and re-establish mutual understanding, "the process of rapprochement" came to an abrupt halt in an acrimonious letter of April 5, 1978 in which Ficicchia revoked "all previous declarations of loyalty" (Alle früheren Loyalitätsbekundungen). This letter ended with this hostile declaration against the Universal House of Justice:
I declare that from now on you will have me as an embittered enemy who will fight you with all possible means at every opportunity...You have now brought upon yourselves my definitive enmity (meine endgültige Feindschaft). (emphasis added).It could not have occurred to Ficicchia that this declaration would have the following effect: it entirely destroyed his credibility as a legitimate scholar who was capable of making an honest and objective rendering of the history, teachings and organization of the Bahá'í Faith.
Systematic "Disinformation": A Thumbnail Sketch of Ficicchia's Charges
It is, of course, necessary to understand the nature of the charges contained in Ficicchia's polemic; only in that light will the apologists' defence be understood. The following sketch will familiarize the reader with Ficicchia's particular "style" of "disinformation," a style, I should add, that misled more than one cleric and professor of the academic study of religion. The chief reason for the success of this deception was that Ficicchia's book had the appearance and trappings of an academic study (the form), but its substance (the content) was largely false. Even though some scholars would prefer to live in a post-apologetic and a post-polemical age, his twisted arguments demanded the decisive response that is made in Making the Crooked Straight. For canonist Pope Boniface VIII (1235-1303 CE), as quoted by Udo Schaefer, had correctly perceived centuries ago that silence is consent. (Qui tacet, consentire videtur. "He who is silent gives consent"). After fourteen years, the dangers of silence had become painfully obvious.
(1) The main thrust of Ficicchia's monograph was that the entire divinely-appointed Bahá'í Administrative Order is an unwarranted invention of Shoghi Effendi who used it as an instrument to direct and control his followers and satisfy his lust for power. To accomplish these aims, the Will and Testament of 'Abdu'l-Bahá was allegedly forged under the direction of Shoghi Effendi. Ficicchia would have us believe that under the Guardian's dictatorship, the entire Bahá'í Administrative Order was remoulded into a fascist, spirit-denying, rigid machinery designed to execute the despotic whims of the Guardian. All legitimate criticisms, all free expressions of opinion are, according to Ficicchia, muzzled by the institutions of the Bahá'í Faith and dissidents are threatened with and/or subject to excommunication.
(2) According to Ficicchia, the Bahá'í community is hiding a missionary agenda. The Bahá'ís are allegedly engaging in a large, hypocritical experiment in dissimulation and religious opportunism. He claimed that in order to successfully complete its mission of world domination, the leadership of the Bahá'í Faith has deliberately concealed what Ficicchia viewed as certain archaic, despotic, oriental teachings, particularly those of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, in order to make its appeal to modern westerners living in democracies. Other teachings have allegedly been brought to the fore in order to remake the image of the Bahá'í Faith so as to appeal to moderns. These charges are directed, not just against Shoghi Effendi, who is the special target of Ficicchia's hatred, but they are supposedly characteristic of the entire corpus of Bahá'u'lláh's and 'Abdu'l-Bahá's writings which are driven, he claims, by political pragmatism and opportunism.
(3) The historical aspect of Ficicchia's Bahá'ísmus is presented entirely from the point of view of the Azalis, a sect that derives its name from their founder, Subh-i-Azal ("morning of eternity"), also called Yahyá, who was the nominee of the Báb and the younger half-brother and rival claimant of Bahá'u'lláh. (Bahá'ís regard Bahá'u'lláh (the Glory of God), and the Báb (the Gate), as the two Prophet-Founders of their religion). The Báb and Bahá'u'lláh, along with 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'u'lláh's eldest son and successor, are all subject to defamation by Ficicchia. The Báb is depicted as an indecisive waverer who lost control of His own reform movement at the hands of His fanatical followers. Bahá'u'lláh is presented as a Machiavellian usurper who cheated the Báb's true successor, the angelic Yahyá, out of his rightful position and who committed multiple-murder to achieve His aims. According to Ficicchia, 'Abdu'l-Bahá claimed divinity for Himself — a charge he repeatedly denied — and justified by the law of taqiyá (dissimulation), deliberately suppressed the laws of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, knowing that their publication would hinder the ambitious missionary designs He had devised for the conversion of westerners.
