"The Myth of the Objective Observer:" A review of
"The Bahá'í Faith in America as Panopticon, 1963-1997"
Author: Juan Cole
Article published in: Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Volume 37, No. 2 (June 1998): 234-248
Review by: Peter Terry
This paper reviews and critiques Dr. Juan R.I. Cole's article, "The Bahá'í Faith in America as Panopticon, 1963-1997," published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion,
summer 1998. The author will call into question numerous statements with regard to historical and doctrinal accuracy, point out idiosyncratic interpretations which are refuted in the Bahá'í Scriptures, and question the impartiality of the author in his assessment of the operations of the Bahá'í Administration in the United States. This review and critique does not represent the views of any individual or institution other than Peter Terry, although the exposition of his views has derived much benefit from his consultations with several friends. The views here expressed are based upon many years of observation, in the course of which the present writer was alternately an unaffiliated seeker, a skeptic, a scholar active in research, a critic, an apostate, an affiliated seeker, and a declared and enrolled believer. Furthermore, this writer has engaged in hundreds of conversations and exchanged in copious correspondence with fellow adherents, read widely from the published and unpublished literature associated with the Founder, the Center of the Covenant and the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, and is also acquainted with many of the letters written by the Universal House of Justice and on its behalf. Finally, the present writer wishes it known that, while disagreeing with Dr. Cole on many subjects, he does not feel any personal animosity towards him, and indeed is grateful for the opportunity Dr. Cole's article has occasioned for the expression of his own views.
Dr. Cole begins his article by referring to Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and to Scientology by way of introducing what he calls "social control mechanisms in the American Bahá'í community." It appears that he would group the Bahá'í Faith, at least in its American community, as one of the so-called "cults" rather than as an independent religion with the same standing as Judaism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. Perhaps he is under the impression that the leadership of all of the independent religions do not employ any methods to define and govern adherents, and that such methods are only practiced by "cults," that is, by inauthentic and fly-by-night movements. Sociologists, anthropologist and historians of religion would be very surprised to learn of such a legal and moral vacuum existing in the mainstream religious communities. This apart, Dr. Cole has not demonstrated, in the entire course of this article, that the Bahá'í Faith has any of the attributes of a modern "cult," and indeed, Dr. Udo Schaefer has carefully studied this question, and come to the conclusion that the Bahá'í Faith cannot be considered a "cult" except according to the once general definition, namely "a system of religious beliefs and ritual."
Throughout his article, Dr. Cole is critical of "social control mechanisms" which he implies are particular to the American Bahá'í community. He cites a litany of regulations--"mandatory prepublication censorship of everything Bahá'ís publish about their religion, administrative expulsion, blackballing, shunning and threats of shunning"--without defining these terms, and without explaining the origins and development of the regulations he has chosen to brand with these calculatedly inflammatory words. It is evident, from the outset, that Dr. Cole is not reporting an "empirical study"--with its implications of impartiality and objectivity--but rather, that he is engaging in a campaign of opinionated criticism and vindictiveness. First of all, virtually all of the regulations to which Dr. Cole refers were enjoined by the Founder of the Bahá'í Faith, and enforced by His successors-- 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice--in their turns as worldwide leaders of the religion. What Dr. Cole calls "mandatory prepublication censorship of everything Bahá'ís publish about their religion" is a policy which seems to have originated with Bahá'u'lláh, the Founder of the Bahá'í Faith, Who personally reviewed at least two historical works compiled and written by adherents prior to their publication. This policy of prepublication review was continued and further elaborated by 'Abdu'l-Bahá, when He took over the worldwide leadership of the Bahá'í community upon the passing of Bahá'u'lláh. Bahá'u'lláh appointed His son 'Abdu'l-Bahá to render authoritative interpretations of His Writings and to direct the activities of the believers. 'Abdu'l-Bahá established the policy that Bahá'í Spiritual Assemblies should make provisions for the prepublication review of all Bahá'í literature intended for publication under their auspices. On at least one occasion, 'Abdu'l-Bahá actually insisted that such a Spiritual Assembly carry out the pre-publication review of particular texts which He had already corrected and approved Himself. 'Abdu'l-Bahá then appointed His grandson, Shoghi Effendi, as Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, to interpret the Bahá'í Writings upon His own decease. Shoghi Effendi further elaborated instructions to Spiritual Assemblies, indicating the manner in which prepublication review was to be administered.
While 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi repeatedly assured the believers that prepublication review was to be a temporary measure rather than a permanent principle of the Bahá'í Faith, the Universal House of Justice has continued this policy throughout the past thirty years. According to the Universal House of Justice, the principal purpose of prepublication review is to identify and root out errors in fact and interpretation prior to their widespread dissemination. Bahá'u'lláh and his successors have been determined to protect the authenticity, the reliability, and the coherency of the Bahá'í teachings, the Bahá'í sacred texts and Bahá'í historical sources. A brief glance at the controversies which have developed in other religions over these questions will amply demonstrate the motivations of the Bahá'í leaders in insisting upon this point. The policy of review is established throughout the worldwide Bahá'í community, and is not particular to the American Bahá'í community. It might be noted that prepublication review is required by publishers and editors everywhere, and that the criteria which govern academic review are much more rigorous and exclusive than those which characterize Bahá'í literature review.
Dr. Cole alleges that "blackballing" is one of the "social control mechanisms" employed in the American Bahá'í community. He does not define this term, but we understand it to refer to boycott, ostracism, and the exclusion from membership by casting a negative vote. There are no reported cases of such behavior in the American Bahá'í community. Perhaps an explanation of Bahá'í governance is in order, so that the general reader will be informed about the institutions which Dr. Cole has found so objectionable. It should be noted that there are two varieties of leadership in the worldwide Bahá'í community--the one appointed and the other elected. 'Abdu'l-Bahá was appointed by Bahá'u'lláh, Shoghi Effendi by 'Abdu'l-Bahá. All three of these Bahá'í leaders have appointed Hands of the Cause of God, who were charged with rendering specific services to the Bahá'í community, usually denominated propagation and protection. The Universal House of Justice determined that it could not appoint Hands of the Cause. Convinced that the functions of the Hands of the Cause needed to be perpetuated in the absence of a continuation of this specific institution, the Universal House of Justice appointed Continental Counselors (CCs). As Dr. Cole notes, these CCs appoint Auxiliary Board Members (ABMs), who in turn appoint Assistants (AABMs). This three-tiered network is called the "institution of the learned". This institution derives from Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice...it is distinctively and authentically Bahá'í to the core.
The second variety of leadership in the worldwide Bahá'í community is elective, and is called the "institution of the rulers". From the top down, it is composed of the following elected councils: the Universal House of Justice, elected every five years by the members of the National Spiritual Assemblies (NSAs); the NSAs, elected annually by delegates elected by the enrolled believers; the Regional Bahá'í Councils (RBC), elected annually by the members of the Local Spiritual Assemblies (LSAs); the LSAs, elected annually by the enrolled believers who are residents of the specific municipalities governed by those institutions. These elective institutions also derive their authority from the explicit instructions of Bahá'u'lláh, as elaborated by 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice. Bahá'u'lláh ordained the establishment of an international and local Houses of Justice; 'Abdu'l-Bahá confirmed the instructions of Bahá'u'lláh and called for the establishment of Secondary Houses of Justice to serve as intermediaries between the Universal and the Local Houses of Justice; 'Abdu'l-Bahá also chose to designate local Houses of Justice with a variety of titles rather than with this distinctive appellation. Shoghi Effendi indicated that it was definitely premature to adopt this title for the local and secondary elective institutions, and by his direction the appellations Local Spiritual Assembly and National Spiritual Assembly were standardized through the worldwide Bahá'í community. The Universal House of Justice has greatly encouraged the development of Local and National Spiritual Assemblies, and recently established an intermediary institution, called the Regional Bahá'í Council. It should be noted that the Universal House of Justice has been fully empowered by the explicit instructions of Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, to legislate on all matters not specifically ordained in the Bahá'í sacred writings. Consequently, the innovations in the "institution of the learned" and the "institution of the rulers" as effected by the Universal House of Justice are unquestionably within the scope of the powers delegated to the Universal House of Justice by the Founder of the Bahá'í Faith.
