Saturday, 28 February 2009

What have seven Baha'i prisoners, and the oppressed community they serve, achieved for the nation of Iran?

As seven heroic souls in Iran await an impending trial on absurd and dangerous charges, which place their very lives at risk, while excluded from their lawyer, the brave Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, the question recurs: why?  

Why this fear, this virulent hatred of a community so self-evidently committed to peaceful coexistence, sometimes criticised for its absence of partisan political activism, let alone any form of militant stance that might threaten a government, a nation, in the form of hostility, or that staple of government fabrications, espionage?

The nature of the activities of this extraordinary group of people, is explained by the editors of Iran Press Watch as follows:

"After the abduction and disappearance of the nine members of the first National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Iran after the revolution in 1980 and the summary execution of most members of the second such Assembly of Baha’is in 1983, the governing body of the Baha’i community in Iran voluntarily suspended its administrative activities in 1983, and the affairs of the Baha’i community were managed by small groups of three individuals in each locality.

"After a few years, this group of three individuals on the national level became more organized and was named the institution of “The Friends of Iran.” The main responsibility of this institution was managing the affairs of this large religious minority, such as recording marriages, handling divorces, assisting with burials, sending letters of introduction for traveling Baha’is, arranging for worship services, and similar activities. “The Friends of Iran” guided the Baha’i community through many tumultuous years, and provided hope and reassurance through critical times with a unified vision and exemplary resolve.

"The activities of the “Friends” were completely transparent and were devoid of any hidden agenda. Incidentally, during this period, a particular office was designated in the Ministry of Intelligence to follow the activities of the Baha’is. This office would contact the “Friends” directly with any questions about a specific activity. Even Ayatollah Dorri Najafabadi, Iran’s chief prosecutor, has referred to this close monitoring. At the time of the suspension of Baha’i administrative activities in 1983, a letter was sent by the National Assembly of the time to Mousavi Ardabili indicating that in exchange for this suspension, the Baha’i community requested that the government allow its high school Baha’i graduates to enter universities, that the dismissed Baha’i university professors be reinstated, and that the Baha’is fired from the public sector be given permission for employment. The government did not heed or honor any of these requests for minimal civil rights for the Baha’is of Iran."

Many have been the responses to such dismal and absurd charges. The most memorable for me are perhaps those of Mr. Hamid Hamidi and Moojan Momen. The former, non-Baha'i Iranian intellectual, in a truly remarkable, even historic talk, chronicles impartially with remarkable accuracy and passion the history and context of assaults against the human rights of the Baha'i community as fellow citizens in Iran from the days of Reza Shah to the present day. Moojan Momen's own statement specifically exposes the absurdity of each of the charges leveled specifically against those seven precious souls who gambled with their lives in service to their community, and to humankind. The context of egregious human rights violations in Iran, not only against the Baha'is, but against many sectors of the population, is eloquently and movingly expounded by a Baha'i uniquely qualified to do so, former UN War Crimes Prosecutor, Payyam Akhavan, reminding us that the world Baha'i community's struggle for the rights of its cherished brothers and sisters in Iran is part of a wider struggle for justice for all, of whatever faith or none.

Against this backdrop, I was encouraged by a friend whom I deeply respect, to share some excerpts from a paper I wrote in 2001, for an academic journal by the name of the Middle Eastern Studies Association Bulletin, exploring the reasons for the comparative silence of scholars of the Middle East, and of Iran in particular, in relation to all things Baha'i.

As I pondered the suggestion, I reflected that perhaps the discussion that he felt was relevant to what is happening today, was the general exploration of the continuities and discontinuities which the Baha'i Faith represented upon its emergence in the 19th century, and which led to its becoming an "Other" to the people of Iran, to the extent of disappearing from sight, and, if successive governments had had their way, as chronicled by Mr. Hamidi in the link above, dissappearing from existence altogether. In fact, revisiting that paper in the context of today's fearful persecutions, one finds, not gloom, but extraordinary hope.

For if Baha'is were non-existent then relatively speaking, if one were to judge by their utter absence (outside frequent polemics that form part of their oppression)from the written discourse of their fellow countrymen, intellectuals, activists, artists, journalists, inside Iran and abroad, Iranian Baha'is certainly "exist" now in the voices and the minds of their compatriots, as never in this Faith's 165 year history.

It is almost a truism for Baha'is, borne out not only scripturally, but by long experience of repression, yet one that cannot ever lose its pathos, that each wave of persecution, each effort to erase this Faith's existence, is unfailingly accompanied by an unprecedented victory, that only digs its roots the deeper, and establishes its claims before the sight of men. The preceding chapter of extreme and nation-wide oppression, in the 1980's, achieved in fact, globally speaking, the Baha'i Faith's emergence from obscurity, and endowed the Baha'is with an extraordinary capacity for global concerted action, that countless activist organizations admire and respect, as Baha'is across the world for the first time arose as one voice in creative and united ways to seek reddress and protection for their fellow believers, mobilising public opinion from city councils and local press to the European Parliament and the United Nations, and averted genocide.