The Negative Model of Attack and Its Results
As was mentioned in the Introduction, the reader is referred to Making the Crooked Straight for the decisive refutation of Ficicchia's accusations. My purpose in drawing attention to them, and to Ficicchia's determined attempt to discredit the Bahá'í Faith, should not be read as the simple condemnation of a disturbed and misguided personality. The lessons to be drawn from Ficicchia's case go beyond the man himself. The destructive dynamic he employed points to a negative model of contention. In fact, while opponents vary somewhat in the content and details of their approach, the method and stratagems employed by Ficicchia are typical of the larger pattern of those who seek to defame the Bahá'í religion and/or its Administrative Order with which it is inextricably linked. This pattern should be contrasted with those commentators who are simply misinformed. I profile here only a few features of this negative model.
(1) Determined, Irrational and Intransigent Opposition
No one should underestimate the determination of such individuals to carry out and disseminate their views. Herman Zimmer, for example, violated the clear injunction of 'Abdu'l-Bahá " to take the greatest care of Shoghi Effendi...that no dust of despondency and sorrow may stain his radiant nature..." To vilify the Guardian, whom 'Abdu'l-Bahá had called, "the sign of God, the chosen branch, the guardian of the Cause of God...", Zimmer sent 5000 copies of his book to libraries in German-speaking Europe and 35,000 copies of the English-language edition to libraries all over the world. Udo Schaefer remarked pointedly: "It must have cost him a fortune." Such individuals spare no cost in winning their self-generated, ideological war. Whether in the time of the Báb, Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá or Shoghi Effendi, the hostile opponents, although their stratagems eventually failed, remained determined in their ongoing opposition to the Faith they had once espoused and its legitimate leadership. The opponents of the Universal House of Justice and the Bahá'í Administrative Order today show the same characteristics.
(2) Not All Clerics and Academics Are Fair and Objective
While Ficicchia is not a trained academic, the Bahá'ísmus monograph was temporarily successful in misleading clerics, theologians and academics in Religious Studies. Now academics are presumed to be fair and objective. At least, they are expected to be cautious when faced with the critical posture and serious charges brought by Ficicchia. These charges and his inflammatory stance should have made his learned readers circumspect. Instead, false assumptions were gratuitously accepted and willingly propagated. One would have expected, however, further investigation of the issues raised in Bahá'ísmus before conclusions were drawn, and especially, before findings were published. Regrettably few, if any, of Ficicchia's clerical and scholarly readers made the attempt to be fair and fully informed. For example, the German theologian Rainer Flasche published a few articles on the Bahá'í Faith. He is regarded as an "expert" on the subject, although he is totally indebted to Ficicchia. Making the Crooked Straight meticulously details the negative fall-out that was generated in academic and ecclesiastical circles as a result of Ficicchia's Bahá'ísmus.
(3) Ignoring the Testimony of Participants/Believers
Phenomenologist of religion, William Brede Kristensen, the Norwegian-Dutch scholar (1867-1953), in his instructive essay "What is Phenomenology?" made the point early on, as have the respected comparative religionists Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Huston Smith since, that serious students and scholars of religion must identify with the faith of others to such an extent that they "must therefore be able to forget themselves, to be able to surrender themselves to others." Kristensen is promoting here, not some objective and detached study of a particular religion — let alone an inflammatory one — but rather a process of initiation into understanding "the faith of other men," in Wilfred Cantwell Smith's phrase, by which the student is willing to be taught by the participants of the tradition and to assume their point of view.
In order to represent faithfully the community under study, the scholar must consequently take into account the objective identification of believers as members of their own faith community and identify with it, without adopting the faith of the believer/participant. In the academic study of religion, then, the testimony of believers should be consequently the starting point of authentic understanding. Yet the testimony, sacred writings and history as accepted by the Bahá'í community itself was either ignored or distorted by Ficicchia to the extent that the Bahá'í Faith was no longer recognizable to the very community that he portrayed in his hostile depictions. This is decidedly unsound methodology. Ironically, the tactics used by the Protestant opponents of the Bahá'í Faith defied the very guidelines published in 1977 by the World Council of Churches which "advocated an end to confrontation and its replacement with dialogue in a spirit of reconciliation." These guidelines were published by the EZW in 1979, just two years before the publication of Bahá'ísmus.