Dr. Cole's allegation that American Bahá'í institutions "blackball" individual believers certainly implies that he is convinced that these institutions boycott, ostracize, and/or employ negative votes in order to exclude individuals from leadership positions. He does not provide any evidence whatsoever of such behavior. While it is certainly the case that not all adherents of this religion are appointed to the "institution of the learned" or elected to the "institution of the rulers," there is every indication that the two selection processes are preoccupied with positive considerations and criteria rather than with negative prejudices. Moreover, it should be noted that adherents do not have an inherent right to be appointed or elected to these two Bahá'í institutions. Also, no academic degree or specialized training is required of the members of these institutions, and consequently, believers with high academic standing or with distinguished academic reputation are not necessarily regarded as particularly well-qualified to be selected for these particular service venues. Moreover, as nominations and campaigning are strictly forbidden in the Bahá'í elective process, it is not possible for the electorate to be persuaded either to vote for or against specific individuals. Dr. Cole has alleged that the American Bahá'í community has adopted certain behaviors which effect nominations and which resemble campaigning. If this is the case, then these behaviors are patently inconsistent with the uncompromising Bahá'í principles pertaining to this process. In other words, if such behaviors exist, they represent aberrations and transgressions rather than realizations and establishments of Bahá'í principles. Indeed, it should be pointed out that "blackballing" is in fact disallowed by the Bahá'í Writings while it is currently common practice in academia. What community then is more open to the expression of individuality--the American Bahá'í community or an average American university? It may be countered that American academics accept the criteria employed in assessments of their papers and books, and implied that this is not the case with members of the American Bahá'í community. However, the present writer has found that most Bahá'ís accept the criteria which govern Bahá'í pre-publication review. If this were not the case, this would be an important issue of contention in the Bahá'í community---it is not.
Perhaps the most alarming of the "social control mechanisms" alleged by Dr. Cole to be employed in the governance of the American Bahá'í community are "administrative expulsion...shunning, and threats of shunning." It must be noted once more that Dr. Cole does not employ the vocabulary used by Bahá'ís to delineate particular policies and regulations. Virtually every community has requirements for membership. If certain requirements are not fulfilled, a new candidate for membership is not accepted. If membership is effected and subsequently certain requirements are not met, some kind of sanction is usually levied, and ultimately, membership may be terminated. It should be noted at the onset, that individual adherents of the Bahá'í religion are not empowered to enact any sort of sanction with reference to their fellow believers--this is purely a function of particular elective institutions. Secondly, sanctions to be levied upon members who fail, in the judgment of those institutions, to fulfill certain requirements, are established by Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi, or the Universal House of Justice--they are part of Bahá'í law, and are not invented capriciously by whoever and whenever. Thirdly, while an adherent of this religion may be cautioned, counseled, abjured, encouraged by the "institution of the learned" or the "institution of the rulers," these do not constitute sanctions. Fourthly, the most severe sanctions found in the administration of the Bahá'í community which are presently operative are the removal of administrative rights, and removal from membership. The removal of administrative rights, which can be effected by a NSA but not by a RBC or LSA, is described by Dr. Cole. It is often temporary in nature, and is reversed once the individual adherent has demonstrated to the NSA that he now meets all of the requirements for restitution of his administrative rights. Removal from membership is the prerogative of the Universal House of Justice, and has been effected on those rare occasions when that institution has regarded such a removal as necessary for safeguarding the Bahá'í community from the machinations and misguided notions of individuals who do not, in its judgment, meet membership requirements, and whose failure to do so is, its its judgment, voluntary, deliberate and unlikely to be ameliorated. Finally, while excommunication may appear to be the most grave of sanctions, it is not, in actuality, a species of punishment in its Bahá'í context. Bahá'u'lláh called for the excommunication of Covenant-breakers (English translation of the Arabic "naqazin"), and indicated that Covenant-breaking is a spiritual disease. Bahá'u'lláh indicated that the Prophet of God is the Divine Physician, that He alone can diagnose the spiritual ills of humankind, and that the true remedy for those ills is revealed in His Writings. He indicated that the purpose of excommunication is to protect the community of believers from the corrosive effects of continued association with spiritually diseased souls. 'Abdu'l-Bahá wrote that the quarantine of Covenant-breakers prevents spiritual contagion from destroying the Bahá'í community. Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi have designated individuals as Covenant-breakers, and called for believers to avoid association with these persons. The identification of this illness is now the province of the Hands of the Cause, and, to a lesser extent, the Continental Counselors, but the Universal House of Justice must approve every such designation prior to its announcement.
Furthermore, the excommunication of Covenant-breakers is not a temporary policy carried out by rogue Bahá'í administrators, as Dr. Cole seems to imply. Bahá'u'lláh instituted the excommunication of individuals adjudged to be breakers of the Bahá'í Covenant. That Covenant stipulates that only Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi, and the Universal House of Justice--each in his own station and sphere of activity, but all integral parts of one organic whole--can formulate and enforce authoritative Bahá'í doctrine and law. Covenant-breakers have included individuals who have disobeyed the explicit instructions of the leadership of the Faith; who have tried to induce other believers to disobey the leadership; who claimed divinely-inspired authority not conferred in the Bahá'í Covenant; who sought to create institutions not provided for in the Bahá'í Covenant; or who associated with individuals engaged in one of these courses of action. Indeed, while the Universal House of Justice is empowered to legislate on all matters not contained in the Bahá'í Scriptures, excommunication is in the Book, and hence it is entirely beyond the mandate of the Universal House of Justice to alter this law. However, the enforcement of this law is left to the Universal House of Justice. This Institution has been very reluctant to impose this sanction, but in some cases it publicly designates individuals as Covenant-breakers, and directs adherents to cease communication with those persons.
To conclude with this portion of Dr. Cole's article, the present writer would note that while Dr. Cole affirms that his "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" yet he has precisely omitted consideration of the origins of the very regulations he has criticized. Furthermore, he has misrepresented those regulations through his use of misleading terminology and his citation of unreliable sources. If he does not approve of these regulations then he should state his objections openly; his affirmation, that "the movement's scriptures are liberal in their orientation" and his implication that these particular regulations--which he conceives to be illiberal--derive from "conservative Bahá'í leaders" rather than from Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi is simply incorrect. It has been demonstrated that all of the regulations referred to by Dr. Cole were established by Bahá'u'lláh and His appointed interpreters. While Dr. Cole states that many of his "remarks cannot be generalized to other national communities, and concern mainly the United States" the regulations discussed in this article are enforced throughout the worldwide Bahá'í community. While they are certainly not applied in exactly the same fashion in all circumstances, the regulations themselves are standardized. If one objects to the regulations he should address himself to the Universal House of Justice, not to any institution of the American Bahá'í community, for only the Universal House of Justice is empowered to alter any aspect of these regulations. It must be reiterated however, that the principles which govern these regulations are enshrined in the Bahá'í Writings, and therefore that the Bahá'í community at large is not impelled to apologize for their existence. Rather, they are celebrated as integral to this present stage in the establishment of a world-embracing divine civilization.