The most immediate victory that the  present episode of persecution has already achieved in a manner that has astounded observers, foremost among them the Baha'is themselves, is the final integration of the Iranian Baha'is into the broader identity of their nation. For the first time in their history, the Baha'is are not the Other which I observed in my paper, they are, for a rising, mighty wave of non-Baha'i Iranians, the prominent and the obscure alike, elite and ordinary people, from all walks of life, "one of us", fellow citizens, and the silence of the past is not only finally and irretrievably broken, but explicitly repudiated, and for all time. 

Achieving this, such an extraordinary victory over mass prejudice sustained by unremitting propaganda and lies, from earliest childhood to the grave, is not just a victory for the Baha'i community, but for the people of Iran, and facilitating such a leap of consciousness, such a broadening of hearts, of minds, and social consciousness, is an extraordinary service which these seven prisoners have rendered the noble Iranian nation, together with the ranks of fellow believers who even now languish in dark incarceration, mourn loved ones killed for their religious identity, and strive to contribute to the welfare and prosperity of their country while the avenues of education and livelihood are either severely limited, or altogether shut.

Why did so many millions shiver, irrespective of their politics, when President Obama gave his inaugural speech? Because the United States, as a nation, had achieved a thing of wonder, it had placed an "Other" that arrived in bondage and slavery, in the highest place of honour it was in its gift to choose. And in so choosing, beyond honouring President Obama, beyond honouring a given minority or minorities, as a nation, it honoured itself, to such an extent, that many souls beyond its borders felt honoured too, at their own humanity's potential to transcend the universal legacies of hate.

This turning tide began most noticeably, as may be followed in the remarkable website, Iran Press Watch, with Iran's foremost and most prominent human rights advocate, Shirin Ebadi, agreeing to represent the Bahas'is as defense lawyer. More recently, history was made when 267 personalities, not Baha'is, from famous academics to Iran's most well known pop star, from the most famous student dissident, to the former Miss Iran and second runner up to Miss World,in other words thinkers, journalists, cultural and popular icons, who for decades held their peace, now spoke and said: "we are ashamed", of the silence that for so long signalled to their Baha'i compatriots, "you are not Us", while oppression weighed on them. The Iranian Writers' Association has likewise made its own voice heard, as have writers and journalists of Kurdistan. Even the first President of the Islamic Republic of Iran (1980-1981) has spoken in support of Baha'i rights, and, more astonishing still, one of Iran's most caustic attackers in print of the Baha'i Faith, has compellingly been moved to write in defense of a community he spent three decades attacking. Similarly Ayatollah Montazeri, once one of the very highest ranking clerics in Iran, and who in his memoirs recorded proudly his youthful persecution of Baha'is in the 1950's, broke new ground by proclaiming them legal citizens. The record of new voices continues, as political prisoners in a prison in Karaj raised, amidst their own captivity, a “proclamation in support of our Baha’i countrymen”, while 26 Muslim students in a university of Mazindaran protested the expulsion of Baha'i fellow students. The non-Baha'i Iranian journalist Ali Keshtgar captured the spirit of this mighty victory of non-violent example and resilience over the fear and exclusion of centennial prejudice in the title of his piece: "We are all Iranian Baha'is".

To grasp the extent of this trajectory, and its cultural significance for Iran, I return, as requested, to that paper from 2001, with the following excerpts which might be germane to this discussion:

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Baha’i faith could be aptly described as an underground messianic movement. Nevertheless, it was not the first such movement. The tradition of Persianate religious radicalism goes back to the origins of Persianate Islam and has always been linked in significant and often predominant ways to chiliastic fervor. The work of scholars such as Madelung, Hodgson, Dickson, Daftari, Corbin, Nasr, Modarresi, Arjomand, and, more recently, Amanat, Babayan, and Cole, has shed much light into the character of these movements, and permitted the beginnings of an integrated picture to emerge. Babayan in particular has sought to identify, following Hodgson and Madelung, common features that, amidst the bewildering diversity, provide grounds for seeing, in the recurrence of certain outlooks and motifs, a tradition of religious innovation in a Persianate context, rather than a collection of sporadic and more or less isolated incidents and movements. At the center of ghulati movements, suggests Babayan, has been found what she describes as “a sense of immediacy in the desire to experience a utopia on earth.” The ghulat are often “idealists and visionaries who believe that Justice could reign in this world of ours”:

