Letter on Bahá'í attitudes towards politics and scholarshipLA Study Class Newsletter, 34, pages 4-12
7 January 1979
I have read your latest (November 1978) Newsletter [online here] with more than usual interest and sympathy, and feel that I would like to add a few words in its wake. I shall not try to expand on Tony’s account of our seminar here in Cambridge, much as it is tempting to do so — from the report in your Newsletter, he seems to have done a thorough job of leading you through a very complicated set of issues raised there. The full report, as stated, is available, and dwells more thoroughly on the major topics mentioned by Tony.
I was most interested by the discussion reported on pages 3-4 of your summary. As Tony knows, this is a topic about which I personally feel very strongly. In the simplest terms, I fear that the Baha’i faith as it stands today is in very real danger of becoming irrelevant to the problems faced by people in the world outside — if it has not already become so. As the faith has become more and more organised, with, as you so rightly point out, a growing obsession with figures, numbers, and statistics for their own sake, and a tendency to evaluate the significance of the faith as a religion in terms which have no bearing whatever on this (such as how many languages literature has been ‘translated’ into), we seem to have become more and more introspective and withdrawn, exclusive rather than all-embracing. As a result, most Baha’is appear to be completely ignorant of the issues facing modern man. And, what is worse, they don’t care — if you suggest that they read, say, Marcuse, most Baha’is react with a disdainful, slightly superior shrug: ‘we have the writings, we don’t need to waste our time on the book of false physicians’. As one friend, for some time an NSA secretary (not in the U.K.) put it to me: ‘nothing worth reading has ever been written in the twentieth century’. In fact, it is not even a case of whether people are up on Patti Smith or Malcolm Bradbury’s latest novel, they have yet to read Marx or early Koestler! Instead, the community is locked into an obsession with issues which were vital before or just after the first World War and, what is worse, are a lot less forthright now about issues such as war, poverty, race, and so forth that they were then. To speak about race integration in the States in the 20’s was genuinely progressive. Last year at a Youth Conference in the U.K. (facing a major race problem and the threat of growing fascism — the country’s fascist party is the fourth largest in the country), an NSA member told the youth that we should have nothing to do with the issue of race, since it is political!
In recent years, I feel, the situation has become even more serious (in this country at least). Whereas about ten or more years ago, the Baha’i community tried (in however outdated a fashion) to be involved with society around it, we now seem to think about and talk about and be told about nothing but goals, organization, conferences, and other purely internal matters — very few of them even of a spiritual or genuinely religious nature. Your phrase ’shopping list’ goals sums up very well indeed the utterly meaningless hole we seem to have dug ourselves into. The Five Year Plan in this country has been a mindless race after numbers, constant reshuffles, juggling with statistics, bombastic sermons which have passed beyond banality to the depths of uninspiration. Success is judged in the most material and sterile terms, important long-term tasks of the community have been shelved in order to win insignificant short-term goals, and above all, everybody knows that we will ‘win’ the Plan, whatever the real result. Beneath the surface, fairly large numbers of people are withdrawing, even larger numbers have become inactive, leaving things in the hands of thick-skinned administrators whom we could as well hire from an employment agency, the teaching work becomes more and more geared to attracting the less spiritual, and the circle becomes a spiral. Worst of all, I fear, is that the Baha’is are gradually gaining a reputation for hypocrisy and self-interestedness. To give one example, several years ago, when the troubles began in Northern Ireland, a few Baha’is gave help for some time at a refugee centre, along with other groups. Despite the fact that the Quakers, who ran the centre, had asked for no publicity, the Baha’is were the only group to seek and obtain newspaper publicity for their work with refugees. Since then, the Baha’is as a group, in Northern Ireland have done nothing to help anybody, have never even condemned the violence publicly, and have held numerous conferences and teaching activities which even the believers are beginning to avoid. To give just one other example: the Public Relations Officer of the U.K. Baha’i Community recently told a Mayor, in the course of a tree-planting (!) ceremony (which seems to be the most radical activity we engage in) that ‘Baha’is the world over were working hard in thousands of centres to help improve the environment and the quality of life of all the inhabitants of the earth. They were also involved in efforts to resist the spread of deserts which themselves resulted from the wholesale destruction of trees. At world level, through United Nations agencies, the Baha’i International Community was constantly involved in this work of improving the environment’. As any Baha’i should know, this is, quite simply, dishonest and unethical — but this type of exaggeration and distortion, coupled with the fact that we only ever become involved in any activity where there is a chance of publicity for ourselves, will, I feel, soon be regarded as the chief characteristic of the Baha’is, if it is not already in many quarters.