Dr. Cole goes on to state that inasmuch as "the movement's scriptures are liberal...even administratively conservative Bahá'í leaders support the U.N. and race unity, and pay lip service to the rule of law." All Bahá'í leaders--whether of the "institution of the learned" or the "institution of the rulers"--support the U.N. and race unity, and all uphold the rule of law. They do so because the Bahá'í scriptures unequivocally affirm these values. Furthermore, in carrying out the regulations which Dr. Cole called "social control mechanisms" these Bahá'í leaders are also acting in accordance with the Bahá'í scriptures. There is no contradiction between the one and the other. There only appears to be a contradiction when one labels one grouping of principles "liberal" and compares it with another grouping labeled "conservative". Dr. Cole then suggests that these Bahá'í leaders disingenuously conceal certain aspects of the Bahá'í Faith in order to keep the press on their side. His implication seems to be that there are various aspects of this religion which would provoke opposition in the American public, aspects which are odious, revolting, evil. Anyone who has made a careful study of the Bahá'í Faith knows that while the American public may not find this religion to be particularly appealing in its totality, there are, nevertheless, no deep dark secrets which have been concealed from the world at large, and that most omissions have been calculated to protect the lives of Bahá'ís living under oppressive regimes. For the most part, the press is only interested in the Bahá'í Faith at this point because the persecution of Iranian Bahá'ís makes good copy. The persecution of Albanian Muslims also makes good copy. In order to protect the Iranian Bahá'ís, certain details pertaining to that community are not disclosed to the press. This is not dishonest·it is wise.
Dr. Cole alleges that "the Bahá'í leadership and intellectual class includes some powerful liberals" and indicates that "some of the contradictions between self-presentation and policy derive from conflicts among the leadership." During the course of some three decades of participation in Bahá'í communities, the present writer has yet to come into contact with a "Bahá'í leadership and intellectual class" nor has he encountered "powerful liberals" or, for that matter "conservatives." Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice have affirmed that the liberal and conservative points of view have nothing to do with the Bahá'í Faith. Only the authoritative statements, interpretations and elucidations of Bahá'í doctrine, penned consecutively by Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, and the Universal House of Justice have universal normative value for the adherents of the Bahá'í Faith. Bahá'í doctrine is not what this or that adherent understands, but what is pronounced as such by the Founder, the appointed interpreters and the Supreme Council of this religion. This is neither liberal nor conservative...it is Bahá'í. The purpose of Bahá'u'lláh is to unite humanity...to permit the fracturing of the Bahá'í community into liberals and conservatives would undermine all of the nonpartisan efforts being undertaken throughout the world to advance the reconciliation of estranged souls.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF THE AMERICAN BAHA'I COMMUNITY
Dr. Cole's description of the history of the American Bahá'í community includes many statements without source attribution and many allegations which appear to be based upon hearsay. Prior to his depiction of American Bahá'í history, Dr. Cole makes at least two allegations about general Bahá'í history and doctrine which do not seem to be well founded. To begin with, Dr. Cole alleges that the Bahá'í Faith was founded in 1863 by Bahá'u'lláh. According to authoritative Bahá'í sources, Bahá'u'lláh made His first declaration of prophethood (to a few individuals) in the year 1863. However, according to those same sources, the Bahá'í Faith did not begin in 1863 but in 1844, and its first Central Figure was not Mirza Husayn 'Ali Nuri Bahá'u'lláh (1817-1892), but rather, Siyyid 'Ali Muhammad Shirazi the Bab (1819-1850). Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi consistently linked the prophethood of Bahá'u'lláh to that of the Bab, and affirmed the first declaration of the Bab's prophetic mission, on 22-23 May 1844, as the opening of the Bahá'í Era (of at least 1000 years) and the Bahá'í Cycle (of 500,000 years). If one were to ignore these sources, and link the commencement of Bahá'u'lláh's prophetic ministry with the date of its inception (rather than its declaration), then that would be 1852, according to "A Traveller's Narrative" (reported authored by 'Abdu'l-Bahá); and if one wished to date the Bahá'í Faith from the public proclamation of Bahá'u'lláh's prophetic claims, it was established as the year 1868 by Mirza Abu'l-Fadl Gulpayagani ("Treatise for Alexander Tumansky"). Consequently, there are many grounds on which to question Dr. Cole's choice of the year 1863 for the founding of the Bahá'í Faith.
Dr. Cole then states that Bahá'u'lláh "taught the unity of the world religions" but does not clarify the nature of that unity. The Bahá'í teaching is that there is one religion of God; that this religion has been unfolded by a series of divinely-guided Educators Who have revealed the divine counsels whereby humanity might be guided in its spiritual development. Bahá'ís recognize Krishna, Zoroaster, Buddha, as well as Moses, Jesus and Muhammad among the Great Masters of past ages. Bahá'u'lláh stresses the unity of these divinely-guided Educators, and the unity of Their essential teachings. This is not at all the same thing as affirming the "unity" of the "world religions," for this has, for many people, entirely different implications from those outlined in the Bahá'í Writings.
In his brief summary of American Bahá'í history, Dr. Cole seems to be preoccupied with showing that the official portrayal of this religion does not match up with the facts on the ground. If he could summon credible evidence in support of his allegations, they might be worthy of further investigation. However, the only source he cites in support of his allegations is fragmentary and anonymous hearsay, and this does not make for a credible argument. In repeating gossip and making pejorative allegations, Dr. Cole seems to be bent upon discrediting the current membership of the NSA. For example, he does not present the full context either of the South Carolina and Georgia mass conversions, or of the emigration of Iranian believers. Neither Dr. Robert Stockman nor Mr. Richard Hollinger, perhaps the two best informed historians of the American Bahá'í community, has published a detailed analysis of these phenomena. Nor have any other such studies been forthcoming from other quarters. Until careful historical research is carried out, it would be premature for readers to credit Dr. Cole's allegations, particularly in view of his open hostility to the American NSA.
ISOLATING BELIEFS AND PRACTICES
Dr. Cole next alleges that Bahá'í institutions employ further "control mechanisms" which isolate Bahá'ís from American culture and society, and encourage them to identify all the more closely with the Bahá'í community. He notes that "Bahá'ís are encouraged to relocate so as to serve as lay missionaries in a place with few Bahá'ís"--this is in fulfillment of one of Bahá'u'lláh's counsels. Bahá'u'lláh eliminated clergy, and required that every believer in the Bahá'í Faith participate in promoting the Bahá'í teachings to the best of his abilities. He specifically enjoined adherents to scatter throughout the planet to share the Bahá'í teachings with all of humankind. This counsel has been reiterated by 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice. On the other hand, Bahá'u'lláh counseled adherents to nurture their families, to serve their secular and spiritual communities, to be of service to humanity as a whole. How are these admonitions consistent with the isolation alleged by Dr. Cole?