"Reluctant to await another existence, perhaps another form, or eternal life following death and resurrection, individuals (ghulat [exaggerators]) with such temperaments emerged at the advent of Islam expecting to attain the apocalyptic horizon of Truth.…They do not see the universe in linear terms of a beginning and an end, but as successive cycles where the end of one era spontaneously flowed into the beginning of another...there is no Final Apocalypse, no End-Time as is believed by “mainstream” Jews, Christians and Muslims....What distinguishes each cycle is a new prophetic vision, each time unveiling layers of the mystery of the universe. And since the cosmos was understood to be alive, endlessly unravelling new dimensions in a way that ultimate Truth was inexplicable, almost unfathomable, creativity and new imaginings saw no bounds for the ghulat."[Kathryn Babayan, Mystics, Monarchs and Messiahs: Cultural Landscapes of Early Modern Iran]

I have cited rather extensively because in this one paragraph a distinguished scholar seeks to encapsulate the essence of a specific tradition of religious innovation in the Persianate world. I would like to compare the citation to the following messianic proclamation by Bah’u’llah:

"It is evident that every age in which a Manifestation of God hath lived is divinely ordained, and may, in a sense, be characterised as God’s appointed Day. This Day, however, is unique, and is to be distinguished from those that have preceded it. The designation “Seal of the Prophets” fully revealeth its high station. The Eternal Truth is now come. He hath lifted up the Ensign of Power, and is shedding upon the world the unclouded splendour of His Revelation."[Bah’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, (London: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1978), p. 59.]

Clearly, Baha’u’llah’s messianic message strongly resonates with the themes enunciated by Babayan and may be regarded as emerging out of that tradition. This view finds further reinforcement from the fact that Baha’u’llah repudiated finality for his revelation, holding fast to a cyclical yet evolutionary approach to eschatology that envisaged no end to the periodic and progressive (re)appearance of divine Messengers.

Such links with the tradition of ghuluw are of course as much historical as intellectual, the Baha’i vision having evolved in direct engagement with the Shaykhism of Shaykh Ahmad Ahsai and Siyyid Kazim Rashti, various strands of irfani and sufi thought and, above all, the rich and living heritage of Siyyid Ali Muhammad, the Bab. The use Baha’u’llah made of this tradition, however, was fundamentally not imitative but creative, resulting in a radical transformation to which we will return below.

It takes, however, more than a messianic figure to make a messianic movement; the response has to be forthcoming. In the case of Baha’u’llah (and of the Bab before him) the response was considerable not just in numbers, but in spread. Among the sectors from which the leadership of the Baha’i community was drawn in Baha’u’llah’s time, according to Momen, were: major `ulama, such as mujtahids, and imam-jum`ihs; minor `ulama, such as religious students (tullab) and sufi darvishes (rawdih-khans); the nobility, including members of the royal court, Qajar princes, governors, high government officials, and military commanders of rank of sartip and above; major land-owners and factory-owners (sahib-kar); minor government officials, secretaries, couriers, and soldiers; wholesale merchants (tujjar) and financiers (sarraf); retail merchants, usually guilded; skilled urban workers such as guilded craftsmen (asnaf) usually ustad (master craftsman), and traditional service workers (for example, tabíb, doctor); unskilled urban workers; peasant and rural workers; tribal peoples; and eventually modern professionals as well. Not only Iranians of Twelver Shi’i background were represented, but also Zoroastrians, Jews, Ahl-i Haqq, Afshari turkomen, Kurds, and Lurs—and this list is drawn only from within the borders of Iran itself. Baha’i presence in urban settings was only slightly more important than in rural settings.[Moojan Momen, “Iran” l] It is suggested that the swift emergence of a substantial Babi, and subsequently Baha’i, following in Persia constitutes a landmark response to ideological tensions that go back to the beginnings of Persianate Islam, and belongs to, yet also breaks with, the Persianate tradition of religious dissent.

In his seminal interpretive essays on the birth and demise of the late Antique world Browne emphasizes the cultural tensions engendered by the irruption of Arabo-Muslim culture into Sassanid Persia. Islam was the space where these tensions were played out. On the one, it was used as a source of legitimacy and a tool for cultural and political hegemony by the initially Arabized rulers of Persia. On the other hand, Islam served as an instrument for cultural and political appropriation and survival by a distinctive Persianate society. The result was a Persianate religious idiom that remained distinctive, far-reaching, and fragmented. Thus, we see in Persia and its cultural sphere movements and belief systems take root and develop which in the epicenters of the Arab cultural sphere stand out (in the main) as both foreign and alien―examples ranging from orthodox Shi’ism, Twelver and Sevener alike, to much of Sufism and, of course, ghuluw. These religious currents, it is suggested, reflect enduring attempts to appropriate Islam into a Persianate idiom and resolve tensions going back to late Antiquity between a Persianate (gnostic/cyclical) religious heritage, and a Semitic (nomic/linear) worldview inherited from Islam.