To a large degree, this lack of involvement in live issues is linked to the fact that many contemporary social issues (such as those mentioned in your Newsletter, and others, such as unemployment, prisoners of conscience, the union) have, or appear to have, a high political content. Since Baha’is have failed to define what they mean by politics in the context of ‘non-involvement in politics’, they are now taking the easiest course, which is to avoid anything which may be remotely political — which means, in effect, just about any relevant social or humanitarian issue today. By dealing with ’safe’ issues (such as tree-planting) and ‘pie in the sky’ policies, we manage to preserve intact our integrity on the principle of non-involvement in politics, even if to do so we have to sacrifice other basic principles regarding war, racialism, sex inequality, tyranny, freedom of conscience, economic adjustment, and so on. The non-involvement tag is our get-out pass from just about everything, and the more we use it the more out of touch and irrelevant we become.
The simple fact is that, in a real sense, the Baha’i faith is one of the most political movements around. After all, principles such as the ending of absolute national sovereignty, world government, universal currency, universal language, sex equality, racial integration, disarmament, world tribunal, anti-communism, retention of constitutional monarchism, the abolition of non-Baha’i religious legal systems (such as the Islamic sharia), the retention of a class system, the abolition of tariffs, international police force, and so on are among the hottest political issues around. Do we just dismember the faith, trimming off any principle or concept that seems likely to offend the political susceptibilities of someone or some government somewhere, or do we accept that we have these principles and that we intend to establish them, destroying, in the process, any other system or ideology which seeks to oppose them? We should also bear in mind that the apparently non-political activity of just teaching the faith is highly political. Quite apart from problems such as teaching race unity, say, South Africa, it is obvious that they will be able to (in theory, at least) to exert pressure on society as a whole, particularly in a democracy. It is hardly enough to say that we are ‘non-political’ — after all, we do plan to bring into being a series of Baha’i states and, in the end, a Baha’i world — no less extreme than the aim of every Marxist. And, in the same way that not everyone jumps with joy at the thought of his country becoming Marxist, so we can hardly expect that there will be universal rejoicing at the news that the Baha’i faith is becoming a threat to the established political system. We may say that the old order is destroying itself and that we intend merely to step in when it collapses, not to actively work for its destruction — but take another look at Marx’s theory of the dialectic of history: capitalism destroys itself in order to give way to communism. Instead of engaging in violent revolution to speed up the process, we ‘teach the faith’.
Tragically, however, in order to pretend not to be concerned with politics, we have more and more adopted a line of expediency in our relationship with the outside world. This has reached such proportions that Baha’is cannot officially be involved with a totally non-aligned organisation such as Amnesty International because it might give rise to a false impression. As a result, we are totally uninvolved with one of the major evils of this century — political and religious oppression coupled with wrongful imprisonment, torture, and execution on the most appalling scale — despite the numerous statements in the writings about opposing injustice and tyranny. Baha’u'llah wrote directly to rulers to reprimand them for their brutality and repression, while we today pose for pictures with Pinochet and Amin (thank God for your reference to the Pinochet photograph — I thought I was the only person who had noticed it). Yet, the moment anyone lifts a finger to harm Baha’is, in however a minor way, there is a universal outcry and we appeal for aid to the UN and suchlike. The Iranian regime has been massacring its people for decades, and thousands are dying in the present troubles, but the only thing to excite protests from the Baha’is has been the threat of violence to themselves. No mention is made of the fact that Jews or Christians have been threatened or attacked. The fact is that we seem to judge the justice of a regime according to how well it treats the Baha’is. An unjust regime treating us well is tolerated or even extolled, while a popular regime which deprives us of certain freedoms (perhaps along with other religious groups) is regarded as evil. No one has asked, for example, what the people of Iran, as a whole, want, but what would ensure the safety of the Baha’is there; so if thousands of Shi’i Muslims are killed, who cares? — they deserve it anyway for having persecuted the Baha’is.