Another so-called isolating practice cited is what Dr. Cole calls "the ban on participation in politics." In fact, contrary to his allegations, Bahá'ís who reside in republics, parliamentary democracies or constitutional monarchies have been enjoined by Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice to register to vote, to vote, and, in some cases, to accept election to public office. On the other hand, Bahá'u'lláh insisted that Bahá'ís not identify themselves with political rivalries, and that they not attempt to alter the political status quo; Bahá'u'lláh insisted that all believers wholeheartedly support the government and not engage in any behavior which might endanger the peace and welfare of their fellow citizens. During the course of their ministries, 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi called upon the Western adherents to follow these principles, and their enforcement of standards pertaining to these teachings was effected progressively and over time, as has also been the case for the past thirty years under the guidance of the Universal House of Justice.
Dr. Cole alleges that "U.S. Bahá'ís typically condemn active participation in politics" without distinguishing between voting and involvement in party politics. Membership in political parties, campaigning in favor of particular candidates or specific political parties are forbidden to Bahá'ís, as, according to 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, political partisanship fragments community, and is inherently dis-unifying. The purpose of the Bahá'í Faith is to effect the integration of humankind. One of the Bahá'í teachings stressed by 'Abdu'l-Bahá during His visit to Europe and North America was the abandonment of prejudices, including political prejudices. Participation in partisan politics reaffirms political prejudices, validates partisanship as a valid means to bring about change, and is not, according to the Bahá'í teachings, conducive to the reconciliation of the peoples of the world.
Dr. Cole alleges that U.S. Bahá'ís are "anti-liberal"--because they do not reflect what he considers to be a contemporary "liberal" stance. In support of this allegation, Dr. Cole cites a single statement of opinion written by one American believer, which statement is critical of various characteristics of American political culture, without portraying either a conservative or a liberal orientation. American liberals and conservatives are alike supporters of American political culture, with this twist, that the liberals favor the liberal agenda and the conservatives the conservative agenda. Neither wishes to change the system, and it is the system itself which Dr. Cole's citation criticizes. Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice have repeatedly affirmed that the Bahá'í Faith is neither liberal nor conservative, that the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh cannot be properly understood within the confines of Western philosophical and political categories, whether liberal or conservative. For example, while Bahá'u'lláh affirmed the validity of monarchy and democracy alike, the preferred form of government is a combination of these two, namely, a constitutional monarchy of some kind. Many examples could be given of this "middle way" which are neither liberal nor conservative. Dr. Cole claims that inasmuch as Bahá'ís are not permitted to participate in the partisan aspects of American politics, they are therefore isolated "from the larger U.S. society." However, he does not report the repeated counsels, from 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice, encouraging American believers to join educational, philanthropic and other non-partisan associations, both to participate in the improvement of secular society and to share the Bahá'í teachings with individuals who have similar or complementary interests and ideals.
Dr. Cole states that "many Bahá'ís are isolated from non-Bahá'í social supports" through "their disparagement of the institutions and values of mainstream American society." He alleges that many American adherents believe in "an apocalyptic event or set of events that will radically change American society and lay the foundation for the mass adoption" of the Bahá'í Faith. Dr. Cole offers no objective and credible data to demonstrate how widespread these views are among American believers. Nor does he appear to employ an academically-validated form of data collection and analysis to arrive at the other views he attributes to the American Bahá'ís. The present writer has found that many of the Bahá'í teachings are strikingly different from the values of many Americans, and that all of the Bahá'í institutions are based upon principles which set them apart from the institutions which characterize mainstream American society. However, he has not found that American Bahá'ís focus upon the disparagement of American institutions and values, but rather that most are oriented towards the affirmation and realization of Bahá'í institutions and values. In focusing upon the up-building of their own distinctive community, rather than on participating in all aspects of the mainstream community or on trying to reform the mainstream to better resemble their own preferred values, the "people of Baha'" in America are acting in much the same spirit as a number of other "peoples." The various "nations" of Native Americans have been living in this spirit for over three hundred years, right here in the United States. In choosing this focus, the American Bahá'ís are no more peculiar or isolated from mainstream American society than American Jews.
The U.S. Constitution guarantees the freedom of Bahá'ís to focus on the promulgation and application of their own value system; and, inasmuch as Bahá'ís are obligated by their religion to adhere to certain specific values, some of which are divergent from those found in mainstream American society, their adherence thereto is nevertheless protected by the Constitution. Elsewhere, Dr. Cole has alleged that many American Bahá'ís do not believe that the First Amendment freedoms--"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for the redress of grievances"--are approved of in the Bahá'í Writings, he does not provide any reliable evidence in support of these allegations. Bahá'u'lláh and His authoritative interpreters have affirmed all of the above human rights, the Universal House of Justice has publicly supported the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Bahá'í law guarantees these freedoms within the Bahá'í community as well. The conception of human rights is much broader in the Bahá'í Writings than in its formulation in the First Amendment. Bahá'ís believe in equal rights for women; in the right of every human being to education; in the right of every human being to employment; in the right of every human being to be sustained by the community if unable to be self-sustaining. None of these rights are protected by the Constitution of the United States. Paralleling its commitment to the protection of individual human rights, the Bahá'í Faith also champions social rights--the rights of humanity as a whole, which include the right to live in peace, to live in a sustainable balance with nature, and to live in a stable and equitable political and economic system. These rights are not guaranteed in the Constitution. Most significantly, the Bahá'í Faith proclaims the spiritual rights and freedoms of every individual and of humanity as a whole. These spiritual rights are linked in the Bahá'í Writings to the fulfillment of obligations. Bahá'ís are obligated by their religion to obey all the laws and regulations enjoined by the Founder, the appointed interpreters, and the designated institutions of their Faith. It is through fulfillment of these responsibilities that Bahá'ís are assured of spiritual rights and freedoms. One of these Bahá'í laws requires that American Bahá'ís obey all the statutes and regulations enacted by the various levels of American government. The present writer will return to this subject at the conclusion of this paper. To summarize, Bahá'ís are not preoccupied with disparaging mainstream American society, rather, they are focused upon the realization of the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh.
Dr. Cole also states that many "Bahá'ís believe that their ecclesiastical institutions will eventually supplant the U.S. government (and other governments), so that a Bahá'í theocracy will abolish the separation of religion and state." To begin with, Bahá'ís do not have any ecclesiastical institutions--what they have are four levels of elected councils which govern their collective affairs, and three levels of counselors who assist them with various problems better solved one-on-one. Secondly, it is clear, based upon Dr. Cole's papers and recent book as well as this article, that he opposes theocracy and espouses the separation of religion and state, and believes that the espousal of such values by certain Bahá'ís respresents a distortion of the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá. Thirdly, by not discussing this subject in a larger context, he invites the reader to fill in the gaps for himself; in view of the recent publicity given to so-called "far right" evangelical Christian and Muslim militants, the reader may be inclined to view those Bahá'ís who seem to espouse theocratic views as belonging to the same extremist fringe. There is no support whatsoever for the imposition of Bahá'í governance over unwilling populations--either in the majority or the minority--to be found in canonical or non-canonical Bahá'í sources. On the contrary, the Bahá'í teachings contain many principles which would disallow the perpetration of any such unjust, undemocratic, and patently unethical encroachments upon the rights of individual human beings. Now, to consider the position of the American Bahá'ís, let us view them in context. The so-called Founding Fathers of the United States of America had a shared vision of the kind of political economy they wished to establish, and this is embodied in the Constitution and its Amendments. While all Americans are compelled to live in harmony with the values enshrined in the Constitution, and elaborated in the vast network of American governmental institutions and legal statutes, nevertheless, many Americans have visions of an ideal society which differ considerably from the views of the Founding Fathers. Also, many Americans have values which are not shared by most of the present-day mainstream American population. Millions of American Christian evangelicals, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslims--to cite the largest religious communities--are engaged in missionary efforts, and have a vision of a perfect society in which their values and their institutions are normative for all Americans, for all humanity. This does not impede these communities from making significant contributions to mainstream American society, or from living in harmony with their fellow citizens. If Bahá'ís have their own vision of the perfect society, and if their vision is expressed in values and realized in institutions which are not part of mainstream American society, this does not isolate them from that society. On the contrary, Bahá'ís are actively participating in virtually every sector of American culture, with the exception of partisan politics. However, their distinctive values and institutions set Bahá'ís apart, as a people with a higher purpose, with a unique perspective, and with the courage to uphold ideals which are not shared by the majority of their countrymen.