From the outset of Persianate Islam, successive political regimes in Persia evolved and jealously guarded Islamic identities that buttressed their power by imposing cultural hegemonies over a volatile cultural mix. In this context, radical religious innovation not only challenged the cultural hegemony of a given Islamic identity, but inescapably undermined the legitimacy of the political order that upheld it. With such weight accruing to ideological conformity in a milieu brimming with cultural tensions, it comes as no surprise that Islamic heresiography should have specially flourished in the Persianate sphere, as groups fought for political power through cultural control. Religious dissent was inevitably political dissent too. Such links between political revolt and religious radicalism are certainly not unique to Persia. What makes Persianate religious dissent distinctive is its persistent attempt to reconcile its Islamic identity with a pre-Islamic heritage that refuses to relax its ideological grip. We thus find, for instance, formulations of the Islamic escathon not only turning to pre-Islamic theological orientations, but even making room for pre-Islamic Iranian legend, as in the case of the radical Sufism of the Safavi period. Or should we say rather that an enduring pre-Islamic Iranian mindset made occasional room for Islamic eschatology?

True to the Persianate tradition of religious innovation, Baha’u’llah’s vision was able to transcend a strictly Islamic worldview through realized eschatology. Only, Baha’u’llah appropriated not merely the pre-Islamic past but, crucially, the non-Islamic present, to predicate a post-Islamic future. In the past, Islamicate religious dissent had been used to challenge other Islamic cultural hegemonies. Persians who embraced Baha’u’llah’s message, and, even more, Persians who embraced the Bab’s message, were responding to similar pressures, seeking to resist cultural encroachments from a new religious-political hegemony fractiously championed by the ‘ulama and, to a lesser degree, the secular rulers of Qajar Persia. The Baha’í teachings, typically, criticized the clerical establishment and formulated an alternative, spiritualized, and disestablished view of its place in society, legitimizing the sovereignty of secular rulers independently of clerical authority.

For the first time, however, equally strong pressures on identity came from a source outside the Islamicate world altogether: the Western world, whose expansion was accompanied by a subtle but insidious assertion of cultural hegemony in the form of Empire, one of the drivers of globalization. The Baha’i teachings gave nineteenth-century Persians who wished to do so a vehicle to resist the cultural (hence social and political) hegemony not only of the ’ulama, but of the intruding Western world. The Baha’i teachings could appropriate the idiom not just of Persianate Islam, but also of the West and use it to resist its cultural hegemony, in the same way as Islam gave the Sassanids a means to appropriate the cultural idiom of the Arabs to resist their attempt at cultural dominance. In other words, the Baha’i teachings opened an avenue for a new, post-Islamic identity that promised to overcome and finally resolve the cultural (and by implication political and social) tensions of the day. They also posed an unmistakable challenge to the existing order. What was seen by some as the fulfillment of Islam, was regarded by others as its open subversion.

What is perhaps most remarkable is that through the far-reaching political and social changes that have taken place since the days of Nasir-i Din Shah, the repression of Iranian Baha’is has remained constant, varying only in intensity, regardless of the prevailing order of the day. Coverage of these persecutions has focused on the Qajar period and the persecutions under the Islamic Republic, but Baha’is also suffered periodic persecutions throughout the whole Pahlavi period, not least being the country-wide campaign orchestrated against them in 1955. Even in quiet periods under the Pahlavis, the Baha’is never achieved rights as basic as having their marriages legally recognized. The consistency of this persecution suggests powerful cultural, social, and political continuities that may easily pass unnoticed by scholars of the ever-changing Iranian socio-political landscape.

The Baha’i Faith as Departure

Having concentrated on historical continuities, we may now elaborate on the discontinuities. For even as there can be little doubt that the worldview and community that crystallized around Baha’u’llah has inextricable connections with the rich currents of tradition, there can likewise be little doubt that in Baha’u’llah’s hands, the traces of tradition were embedded in something altogether new, something Other, something amounting, both in intent and consequence, to a new religion. The theological transition from Islam has recently been mapped by Buck. The author describes Baha’u’llah’s doctrinal teachings as “an ideological bridge to a new worldview.”[Chris Buck, Symbol and Secret (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1995), chapter 5] This new worldview implied sociological innovations too. Traditionally, the energies released by large-scale Islamicate responses to a messianic claim have sought outlet in military enterprises. Such indeed was the case with Babism. The idea of the conquering Mahdi or Qaim pervaded prophetic expectations, and the conquest was expected to occur by military and supernatural means. This Islamic ideal of messianic conquest, like so much else in the Islamic heritage, was not rejected by Baha’u’llah, but it was recast in spiritualized form, community building, and moral regeneration taking the place of physical combat as the proper instruments of victory. Baha’u’llah would eventually conquer the world, but would do so by spiritual means, through the attraction of hearts, and the battle would be waged by Baha’is through a consecrated dedication to community building and the cultivation of moral rectitude. Not surprisingly, a doctrinal outlook that appropriated the prophetic expectations of all religions yet upheld the relativity of truth led to early experiments in multiculturalism. On the one hand were the imperatives from Baha’u’llah to consort with the followers of all religions; on the other was the conversion of non-Muslim minorities, which initiated a slow and gradual process of cultural rapprochement between converts from these various backgrounds, as has been broadly examined by Stiles-Maneck.[“The Conversion of Religious Minorities,” Journal of Baha’i Studies 3. 3 (1991)]