As you say in your Newsletter, the Shah’s ‘continued reign seems to be the only hope the Baha’is have of avoiding full-scale persecution’. There was a time when this need not have been so. The fact is that the Baha’is of Iran have done nothing to help their fellow countryman inside or outside of the country. They have been content to benefit economically and in other ways from the present regime and have gained a real reputation as an inward-looking community which would sacrifice the country for its own ends. Baha’is actually hate the Muslims and try to have as little as possible to do with them. And they seem unable to understand the impression they create. Many years ago, when some Baha’i villages in Adhirbayjan [Azerbaijan] were suffering from a boycott, a well-known and ... [last line cut off].
No one could understand when I pointed out that this would only worsen the situation in the long term. Not only this, but there is a serious level of class distinction between the Baha’is in Iran, a fact which has not escaped the rest of the population, especially the intellectuals. I have lived in a reasonably wealthy Baha’i home in Tihran while, in a room underneath, another Baha’i family with two children lived on bread and yogurt with no furniture — and this is not abnormal. There are many Baha’i meetings in Iran at which a 400 dollar suit would be more of a passport than Baha’i credentials. I don’t wish to be mistaken — some of the most wonderful Baha’is in the world (and some of my dearest friends) live in Iran but the community is known for its wealth, inequality, and exclusiveness.
In general, a deradicalization of the Baha’i faith has occurred over recent years. Like many other originally radical religious movements, the faith has moved from a position of active hostility to the existing order (under the Babis) to non-violent condemnation of abuses in politics and religion, to a passive acceptance of the establishment and, of late, a positive attempt to become integrated with the establishment. This latter development is typical of an originally sectarian movement which becomes a denomination, and is generally a consequence (as has taken place in Iran) of second and third generation prosperity, the removal of charisma, and the growth of organisational elements. Baha’is in many places now show considerable eagerness to become respectable. Being a member of a quaint, exotic religious movement is usually acceptable in the first generation, but it can become an embarrassment to later believers who are successful in society and derive benefits from it. We have now reached that stage in several places. To give one example: almost two years ago, the LSA here suggested to the NSA that every LSA in this country should have 5 pounds (about 9 dollars) to the Venezuela earthquake disaster fund; the suggestion was dismissed on the grounds that we were not concerned with such matters. Not long after, Assemblies and groups throughout the country were asked to give their assistance to government bodies organising the Queen’s Jubilee Fund, collecting money for British youth clubs and organisations. The reason? It was a ‘door to proclamation’. A pamphlet was even produced and widely distributed by one Assembly detailing the links of the Baha’i faith with the British monarchy and our support for it. When our Assembly pointed out to the NSA that this kind of activity could be construed in many quarters as political, and that, in areas such as Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales (where there is strong anti-monarchical feeling), the faith would be identified with political views of wide unpopularity, the reply made by the secretary was simply that he could not understand the point we were making. Nor could he understand our making a distinction between loyalty to one’s government and active support for the establishment.
