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Baha'i, The: The Religious Construction of a Global Identity, by Michael McMullen:

by Juan Cole

published in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 40:3, pages 555-56
The Bahá'í: The Religious Construction of a Global Identity
Author: Michael McMullen
Publisher: Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ, and London, 2000
251 pp. $65.00 (cloth), $29.00 (paper)
Review by Juan R. I. Cole
Review published in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 40, no. 3 (September, 2001): 555-556.

Remarkably few social scientists have studied the Bahá'í faith in the United States, given its age (established here in the 1890s), size, and intrinsic interest or "exoticness." Peter L. Berger, Jane Wyman, Margit Warburg, and Peter Smith have made important contributions to the social scientific study of this New Religious Movement of Iranian provenance, but they are a small cohort. A complex tradition, it resembles other esoteric offshoots of Shi`ite Islam such as Ismailism or the Nusayris in having an onion-like series of layers, with an outward one presented to outsiders.

Michael McMullen's fine book on the Atlanta Bahá'í community of the 1990s adds importantly to this growing literature. It is steeped in contemporary American approaches to the sociology of religion. An adherent himself, he combines participant observation, archival research, in-depth interviews, and a survey questionnaire. He says that the Bahá'ís of Atlanta deal with the problems of pluralism and globalization through both boundary-drawing and tolerance, which he calls "situated universalism." Bahá'ís say they believe in the unity and common origin of the major world religions, in the unity of humankind, the need to eliminate racism, and the equality of women and men. They also have global institutions. They elect local spiritual assemblies and national spiritual assemblies, and the latter elect the international "Universal House of Justice." The combination of this globalist ideology and these world-wide institutions, he argues, contrasts with anti-modernist or "fundamentalist" rejections of globalization.

Chapter 2 deals with the conversion process and the make-up of the Atlanta Bahá'í community, the precise size of which he never informs us. (Bahá'í communities in major U.S. cities seldom exceed a few hundred). He finds that most Bahá'ís converted through friends or other personal contacts and that they were predominantly Protestant in background, with only 11 percent being Catholic. About a third of the community was raised Bahá'í. A quarter were African-American and 13 percent Iranian. McMullen seems to want to generalize these findings to the whole country, but a 1987 internal poll found that at that time, 15 percent of U.S. Bahá'ís were Iranian-Americans and only ten percent were African-Americans. McMullen found that most Atlanta Bahá'ís considered prayer and scripture study most satisfying, and they were relatively little interested in the Bahá'í administration. Attending community worship or "Feast" was cited as their favorite Bahá'í pastime by only 4.6 percent of his respondents.

Chapters three and four sketch out the administrative structure of the religion and its conceptions of authority, especially as these were viewed by Atlantan Bahá'ís — including the belief that the Universal House of Justice is infallible. Chapter 5 examines ritual. Chapter 6 treats the grounds for inclusion in and exclusion from the community, especially the practices of "removal of administrative rights" for moral lapses or political participation, and shunning (for "schismatic" activities). Chapter 7 treats local efforts to spread the religion or "teach the faith," and the disappointment that the promises by leaders that mass enrollments are imminent have not been fulfilled. He also details conflicts over those who wish to spread the religion by talking to friends and those who wish to approach strangers in malls. His survey shows that only a fifth saw "teaching the faith" as their most enjoyable Bahá'í activity. Chapter 8, among the more engrossing in the book, sketches the twentieth-century history of Atlantan Bahá'ís' efforts at "race unity" across the divide of whites and African-Americans. He recounts conflicts over the advisability of mixed-race meetings in the Jim Crow South of the 1940s (Bahá'í integrationists largely won in Atlanta then, unlike in many other southern Bahá'í communities), and describes a 1947 white supremacist attack on an integrated Bahá'í feast. He is generally aware of the academic literature on Bahá'í Studies, but his bibliography has startling holes. He neglects the series Studies in the Babi and Bahá'í Religions, even though one of these volumes collects U.S. urban histories. His chapter on Bahá'í ritual omits any mention of Denis MacEoin's book on that subject.

McMullen's book excels in giving a sense of what it is like to live in an urban Bahá'í community in the contemporary United States, one that most U.S. Bahá'ís would recognize as accurate. His vindication of his thesis about globalism and non-fundamentalist responses, however, seems to me to depend on some crucial omissions. McMullen ignores the tensions between Bahá'í liberals and Bahá'í fundamentalists, and does not seem to realize that he has found the former when he reports that about a third of the community says it would not abjure individual conscience to obey the House of Justice. He is little interested in social control, and is oblivious to how coercive shunning can be, or how large a shadow the practice casts. He does not make it clear that Bahá'ís may not publicly criticize their institutions. He does not study the members of the local assembly, keeping power in the background. He never mentions that what Bahá'ís write about their faith must be vetted by Bahá'í authorities. He does not admit that mainstream Bahá'ís hold to scriptural inerrancy even when it contradicts science. He does not realize that his finding (pp. 105-107) that attitude toward authority predicts involvement in community rituals and affairs better than class, race or gender suggests that those authorities make such participation a sine qua non of full de facto community membership. Fear of ostracism is likely among the factors that flattens out the usual disparities in participation among believers of unequal education, wealth and status.

It is not clear, then, that he has proven his thesis. He admits that the longer his subjects had been Bahá'ís, the less they were interested in learning about or interacting with other religious groups. Although he speaks of Bahá'í interactions with the "global," these appear to be experiences inside the religion, news reports of conversions in India, pilgrimage to the Bahá'í shrines in Haifa, Israel, and plans for a theocratic Bahá'í world government. Human rights abuses affecting non-Bahá'ís in Burma or Guatemala do not galvanize these Bahá'ís. There is no evidence in his book that they responded as a community to international disasters, even on the small scale their numbers permitted, or that they do any local philanthropy. Yet, an account of a Quaker or a Unitarian Universalist community in the 1990s would have been full of reactions to Bosnia, to disasters and to relief work.

McMullen's theory may work for the minority of liberal Bahá'ís in the community. The conservative Bahá'ís, however, have simply colonized or ghettoized the global. Rather than "situated universalism," they present us with a fundamentalist particularism with a liberal-sounding veneer that aims at the engorgement of the world. It is not clear how it differs from the similar attitude toward global evangelism of groups such as the Seventh-Day Adventists and the Jehovah's Witnesses, which also share conservative Bahá'ís' corporate solidarity, authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism, and some of which are more racially mixed. An outer layer of the onion is described very well here, but the inner sanctums are not penetrated.
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