Dr. Cole compares Bahá'ís to the followers of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, a comparison which is odious to Bahá'ís and Iranian Muslims alike. He would have his readers believe that the Bahá'í administration, and the Universal House of Justice in particular are dictatorial in nature, and hence the comparison with the late Ayatollah. Let us make a fair-minded comparison between the relationship of American citizens to their governmental institutions, and the relationship of Bahá'ís to Bahá'í administrative institutions, in order to determine whether or not his allegation is credible. For Americans, the court of last resort is the Supreme Court, composed of nine justices, who are appointed for life by successive Presidents of the United States. Whatever the Supreme Court decides, all Americans must obey, whether they believe in a particular ruling or not. The Supreme Court may change its ruling, but, until it does, whatever it decides is the law of the land. Whatever interpretation it gives to laws enacted by legislatures--whether local, state or federal--is binding. Individual Americans may disagree with the rulings of the Supreme Court, and they may also choose to act in a manner which is contrary to those rulings, but they do so with the full knowledge that their actions are unlawful and that they may ultimately lead to sanction of some kind. The most severe penalty which can be levied to sanction individual disobedience of the law is either the death penalty or life imprisonment. For Bahá'ís, the court of last resort is the Universal House of Justice, composed of nine trustees, who are elected every five years by the members of the National Spiritual Assemblies, who are themselves elected annually by the rank and file adult adherents of this Faith. Whatever the Universal House of Justice decides, all Bahá'ís are enjoined to obey, whether they believe in a particular ruling or not. The Universal House of Justice may change its ruling, but, until it does so, whatever it decides is binding upon the community. To the Universal House of Justice alone is conferred the authority and the responsibility to pass final judgment upon the administrative decisions enacted by LSAs, RBCs and NSAs. As Bahá'ís are enjoined to have perfect confidence in the decisions of the Universal House of Justice, by Bahá'u'lláh, by 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, they are powerfully motivated to accept the rulings of that Supreme Institution, whether or not they understand them. Given the assurances which Bahá'ís have read in the Bahá'í Writings regarding the reliability of decisions made by the Universal House of Justice, this court of last resort functions with greater authority than the U.S. Supreme Court. Furthermore, while the Supreme Court is only a judicial institution, the Universal House of Justice is the highest legislative body in the administrative system envisioned by Bahá'u'lláh, as well as the supreme executive authority in the Bahá'í Faith. While individual Bahá'ís may have doubts, misgivings, hesitations and disagreements regarding specific rulings of the Universal House of Justice--and they are not sanctioned for having or expressing such contrary views as long as these views are expressed only through appropriate channels, and as long as the individual recognizes that the Universal House of Justice has the final say, that the individual's views, no matter how meritorious, do not supercede the decisions of the court of last resort. If an individual chooses to ignore certain of the specific rulings of the Universal House of Justice and to take actions which run contrary to such rulings, in most cases he will incur no sanction. Most compliance with Bahá'í law is voluntary rather than obligatory. However, noncompliance with certain rulings may result in administrative sanctions. This is true also in the individual's relationship to the LSA, RBC and NSA, however, as the Universal House of Justice is the court of last resort, it is particularly the case with this Supreme Institution.
Dr. Cole alleges that there is a direct conflict between "American individualism" and the reverence which many Bahá'ís have for the Universal House of Justice. Many Americans do not unreservedly worship at the altar of "individualism," but temper their reverence for human rights with obedience to law and governmental institutions. Many Americans have reverence for the Supreme Court, and yet remain committed to their own individual rights and freedoms. Likewise, this is the case with many Bahá'ís. Furthermore, one of the most cherished Bahá'í principles is the "independent investigation of truth" which resembles "American individualism" in some ways: Bahá'ís insist upon the primacy of the individual's experience rather than upon the over-riding value of the collective consciousness. Many Americans believe that individual freedom of choice is more important than conforming to the community norms. Bahá'ís positively affirm that it is for the individual to choose "faith"--conscious knowledge and obedience-- and that in order to do so he must forbear blind imitation of both his predecessors and his peers. While Bahá'ís champion this value as a matter of spiritual principle, and hence regard it as obligatory, there is a powerful dissonance between the ideology and the actual behavior of Americans with regard to their much-vaunted "individualism." Indeed, Dr. Cole seems to wish that American Bahá'ís would conform to mainstream American values, and this is indicative of the conformist imperative inherent in American culture, whether in the so-called liberal or the so-called conservative camp. The American preoccupation with "individualism" has generated a host of contending orthodoxies--with one camp defining "individualism" according to one formula, and other camps according to other recipes. Each camp insists that its members conform to its dogma, and ostracizes those who dare to question the authority of the mob. In fact, the Bahá'í commitment to the "independent investigation of reality" is much more clear and consistent than the American reverence for "individualism," inasmuch as there is one normative definition of this concept rather than a proliferation of competing definitions; and because this value is derived not from imitations of others but, rather, according to Bahá'í belief, from God Himself.
While Dr. Cole has observed and probably participated in Bahá'í elections during a period of not less than twenty years, his understanding of the process seems to be colored throughout his JRRS article by his clear preference for the American secular system of partisan politics. While he has accurately stated that public criticism of the decisions and membership of Bahá'í institutions is forbidden, and while it is true that if such public criticism is persistent and strident, it may lead to the imposition of sanctions, Dr. Cole has not explained the origin of this regulation. Bahá'u'lláh makes a distinction between criticism expressed privately to an individual or institution with which one has a disagreement, and public expression of criticism, that is, expression of criticism to any individuals or institutions which are not directly concerned. Indeed, Bahá'ís are permitted and even encouraged to question and formally appeal institutional decisions with which they disagree--not just decisions arrived at the local level by LSAs or at the regional level by RBCs, but also decisions made at the national level by NSAs. Also, Bahá'ís are permitted to disagree with decisions of the Universal House of Justice and to request that Supreme Institution to supercede an earlier ruling based on new evidence or a new argument. This appeal process is to be private, for if communicated in privacy it will not agitate the community. Also, it is permissible for an adherent to express criticisms of others to certain institutions in order to seek counsel. Adherents freely expressed their criticisms of others to Bahá'u'lláh, to 'Abdu'l-Bahá, to Shoghi Effendi, and continue to address them to the Universal House of Justice, to National and Local Spiritual Assemblies, to Regional Bahá'í Councils, to Continental Counselors, Auxiliary Board Members and Assistants to the Auxiliary Board. However, these conversations are private, privileged, and are governed by the same principle as that privilege which Americans acknowledge for client-lawyer, patient-doctor, and layman-priest conversations. Nevertheless, the adherent is advised not to voice his criticisms of others outside of these parameters, to friends, to family, to co-workers, and particularly on public forums which would bring them to the attention of the community at large. It is one of the functions of prepublication review, a regulation that was considered earlier, to protect the community from public expressions of criticism. Finally, Bahá'u'lláh enjoins adherents to govern their private criticisms, and indeed all of their utterances according to certain spiritual principles, including courtesy, humility, moderation, compassion and substantiality.