At this juncture it would be worth asking what contemporary Persians themselves regarded as innovative about Baha’u’llah’s teachings. One testimony comes from a Baha’i convert from the later period of Baha’u’llah’s ministry, a former cleric, writing in 1911 when the Baha’i community had been securely established in the East and had begun to penetrate into the West. The features he highlights as the most significant innovations of Baha’u’llah include: abstaining from crediting verbal traditions; prohibiting individual claims to authoritative interpretation; abrogating conflict and controversy on the basis of differences of opinion; the prohibition of slavery; the obligation to engage in allowable professions as a means of support, and obedience to this law being accepted as an act of worship; the compulsory education of children of both sexes; the command prohibiting cursing and execration and making it obligatory upon all to abstain from uttering that which may offend men; the prohibition on the carrying of arms except in time of necessity; the creation of the House of Justice and institution of national parliaments and constitutional governments; the exhortation to observe sanitary measures and cleanliness, and to shun utterly all that tends to filth and uncleanness; and the provisions of inheritance laws designed, in his view, to prevent the creation of monopolies.[Mirza Abu’l-Fadl Gulpaygani, Letters and Essays, 1886-1913, trans. Juan R. I. Cole (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1992)]

The concerns highlighted in this testimony are not unique, or even rare, although the specific responses are distinctly Baha’i. They reflect issues exercising the minds of many contemporary Persians, regardless of their faith. Iranian Baha’is, like the Baha’i teachings, were distinctive, but far from incomprehensible to fellow Iranians.

...As an outsider to the field, I would have anticipated that at a time when the study of ‘minorities’ is in vogue, the largest religious minority in Iran today would have generated more interest. The absence of even one solid academic monograph on the Baha’i faith in Iran is positively intriguing. This absence is in stark contrast to the volume of work devoted to Persian Jewry, for example, which has, I suspect, received notice outside of Jewish circles.

Similarly, the prominence which the recent persecutions of Baha’is in Iran has had in the Western world has hardly sparked discussion about the roots or cultural significance of persecution, or even the socio-cultural impact of 150 years of continuous repression against a substantial segment of the Iranian population. The place of the Baha’i persecutions in Irano-Western political discourse has hardly been noted, even when major NGOs, numerous national parliaments, the General Assembly of the United Nations, and major heads of state such as former President Clinton have issued condemnations and resolutions and even sent commissions to Iran to investigate human rights abuses against Baha’is.[45] Such contemporary prominence of the Baha’i faith in Irano-Western relations appears to be deeply uninteresting to scholars, to judge from the attention it has received. Even more intriguing is to find that Baha’i historical documents have not been mined in areas such as the social and political history of Qajar Iran, even though they are often extremely rich in detail and broad in geographical spread.[46]

Figures in the history of Babi and Baha’i who attracted the attention of Browne’s generation, such as Qurratu’l-Ayn, scholar-poetess-prophetess, or Abdu’l-Baha, who pioneered the successful translation of a Persianate religious idiom into a Western milieu, have recently received little attention, notable exceptions merely proving the rule. Qurratu’l-Ayn’s ritual unveiling appears to be a particular omission, given the emergence of feminist scholarship on Iran.[47] The transplantation into over 2100 ethnic groups of a Persianate nineteenth-century religious innovation, touching as it does on processes of globalization, modernity, tradition, nationalism, and more, also has passed virtually unnoticed in the literature, perhaps as something that has nothing to do with the Persianate and Middle Eastern milieu that witnessed its genesis.

Finally in this review of, to me, puzzling silences, is the place of the Baha’i community in the drive towards modernization that ran through Iran in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Baha’i community of Iran at the turn of the century was closely linked to agricultural reform and elementary education at the village level. Modernization extended to educational formats and content as well, as Iranian Baha’is established schools for boys and, significantly, for girls, in partnership with American Baha’is, enjoying, until they were banned, a substantial intake of students from outside the Baha’i community. No serious attention has been given to these schools, nor to Baha’i medical clinics and hospitals or to the role of Baha’is in the introduction to Iran of Western pharmaceutical knowledge. The eradication of illiteracy among all Iranian Baha’i women under the age of forty in the 1960s and 1970s likewise does not appear in the history of Persian women.