(4) Disaffiliates and Dissidents From the Bahá'í Faith Tend to be Taken at Their Word
Dr. Kurt Hutten, the theologian who headed the EZW, and who wrote biting anti-Bahá'í articles in its journal Materialdienst, took the partisan stance that was continued by the Evangelische Zentralstelle after the publication of Ficicchia's Bahá'ísmus: the position of the covenant-breakers Hermann Zimmer and Ruth White was entirely accepted and propagated as being true. I would like to dilate on Hutten's stance to make a few generalizations about covenant-breakers, disaffiliates and dissidents from the Bahá'í Faith. The atmosphere of sympathy and acceptance with which these dissidents and former Bahá'ís are sometimes accepted can be traced to a number of complex factors, not all of which can be considered here. Briefly, hostile critics are particularly fond of insider "fifth column" dissidence, for the word of dissidents and ex-Bahá`ís is sometimes taken uncritically as the most authoritative proof of the accusations made. Based only on his three year membership in the Bahá'í Faith, and despite a conspicuous lack of academic credentials, Ficicchia was deemed the expert of the religion that he so cunningly attacked.
Another factor is the dim view in which organized religions are perceived in today's secular society. In the post 911 climate, especially, organized religion has become definitely suspect. Abhorrence for religious controversy is virtually universal; apologetics, particularly polemics, is viewed as distasteful, if not a mild form of religious fanaticism, even when it becomes absolutely necessary, as it had in Ficicchia's case.
In contemporary society, moreover, religion and spirituality have gone their separate ways. Individuals may affirm their theism or spirituality but many disavow being official members of an "organized religion." The religious "institution" in a secular age is perceived as being an oppressive monolith. In this climate of suspicion, especially when the historical record shows a long history of the violent repression of doctrinal minorities, some observers are predisposed to accept the viewpoint of the covenant-breaker, the disaffiliate or the dissident without further reflection or investigation. This predisposition was clearly at work in Ficicchia's case.
What these individuals either fail to realize, and/or do not accept, is that the Bahá'í Faith, while it does allow for the largesse of individual interpretation, has its own doctrinal boundaries and ethical norms. But these doctrinal boundaries and ethical norms are neither understood nor accepted by these individuals who engage in frontal attacks and invective, in a politically partisan tactic, which by definition are beyond the norms of Bahá'í spirituality and the principles of consultation which Bahá'u'lláh has seen fit to substitute for acrimonious debate and organized opposition.
The Universal House of Justice in its 1996 twenty paragraph memorandum on "Dissidence and Criticism by Bahá'ís and Scholars" made the following observation which describes this negative dynamic as being "antithetical to the spirit of the Bahá'í Faith": "Such an activity is closely analogous to the pursuit of a partisan political program, an activity which is accepted and even admired in most societies, but is entirely antithetical to the spirit of the Bahá'í Faith. It promotes an atmosphere of contention, and Bahá'u'lláh has expressly stated: "Conflict and contention are categorically forbidden in His Book."
Although the founders of the Bahá'í Faith issued repeated admonitions to their followers about the grave spiritual consequences that result from this divisive, confrontational approach, these individuals, unless they resign from the Bahá'í Faith, and although they accept knowingly these doctrinal boundaries and ethical norms, think that they are fully within their rights to violate them with impunity. Bahá'í doctrine and covenants give no follower a licence to become a leader in radically altering Bahá'í belief or ethical practice to the point of making it unrecognizable to Bahá'ís and to the institutions that constitute the legitimate government of the Bahá'í Faith.
(5) The Serious Consequences of Disinformation
Attacks on the Bahá'í Faith are not inconsequential or meaningless theological exercises, even less, "bloodless abstractions." They are live ammunition that can have real life explosive consequences. Through them prejudicial attitudes are formed, misunderstandings occur, and suspicion and alienation are created. It is difficult to conceive how seekers of spiritual truth and academic researchers may have confidence in the Bahá'í Faith, its teachings, administration and community life when its founders are presented as Machiavellian opportunists who have not stopped short of murder and deceit to achieve their aims.
In 1988, for example, the Berlin City Council refused the Bahá'ís permission to set up an information booth in a public place because of the Bahá'í Faith's alleged fascist power structure and because it "endangered young people." The justification for this action was based on arguments closely resembling Ficicchia's cavils against the Bahá'í Administration. Since the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, these hostile attacks have resulted in government sponsored discrimination, harassment, arrest, confiscation of property, the destruction and desecration of holy sites, murder, imprisonment, torture and death. The most powerful weapon against such great injustices is to present the truth.