It is a tragic situation when, as seems to be happening more and more often, Baha’is show themselves to be proud of the fact that they have gained some form of recognition from the old order. Something subtle is wrong, I think, when, for example, such publicity is given to the fact that Baha’is have been asked to join in an inter-faith service in Westminster Abbey. We now think it a wonderful thing when the very churches which we used to describe as defunct and despiritualised patronize us in this way, and do what we can to ingratiate ourselves with clerics, bishops, and ‘respectable’ religious organisations. It seems curious too that we appear to be increasingly favourable to establishment, right-wing, and conservative religions and government bodies; we have very little do to with groups which advocate social change, such as Amnesty, race harmony bodies, sex discrimination groups, anti-war movements, and so on, and more and more with bodies advocating stability, order, law, and respectable social behaviour. It is not surprising that Pinochet and others show such favour towards the Baha’is — we are the ideal religious fringe group for repressive regimes: the offer of outward radicalism with absolute acceptance of the status quo in return for toleration. In Marcusan terms, we are an acceptable alternative to genuine radicalism which may threaten to actually change society. And, as you so well point out in your Newsletter and I have shown above, we are politically naive.
Here again, we are faced with a vicious circle. The faith, as it stands, is predominantly middle-class and conservative (in the West, at least): students, radicals, the ... [last line cut off] ... as presented and the community as met unattractive and irrelevant to their concerns (to the extent that anybody actually tries to teach such socially unacceptable people), and so the only converts are won among middle class quasi-liberals — and the circle repeats itself. The faith seems to be going through a severe crisis — without being aware of it. I have personally little doubt that, if a trenchant radicalisation of the community does not take place within the next decade or sooner, it will stagnate and collapse inwards. Exaggerated news items of mass teaching successes and ‘unprecedented’ campaigns in some areas should not make us lose sight of the fact that, in the longer established communities, there is a growing disillusion, retrogression, routinization, and apathy — highlighted by the increasingly frenetic pronouncements that ‘things have never been better’. The administration, particularly, the mobile, distant, and woolly appointed side (which is rapidly acquiring many of the characteristics of a clergy), seems to have lost all touch with the mass of believers. At meetings and conferences in this country, it is increasingly rare to find someone not an NSA member, Board Member, Counsellor, or, recently, Assistant, to speak formally — and most of the best-informed and stimulating people belong to none of these bodies. As you write, ‘...now, more often than not, the body of the believers are expected to only carry out policies, rather than help form them.’
To find a solution to any problems I have outlined above is hardly an easy task. But it is an urgent one — most of all because it is little recognised and even less admitted. Clearly fresh Baha’i scholarship in all fields, with considerably greater freedom of expression than is at present permitted, is a priority, as we discussed at Cambridge. But it is not only scholarship, but any fresh thinking, whether scholarly or not, which is being suppressed by those who are convinced that their version of the Baha’i faith is the one and only true version and anything else is heresy. If greater latitude in such matters is not very soon permitted, I fear that the faith will lose at increasing speed its most intelligent, sensitive, and creative believers — and we will be in the hands of civil servants and clergy. The Baha’is must make the decision to allow the faith to develop naturally as a universal religion or to prematurely ossify as an establishment ‘church’. New ideas are needed — and new actions. It is rubbish to say that, in view of our size and poverty we cannot do anything to help the sufferings of mankind. Single individuals, poor, humble, and dedicated, have, before this, become major forces for good among mankind. The Baha’i community could become a great force for the betterment of the world if, instead of planting trees and talking about the wonderful society of centuries hence, we were to take positive action on the principles for which we claim to stand, if we were to become known as a people for whom expediency and compromise were anathema, if we were to fight, in however a small and restricted an arena, against injustice, tyranny, oppression, corruption, exploitation, and other social evils — without ever taking sides. Perhaps we would be persecuted in some places, perhaps a few Baha’is would die, perhaps we would be misunderstood by some people — but the faith has always been richer for that. It has been well said that to sit on the fence is to take sides — is it not time to we came off the fence and showed our true commitment to the cause of good and humanity?
With warmest wishes,