In most disciplines, a social movement that sweeps across a country, touches virtually every demographic segment of a population, and has a 150-year history would have a solid body of literature behind it. Is my puzzlement legitimate, or is it merely due to my lack of experience in the field? One possibility is that silence breeds silence, insofar as it might be thought that if leading scholars have not written about a subject for almost a century, there is probably good reason. The question is, what is that reason? Regardless, it is likely that silence does reinforce and perpetuate silence in its own right... 

There is one other possibility for the neglect of Baha’i studies. Could it be that in the orthodoxy of Iranian and Islamicate studies, like in the orthodoxy of Iranian religion, a stigma attaches to all things Baha’i? Could it be that beyond academic considerations a certain amount of prejudice is at work? Allow me to explore this question. It appears that, given the prominent presence of the Baha’i faith in Iran historically, the wealth of material available, and the precedent of serious academic study of its history and doctrines by the foremost Iranologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the more recent silence on the Baha’i faith and the complete indifference even to Baha’i historical sources mark a definite boundary which designates it as Other. Other, that is, from the perspective of a disciplinary paradigm from which it is largely excluded.

This exclusion is significant. The nineteenth-century Persians who converted to the Baha’i faith evidently felt that the boundary between the Islamicate world to which they truly belonged―they could belong to no other―and the Baha’i faith was bridgable. Members of this faith were nineteenth-century Persians, representing a microcosm of Persian society, steeped in its culture, its traditions, its values. They were both Baha’is—they belonged to a distinctive community, with traits that differentiated them from all other Persian communities—and they were Persians—they shared with their compatriots a common education, common material circumstances and pressures, and a great deal more. Yet, in current Islamicist scholarship they are not integrated into the spiritual, social, religious, or political landscape of the nineteenth-century Middle East in the way that the Zoroastrians, Jews, merchants, or ’ulama might be. Nor are they even explicitly excluded. Instead, they are negated.

Let us discard conspiracy theories. I do not believe that many academics in this field would consciously choose to exclude a range of potentially relevant sources merely because they were tagged Baha’i. Rather, the Baha’i faith occupies a disciplinary blind-spot in the perspective of scholars of the Middle East, so that when we look at the Persianate world we do not see the Baha’i faith, when we search for sources we do not notice Baha’i sources, and when they come into our field of vision we push them aside so we can see more clearly what we are examining. It is as if the disciplinary paradigm of contemporary Persianists is predicated on an ‘imagined’ nation, to allude to Anderson, which, emulating the imagined nation of many Iranians throughout the century and across all political divides, cannot explain or even accommodate the existence of the Baha’i faith in Iran. In other words, it may be that an element of cultural bias has filtered into the discipline of Islamics, in a sort of inverted Orientalism, in which the Iranian Baha’i community is exiled from the Iranian cultural experience.

If this is so, then we might be missing an entire dimension of the Islamicate, and particularly the nineteenth-century Persian landscape. In the throes of modernization and the first deep encounters with globalization, we contend that the Baha’i faith opened up possibilities of identity to which nineteenth-century Persians could relate even if they could not always accept the faith. To integrate the Baha’i faith into the nineteenth-century mentality might well change many of our understandings of the multilayered processes of identity formation, affirmation, and development in nineteenth-century Persia. The same might apply to present-day Iran. Who is Baha’u’llah? Who are the Baha’is? What did these questions mean in nineteenth-century Persia? What do they mean in Iran today? Is it not likely that by completely ignoring their existence, we may have a distorted picture of nineteenth-century Persian society? By ignoring their presence in Iran today, their situation, and their place in contemporary Iranian religious and political culture (and international relations), do we not distort our understanding of contemporary Iran?

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Monday, 9 February 2009

Uber-"teaching" in the congregation, or changing the world? My community is bigger than yours, or birthing the new community?

In the wake of 41 Baha'i Regional Conferences, gathering tens of thousands of Baha'is from every corner of the world to reflect on the present moment and stimulate the multiplication of "intensive growth programmes", the wider question, (whatever for?), rings on my mind. Are we yet another congregation, buzzing ourselves up to proselytise more keenly, or is there something distinctive about the enterprise of growing the Baha'i community? Is this an inward-looking, bums on seats (we have no pews), my congregation is bigger than yours mindset we are cultivating? Or has this vision of growth anything deeper to offer to a world fast slipping from our fingers? We want, like most religious groups, to grow our community. Does our concept of community change the nature of the enterprise?

The New Paradigm for Bahá'í Community Building

In sociological terms, the Bahá'í community falls into what Scherer described as a synthetic community: “an attempt to build and develop a community consciously and deliberately.” Unlike communities into which we are born, or communities with an established history into which we merely enter, synthetic communities involve a conscious effort at community building. The Baha’is are engaged in just such a venture, on an epic scale, for the very raison d’etre of the Bahá'í community is precisely to engender, in Jaqueline Scherer’s definition, "a ‘core of commonness’ or commonality that includes a collective perspective, agreed upon definitions, and some agreement about values... [A] context for personal integration” of truly global scope.