(6) The Complicity of the Evangelical Protestant Churches
In German-speaking countries, from the time of Hermann Römer's 1911 polemical theological thesis, Die Bábí-Behá'í, which reproduced the errors of Comte Gobineau and E.G. Browne, it has been mainly Protestant theologians who have attacked the Bahá'í Faith. It was noted above that the Evangelical Central Agency for World Views (EZW) and its representatives was the organization that published Ficicchia's Bahá'ísmus, thus continuing this earlier tendency.
The evangelical Protestant churches in the former West Germany have an official named the Sektenaufträger (Commissioner for Sects) whose responsibility is to alert the Protestant churches of the existence of the various sects and their teachings; the Bahá'í Faith figured among the list of offenders. Thus, the existence and contents of Ficicchia's book were passed along expeditiously throughout the network of churches by the Commissioner.
The Roman Catholic church has also published anti-Bahá'í material, but not nearly on the scale of the Protestant churches. In 1981 the Archdiocese of Vienna published material on the Bahá'í Faith which incorporated many passages from Ficicchia's book. This action necessitated an adequate response from the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Austria. The individual responsible for the publication of this material, Dr. Cardinal Groer, was sent a 30 page refutation of Ficicchia's material based on the research of Dr. Udo Schaefer which occasioned a gracious response written on Ash Wednesday, 1989.
(7) The "Virus of Violation"
Using a medical analogy, Shoghi Effendi referred to covenant-breaking, i.e. the defying of the legitimate authority of Bahá'í leadership in order to create a sect, as the "virus of violation." While Ficicchia does not seem to have had any cultic ambitions of leadership, but rather to oppose certain Bahá'í teachings and the Administrative Order in an ideological war, the "virus of violation " is an apt and accurate phrase that reflects a certain scientific accuracy when applied to him. For it indicates the characteristic of contagion that typifies the infectious, negative ideas that flowed, inter alia, from Ficicchia's pen. His distorted ideas and factual errors were assimilated and disseminated fairly rapidly, not only in the ecclesiastical, theological network of clerics and theologians, but they also penetrated the academy.
While Udo Schafer remarked in his Introduction to Making the Crooked Straight that thoughtful readers, scholars and academics generally abstain from polemics, and the charges and counter-charges that define this vigorous exercise, it has to be recognized that considerations of intellectual and moral honesty cannot be omitted from the debate. One can hear the voice of the chief prosecutor at the State Court of Heidelberg in this sentence: "A lie must be called a lie, a manipulation a manipulation."
Anyone who has read Ficicchia's book carefully clearly understands the necessity for this sort of direct accusation, especially in light of his written declaration to the Universal House of Justice cited above: "I declare that from now on you will have me as an embittered enemy who will fight you with all possible means at every opportunity...You have now brought upon yourselves my definitive enmity." Now such enmity disqualifies, and must disqualify, the legitimate scholar. Ficicchia's threat made to the Universal House of Justice that he would fight "with all possible means" suggests that he was willing to go beyond the norms of intellectual and moral honesty. His book provided ample evidence that he did in fact execute his threat.
In the Aftermath of Desinformation/Making the Crooked Straight
Ficicchia's book has never been withdrawn and is still available to the public in almost all academic libraries and in many large municipal libraries in German-speaking Europe. Although Bahá'ísmus was widely diffused in the churches, a contemplated second edition was abandoned after the decisive refutation meted out by Desinformation als Methode was published. Through the publication of Desinformation, and meetings with individual academics, the erroneous views presented by Ficicchia were to some extent corrected. Brochures about Desinformation were sent to "all university libraries, ecclesiastical libraries, Catholic bishops and established Protestant churches in the German Länder, to the seminaries for religious studies and oriental studies, to the press, television and radio stations. About 40 review copies have been submitted for potential review by academic specialists." The response received thus far has been largely positive. At least, interested researchers and spiritual seekers will be able to make a fuller and more accurate assessment in light of the views of bona fide members of the Bahá'í Faith. Ficicchia's case had amply demonstrated that silence is not always the best defence against systematic disinformation.