Public criticism is forbidden by Bahá'u'lláh for various reasons. Bahá'u'lláh has written that backbiting (slander) and gossip are harmful to the spiritual health of those who speak them, those who hear them, and those to which they refer. 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi have particularly stressed the harmful effect of backbiting and gossip on human relationships, and therefore on the integrity and unity of community. Bahá'u'lláh has indicated, as a matter of spiritual principle, that no soul is to be humiliated. He has stated that the confession of sins to another save God is forbidden, inasmuch as this is a humiliating act, and God does not wish any soul to be humiliated. Public criticism humiliates those who are publicly criticized, their loved ones, their families, their friends and followers. Consequently, we may surmise that it may also be forbidden in accordance with this spiritual principle. 'Abdu'l-Bahá counseled Bahá'ís to say nothing which would sadden another, to avoid hurting other people's feelings at all costs. Public criticism hurts feelings, it saddens souls. This is another reason, from a Bahá'í perspective, that public criticism is disallowed.
Public criticism is one of the ingredients of Covenant-breaking, for it challenges the authority of the Prophet, and the obligation of the adherent to follow His ordinances. Bahá'u'lláh declared Mirza Yahya and his followers Covenant-breakers ("naqazin"). This was not because they did not recognize Him as the prophetic fulfillment promised in the Writings of the Bab and denominated "Him Whom God shall manifest"--for there were other Babis who did not become Bahá'ís but who were not declared Covenant-breakers. Rather, the Azalis were declared Covenant-breakers because of their implacable opposition to, criticism of and machinations against Bahá'u'lláh. 'Abdu'l-Bahá likewise declared Muhammad 'Ali and his followers as Covenant-breakers, in part because of their public opposition to His leadership of the Bahá'í Faith. Shoghi Effendi excommunicated various dissident believers, including Mirza Ahmad Sohrab in part because of their public criticism of the Bahá'í leadership. Public criticism is not the only element which constitutes a ground for excommunication, however, it has been a factor in a number of Bahá'í excommunications. Because of its association with Covenant-breaking, public criticism, particularly when it is reiterated and strident in tone, is linked to that spiritual illness. Public criticism sows public dissension, and the Bahá'í community--which is dedicated to bringing about global unity through providing an example, a model of unity to which others may aspire--has been admonished, from the ministry of Bahá'u'lláh to the present day, to refrain from public criticism and anything else which would violate communal unity.
Dr. Cole alleges that the Bahá'í administrative system "denies the need for checks and balances." However, it should be noted that Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá indicated that the Universal House of Justice was assured at all times of infallible divine guidance, and that it would not abrogate a single provision of the Bahá'í Scriptures. Likewise, Shoghi Effendi affirmed that the Universal House of Justice would not diverge from the infallible interpretations of the Bahá'í Scriptures rendered by 'Abdu'l-Bahá and by himself as Guardian. While it is true that Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi envisioned the continuity of the institution of the Guardianship, this was rendered impossible through the Covenant-breaking of all of Bahá'u'lláh's male heirs--who might have been acceptable candidates to follow Shoghi Effendi in this Office--and inasmuch as Shoghi Effendi did not engender any sons. On the other hand, the Universal House of Justice has closely followed the interpretations of the Guardian, and, in this manner, has established the Guardianship as an integral element in its decision-making process. While with the termination of the Guardianship the Bahá'í system of governance does not provide for a horizontal system of checks and balances, nonetheless there is a verticle system, inasmuch as each level of governance is fully answerable to a higher level and all find their court of last resort in the Universal House of Justice. Every believer is fully entitled to appeal a decision made at a lower level to the next highest level, and ultimately, to the Universal House of Justice, which is the final arbiter in all controversies. This model of governance is not based upon opposition, upon implicit mistrust, upon compartmentalization, but rather its foundation rests upon coalescence, upon implicit trust, upon integration. Furthermore, it should be noted that the Bahá'í administrative system is composed of two institutions, which operate at every level. On the local, regional and national levels there are elected assemblies, the LSAs, RBCs and NSAs, and these comprise the "institution of the rulers." The second institution, the AABMs, the ABMs and the CCs are called the "institution of the learned." These two institutions complement and supplement one another. While the "institution of the learned" do not provide a system of "checks and balances" to the "institution of the rulers" they do complement and supplement the functions exercised by the Universal House of Justice and the lower levels of elected administrators.
Finally, Dr. Cole alleges that the current membership of the NSA has guarded its incumbency in a variety of ways, and that without nominations and campaigning it is a challenge for electors to recognize qualified individuals other than the incumbents. While it is certain that recognizing such prospective members for the NSA has been and continues to be difficult for the American Bahá'í electorate, Dr. Cole's allegations are based upon hearsay, and seem to be bent upon undermining the credibility of the NSA rather than discerning the truth. However, if delegates to the National Convention are consistently following the counsels of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi as they undertake the selection of nine members to make up the NSA, they will elect only those individuals whom they regard as the best qualified for service on this institution. He entirely misses the point when he quotes Ira Rifkin to the effect that it is "hard for those outside the Bahá'í establishment to win election to the N.S.A." Inasmuch as campaigning is forbidden, believers should not wish to be elected to the NSA, or to any other Bahá'í institution. If elected he must serve, but he should not make any effort to be elected. If he were to influence the judgment of any elector he would be compromising the spiritual independence of that elector and interfering with the sanctity of the electoral process. To an American, steeped in the American political system, it seems very unlikely that such a system would work, but many of those adherents who have participated in the Bahá'í electoral process will readily attest that it works wonderfully well. However, and this is what is discouraging to would-be reformers of the Bahá'í system, it does not permit the ambitious individual to achieve high office (or to remove someone he does not care for from such office) through his own initiative and the efforts of his friends. If there are violations of this principle then these represent aberrations rather than true Bahá'í procedure.
CONTROL MECHANISMS AND SANCTIONS
In this section of his article, Dr. Cole essentially repeats his characterization of certain Bahá'í regulations as "social control mechanisms," giving examples of some of these in action, without, however, offering any credible evidence of any kind. For example, he alleges that "the most widespread approach in the American Bahá'í community to scriptural exegesis is literalism, as in fundamentalist Protestantism." Inasmuch as Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá both affirmed that much of scripture is allegorical, symbolic, and spiritual in nature, not capable of being properly understood through a literalistic approach, this characterization of the American Bahá'í community seems puzzling indeed. In fact, American Bahá'ís study Bahá'í scripture (and other scriptures) from a very broad range of perspectives, some academic, some intuitive, some scientific, some pragmatic, others mystical. On the other hand, the only binding, that is, authoritative interpretations of scripture--Bahá'í or otherwise--are, according to 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, those found in their own writings and in the works of Bahá'u'lláh. Consequently, if one of these three persons gives a particular interpretation of some Biblical or Quranic passage, Bahá'ís tend to regard that interpretation as of much greater reliability and the result of keener spiritual insight than the interpretations of all other persons, regardless of their clerical or academic status and stature. This is not a fundamentalist or literalist stance, it is simply recognition and active affirmation of the written claims of Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi.