We are, however, yet to identify what Baha’is specifically mean by community, what it is that should be the end product of the sacrifices of 160 years of community building effort. First, what it is not.

"To mistakenly identify Baha'i community life with the mode of religious activity that characterizes the general society--in which the believer is a member of a congregation, leadership comes from an individual or individuals presumed to be qualified for the purpose, and personal participation is fitted into a schedule dominated by concerns of a very different nature--can only have the effect of marginalizing the Faith and robbing the community of the spiritual vitality available to it." Universal House of Justice, 22 August 2002.

What, then, in light of the Baha’i experience so far, and under the impact of a Revelation that aims to altogether transform the current conceptions of humanity, is the Bahá'í meaning of community?

The answer is perhaps most clearly and most directly articulated by the Universal House of Justice in their message to the Bahá'í world for the festival of Ridvan, April 21, 1996:

“A community is …a comprehensive unit of civilization composed of individuals, families and institutions that are originators and encouragers of systems, agencies and organizations working together with a common purpose for the welfare of people both within and beyond its own borders; it is a composition of diverse, interacting participants that are achieving unity in an unremitting quest for spiritual and social progress.”

This definition is both descriptive, and prescriptive. It describes a “comprehensive unit of civilisation”, emerging from the interaction of three key constituents (individuals, families and institutions) originating and encouraging “systems, agencies and organisations”. The majority of local Bahá'í communities, and many national Bahá'í communities are really, from this description, at most embryonic entities, with very crude systems, agencies and organisations in place, a limited number of individuals and families, and few institutions to speak of beyond a Local Spiritual Assembly and the Nineteen Day Feast.

Nevertheless, the fourth and particularly the fifth epochs of the Cause (1986-present) are witnessing a sea-change in this area, as local communities generate a broad infrastructure of “systems, agencies and organisations” arising singly and collaboratively from the individuals, families and institutions in the area. I refer of course to the development of study-circles, mostly focused around individuals; children and junior youth classes, mostly revolving around families (Bahá'í and others); devotional meetings which, with socio-economic development activities, are the seeds of future local Mashriq’u’l-Adhkars; the ever evolving training institute in each country; and where these elements are in place, socio-economic development projects (increasingly a spontaneous, organic feature of Baha'i community clusters in process of intensive growth), as outlined in the letter written by the Universal House of Justice to the Counsellors of January 9, 2001.

If the second and third epochs of the Cause were about building institutions, then the fourth and fifth epochs have been and are about building communities.

But in saying that the call of the day requires building a global network of local “Bahá'í” communities, the word Bahá'í makes the usage of community distinctive. For the definition gifted to us by the Universal House of Justice is not merely descriptive, but also prescriptive. It consists, yes, of a unit made up of individuals, families and institutions originating and encouraging systems, agencies and organisations (nothing uniquely Bahá'í about that). But for this community to be worthy of the Most Great Name, it must, further, be “working together with a common purpose for the welfare of people both within and beyond its own borders”.

So the communities Baha’is are now building are not simply communities, but altruistic communities.

Moreover, they are not inward looking, concentrating on the welfare of people within their borders, but also "beyond" their borders. This illuminates the focus of the current Plans on home-front pioneering, area clusters, and intensive growth programmes. Clearly, again, the aim is not merely to generate an increased flow of individual enrolments or fill-up vacant LSA spaces, but also and above all, to instil into the emerging communities of the fifth epoch a sense of interdependence, whereby a given community will work organically and inherently for the welfare its own locality, and of localities “beyond its own borders”. To the well known Bahá'í notion of the “locality” we now therefore add the compass of a “cluster” of localities to which one also belongs and with whom one systematically interacts and builds community.

The borders the new Bahá'í communities are expected to cross are, furthermore, not merely geographical, but also, and most challengingly, of identity. It is crucial, again, to notice this outward-looking emphasis in the systems, agencies, and organisations Baha’is are called to build in this new Epoch.

“It is evident, then, that a systematic approach to training has created a way for Bahá'ís to reach out to the surrounding society, share Bahá'u'lláh's message with friends, family, neighbours and co-workers, and expose them to the richness of His teachings. This outward-looking orientation is one of the finest fruits of the grassroots learning taking place." (The Universal House of Justice, January 17, 2003, Progress of Five Year Plan -- Learning in Action, p. 1)

"The culture now emerging is one in which groups of Baha'u'llah's followers explore together the truths in His Teachings, freely open their study circles, devotional gatherings and children's classes to their friends and neighbours, and invest their efforts confidently in plans of action designed at the level of the cluster, that makes growth a manageable goal. " The Universal House of Justice, August 22, 2002

The key building labour of the Baha’i community in the 20th century (perhaps counter-intuitively known to Baha'is as the Century of Light), the 19 Day Feasts, Local Spiritual Assemblies, and Bahá'í funds through which the Ark of God has been erected on Mount Carmel, were designed exclusively for Baha’is. The new key agencies, institutions and organisations Baha’is are building are, explicitly, not for Baha’is only.