Dr. Cole mentions the Bahá'í Covenant, without explaining the meaning of this term. Inasmuch as there may be readers of this paper who are not familiar with this concept, the present writer will provide a brief summary. Bahá'u'lláh established a Covenant with all His adherents, by appointing 'Abdu'l-Bahá, His eldest son, as the infallible interpreter of the Bahá'í Writings, the Bahá'í teachings and Bahá'í history. He set forth this Covenant in "Lawh-i-Ghusn" (Tablet of the Branch), in "Kitab-i-Aqdas" (Most Holy Book) and in "Kitab-i-'Ahd" (Book of the Covenant)--all three of these documents are available in Arabic and Persian, and have been translated into English and published. 'Abdu'l-Bahá perpetuated this Covenant by appointing His grandson, Shoghi Effendi, to carry out these same functions. 'Abdu'l-Bahá sets forth the terms of this Covenant in His "Will and Testament," which is also available in the original Persian and in English translation. Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi indicated that the Bahá'í Covenant would be further elaborated and elucidated by the Universal House of Justice. When Shoghi Effendi died suddenly in 1957, the entire body of the Hands of the Cause, the highest rank of leaders, who had been personally chosen by 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, attested that Shoghi Effendi had not left a will and testament, had not appointed a successor to carry out the same interpretive functions as himself, and that the only way to restore a reliable central authority to the worldwide Bahá'í community was to proceed with the election of the Universal House of Justice, at the earliest opportunity. The inaugural election of this Supreme Institution took place in 1963, and since then the elucidation of Bahá'í doctrine has been carried out by the Universal House of Justice, depending upon the explicit guidance found in the authenticated writings of Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi. This, then, is the Bahá'í Covenant. An enrolled member of the Bahá'í community--who has declared his recognition of the authority of that Covenant, and who has pledged his obediance to that Covenant, as twin conditions for his assumption of membership in the Bahá'í Faith--who publicly disagrees with or disobeys Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi or the Universal House of Justice is breaking the Bahá'í Covenant. However, while individual Bahá'ís and representatives of either branch of Bahá'í governance may report behavior of this kind to the Universal House of Justice, no individual, no member of the "institution of the learned" or of the "institution of the rulers" is permitted to identify anyone as a Covenant-breaker. Only the Universal House of Justice can declare an individual to be a Covenant-breaker.
According to Dr. Cole, the Bahá'í community is rife with informers, with spies, with thought police, and he implicitly compares this to allegedly Islamic norms by noting that this "system of using rank-and-file informers has a venerable history in the Middle East." The present writer is not well enough informed about Middle Eastern history to know whether or not Dr. Cole has slandered one or two religions here. In other words, he seems not only to be claiming that Bahá'ís engage in patently unethical and possibly illegal activities but that in doing so they are merely carrying out customary behaviors which are widespread and historically established in Islamic societies. In any society, it is very difficult to prosecute offences which are not witnessed, or in response to which witnesses will not come forward or will refuse to testify. It is required by law that witnesses report what they suspect to be illegal acts to the police. In societies where illegal acts are faithfully and habitually reported, the perpetrators of illegal acts are likely to be apprehended. The converse is true of societies in which illegal acts are rarely reported. As has been stated earlier, individual Bahá'ís may report behavior which appears to break the Bahá'í Covenant to one of the branches of Bahá'í administration, and this may result in representatives of one of those institutions contacting the individual in question, and seeking to ascertain the facts in the case, or to advise the individual of the possible consequences of his actions. Dr. Cole states that "to be a Bahá'í 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 Bahá'í out of the ordinary." This seems to represent Dr. Cole's understanding of his own experience and of the experiences of certain of his associates; certainly, Dr. Cole has been the subject of many reports to Bahá'í institutions, because of his unusual interpretations of Bahá'í history and doctrine, and his outspoken public criticism of various Bahá'í institutions and regulations. However, the present writer's personal experience and conversations with many other adherents suggest that most Bahá'ís with whom he is acquainted have never felt that they were "under constant surveillance" by fellow believers. While it is certain that some adherents take objection "if one says or does anything that seems to another Bahá'í out of the ordinary" Dr. Cole does not present any evidence that indicates that this trend is widespread or popular in the American Bahá'í community. However, if Bahá'ís are sensitive to public criticism of the Bahá'í Faith by fellow believers, it is because public criticism is forbidden by the Bahá'í Writings. If Bahá'ís are concerned about the public expression of views which are patently in conflict with the normative statements of Bahá'í doctrine found in the writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, it is because these statements are representative of the Bahá'í Covenant, and it is the Bahá'í Covenant which has preserved the unity and integrity of the Bahá'í Faith for over one hundred years, and which alone has the capacity to protect the Bahá'í community from schism.
The policy of prepublication review was discussed in the Introduction, but here Dr. Cole makes some unsupported allegations which call for refutation. He indicates that "Bahá'í authors have been prevented from publishing on the controversies of contemporary Bahá'í history" and implies that "the history of the community since about 1950 has not been written about in any detail" because of the mandatory prepublication review of all papers, articles and books by Bahá'í writers. The actual fact is that very few historians have taken up the study of American Bahá'í history, and that the two historians who have done so in recent years, Dr. Robert Stockman and Mr. Richard Hollinger, having begun with study of the early years of the community while in graduate school, have not yet found the requisite time to study the primary sources for the second half of the twentieth century. It is to be hoped that more historians will participate in studying this period in American Bahá'í history.
As was noted earlier, Bahá'u'lláh and his successors do not permit Bahá'ís to engage in public criticism of one another, of their government, of the Bahá'í institutions, of authoritative statements of Bahá'í doctrine. Dr. Cole cites many examples of electronic conversations posted to public forums, and indicates that adherents were subjected to "post-publication censorship" by various "Bahá'í officials." What he does not explicitly state, but what is obvious to the reader is that all of the conversations which elicited comment from the "institution of the learned" (that is, Counselors, Auxiliary Board Members or their Assistants) were public, and all were critical of other adherents, of Bahá'í institutions, and/or of authoritative statements of Bahá'í doctrine. Furthermore, Dr. Cole indicates that "Dialogue" magazine and the "Talisman" list both closed down as a result of active opposition from Bahá'í institutions. While neither of these two organs of communication were compelled to cease and desist by any level of Bahá'í administration, it is incontestable that both were viewed with considerable concern by the NSA and the Universal House of Justice. The reason for this concern was that "Dialogue" and "Talisman" crossed the line from private--through correct channels and privileged--criticism to public criticism, thereby compromising essential Bahá'í principles. Dr. Cole also indicates that some participants on the "Talisman" list chose to resign from membership in the Bahá'í community because of the punitive action taken by the NSA in response to certain public criticisms posted to that forum; and because of the cautionary statements made to other individuals in connection with certain of the views expressed which appeared to violate the Bahá'í Covenant. In order to resign from membership in the Bahá'í community an individual must publicly renounce his recognition of the prophetic station of Bahá'u'lláh, the validity of his Covenant and the obligatory character of the Bahá'í laws and teachings. Anyone who takes such a drastic course of action must assume full responsibility for his behavior. If Dr. Cole is sincere in his renunciation of Bahá'í membership, then the present writer will look forward to his transition to a new identity, one not associated with the Bahá'í Faith. However, his comments in this article, and his recent book on the Bahá'í Faith seem to indicate that Dr. Cole wishes to remain associated with Bahá'u'lláh, as a protestant and dissident, as a re-interpreter of Bahá'í text, doctrine and history. Readers of Dr. Cole's works on the Bahá'í Faith will have to determine for themselves whether his individual reinterpretations are credible in the light of the vast wealth of literature generated directly by Bahá'u'lláh's Covenant, and in comparison with the writings of those thousands of believers who adhere to that Covenant. Other dissident adherents have attempted to reinterpret the Bahá'í Faith in the past, including Mirza Ahmad Sohrab, one of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's translators; Charles Mason Remey, one of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's appointees to the supreme rank of Hand of the Cause; and Jinab-i-Avarih, whom Shoghi Effendi called the foremost historian of the Bahá'í Faith. All of these dissidents were ultimately unsuccessful at attracting followers, either away from the Covenant of Bahá'u'lláh or from the populace at large.
In summation, Dr. Cole has made various allegations which, taken together, characterize the American Bahá'í community as a cult, and the American Bahá'í governing institutions as authoritarian, disingenuous, and un-American. He infers that the members of these institutions are routinely depriving American adherents of their basic human rights under the U.S. Constitution. He states that the "N.S.A. maintains the "orthodox" ideology in power and prevents the election to that institution of dissenters through identifying them and ensuring that they do not become visible in the community." When one considers that there is a very great diversity of perspectives which individual Bahá'ís bring to the American Bahá'í community; when one weighs the notoriety of Dr. Cole and a number of other highly visible dissidents; when one considers that American Bahá'ís tend to vote for incumbents, and do not have a record of electing "dissenters" to any position of leadership--it becomes apparent that Dr. Cole's statement simply makes no sense. The American Bahá'í electorate does not elect "dissenters" to positions in the Bahá'í administration; however, they are not prevented from doing so by the NSA or any other Bahá'í institution. They simply do not trust "dissenters" and this is because of the Bahá'í teachings which forbid public criticism and enjoin obedience to the Covenant. Inasmuch as the "dissenters" are among the most visible of "believers" in this country, it is nonsensical to suggest that the NSA could ensure that "they do not become visible in the community." Dr. Cole contrasts "conventional Bahá'ís" with "the independently-minded" but this characterization proves to be severely reductionist, and self-serving, as well as elitist, inasmuch as many if not all of the Bahá'ís with whom the present writer is acquainted would identify themselves as "independently-minded" but very few of these have had any problems with either branch of Bahá'í administration. Dr. Cole sums up his case, by alleging that these "control mechanisms" discourage "spiritual entrepreneurship and keeps the religion [the Bahá'í Faith] from growing in the West." He seems to be convinced that the proliferation of many personal interpretations of Bahá'u'lláh's teachings would lead to an expansion in membership. If this were the case then surely such an expansion would have occurred during the past few years, inasmuch as the expression of personal interpretations has exploded into prominence since the establishment of the Internet. On the contrary, it seems most likely that this often unbridled evocation of distorted and misguided opinions has led rather to the stagnation or even the shrinkage of the American Bahá'í community. "Spiritual entrepreneurship" within the context of established Bahá'í values and institutions is both supported and encouraged, but it would be equivalent to spiritual suicide for Bahá'ís to operate independently of the Bahá'í Covenant.
Dr. Cole has spoken of threats to our rights, our freedoms, our liberty, which he associates with mainstream American values and institutions. But has Dr. Cole considered those spiritual rights and freedoms which Bahá'u'lláh identified as "true liberty":
Consider the pettiness of men's minds. They ask for
that which injureth them, and cast away the thing that
profiteth them. They are, indeed, of those that are
far astray. We find some men desiring liberty, and
priding themselves therein. Such men are in the depths
Liberty must, in the end, lead to sedition, whose flames
none can quench. Thus warneth you He Who is the Reckoner,
the All-Knowing. Know ye that the embodiment of liberty
and its symbol is the animal. That which beseemeth man
is submission unto such restraints as will protect him
from his own ignorance, and guard him against the harm
of the mischief-maker. Liberty causeth man to overstep
the bounds of propriety, and to infringe on the dignity
of his station. It debaseth him to the level of extreme
depravity and wickedness.
Regard men as a flock of sheep that need a shepherd for
their protection. This, verily, is the truth, the cer-
tain truth. We approve of liberty in certain circum-
stances, and refuse to sanction it in others. We, verily,
are the All-Knowing.
Say: True liberty consisteth in man's submission unto My
commandments, little as ye know it. Were men to observe
that which We have sent down unto them from the Heaven
of Revelation, they would, of a certainty, attain unto
perfect liberty. Happy is the man that apprehendeth the
Purpose of God in whatever He hath revealed from the
Heaven of His Will that pervadeth all created things.
Say: The liberty that profiteth you is to be found no-
where except in complete servitude unto God, the Eternal
Truth. Whoso hath tasted of its sweetness will refuse
to barter it for all the dominion of earth and heaven.
This is not the sort of freedom that we discuss in mainstream American society, nor in academia for that matter. But some kind of understanding of what Bahá'u'lláh calls "true liberty" is essential if we are to comprehend the various regulations which Dr. Cole calls "social control mechanisms"; the confidence which most Bahá'ís have in the judgment of the Universal House of Justice; the centrality of the Bahá'í Covenant. Every liberty implies both a positive freedom--a freedom to be or to do--and a negative liberty, and a liberty from something. This "true liberty" is a liberty to follow one's highest impulses, dreams, ideals, convictions; it is also a liberty from attachment to the expectations of others, to the conventions and customs of man-made community; liberty from the bondage of habit and addiction, liberty from the slavery of self and desire. It is not the careful selection and presentation of Bahá'í principles which most resemble the so-called "liberal" agenda which will assure that "spiritual entrepreneurship" flourishes and the Bahá'í Faith grows in the U.S. Rather, as attested above by Bahá'u'lláh, it is in "complete servitude unto God." The present writer does not ask his readership to believe in this claim, but he hopes that the reader will acknowledge the obvious, namely, that this is one of the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh; and that this teaching indicates that Bahá'u'lláh's conception of "true liberty" was quite unlike those found in mainstream American society. Indeed, to find a similar concept in the West, we would have to turn to American Jews and Christians, and to the expanding immigrant communities of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. This concept of "true liberty" is essentially a religious conception...but that needn't surprise or scandalize us--the Bahá'í Faith is, after all, a religion, not a secular organization, or an academic institution. The entrance fee to religion is personal conviction; the entrance fee to academia may be high test scores, athletic prowess, or money...but it isn't personal conviction. However, there are parallels between the Bahá'í Faith and academia. In academia there are rules and regulations, authorities, final courts of appeal; in academia there are forms of prepublication review, administrative sanctions, and even excommunication. But ultimately, perhaps academics will not understand the religious concept of "true liberty" unless they begin to demonstrate a little humility, and acknowledge that there may indeed be more to truth and more to life than what we have been taught by our professors, what is acceptable in academic circles. Even today there are individual academics who demonstrate such humility. This is a two-way street, and religionists are not exempt from this requirement. When both academics and religionists approach one another with humility, they will begin to recognize that they tread common ground, and need no longer rail at one another across a great divide. As 'Abdu'l-Bahá tirelessly reaffirmed, there is but one reality, and this reality is within the grasp of anyone who will independently investigate its existence.