Thus we are told that the purpose of Baha’i children’s classes is not the education of Bahá'í children, but the Bahá'í education of children. Animators of Junior Youth groups are even warned explicitly not to view their youth groups, or the outreach carried out to establish them, as direct instruments of expansion, but as a Baha'i oriented service to the community, whose primary intention, providing guidance and friendship to young people in a given neighbourhood, at the critical age where they establish their moral framework, should never be lost sight of in the desire for numerical growth. Study circles are meant to include both Baha’is and their friends in their number. Devotional meetings are not to be designed for or focused exclusively on Baha’is, anymore than the services at the great Bahá'í Houses of Worship are. Like them, they are meant to be gifts of the Baha’is to the world at large, and an integral part of a vision of community that inherently incorporates the Other:

“O ye lovers of this wronged one!” exclaims ‘Abdu’l-Baha, “Cleanse ye your eyes, so that ye behold no man as different from yourselves. See ye no strangers; rather see all men as friends, for love and unity come hard when ye fix your gaze on otherness.”

“In every dispensation," he writes elsewhere, "there hath been the commandment of fellowship and love, but it was a commandment limited to the community of those in mutual agreement, not to the dissident foe. In this wondrous age, however, praised be God, the commandments of God are not delimited, not restricted to any one group of people, rather have all the friends been commanded to show forth fellowship and love, consideration and generosity and loving-kindness to every community on earth.”

As a personal orientation, this is an outlook that Baha’is have been cultivating since Bahá'u'lláh first attracted a company of god-intoxicated lovers (ashiqan) to the Abode of Peace, near the banks of the Tigris. We find this perspective in a letter written in 1867 by the Bahá'í community of Baghdad to the United States Congress petitioning support against the oppression of the Persian and Ottoman empires, at a time when religious segregation remained a fact upheld, institutionalised and sustained by religious belief. The letter was delivered to the Secretary of State William H Seward, immersed in dreams of grandeur that drove him to finally purchase Alaska in the course of that same year, even as the Union struggled to rebuild the country after the carnage of the Secession. It is not known whether that former cabinet colleague of Lincoln and master of political intrigue read the exotic letter, telling of

“…a perfect, wise and virtuous Man” Who “appeared in Persia, he had knowledge of all religions, laws and knew the history of wise men, kings and the rules of nations; he saw that the people oppose, hate and kill, abstain and [are] afraid to mix with each other. Nay, they consider each other unclean, though they are all human beings, having different and numerous religions, and that the people are like unto sheep without a shepherd - That learned and wise man wrote many works containing the rules of union, harmony and love between human beings, and the way of abandoning the differences, untruthfulness, and vexations between them, that people may unite and agree on one way and to walk straightforwardly in the straight and expedient way, and that no one should avert or religiously abstain from intercourse with another, of Jews, Christians, Mohammadans and others. That wise man revealed himself till he appeared like the high sun in midday”

The embrace of the other is thus a long-standing Baha’í virtue in a general sense. The systematic and deep engagement of local Bahá'í communities with the world outside their borders of place and of identity, is, however, relatively new to a Bahá'í world that has spent the greater part of the last century concentrating on the accumulation of “individuals, families and institutions” within the banner of the Cause, andºerecting and maintaining at great personal cost a basic infrastructure of thinly resourced administrative bodies: not having the luxury of looking very much outside.

This sacrificial labour, however, was the essential prerequisite for building the “systems, agencies and organisations” which will enable what we have always called “local Bahá'í communities” to truly become, and for the first time, “comprehensive units of civilization”. This profound shift, described by the Universal House of Justice as “a new paradigm of opportunity” has required from us, and continues to call for, what the Universal House of Justice” has referred to as “a new mindset” and “a change of culture.”

As this outward looking, inclusive focus deepens, the boundaries of Baha'i identity soften, and what Baha'is call the "community of interest", become allies in this building of a new civilization amidst the current, evidently tottering one (see Chris Martenson's prescient analysis for a good sense of things to come. I hope to blog on this later!). It is thus not only Baha'is who are empowered by the new culture of Baha'i community life to fashion the "systems, agencies and organizations" of a new civilization:

"The nature of the core activities of the current Plan—children’s classes, devotional meetings and study circles—permits growing numbers of persons who do not yet regard themselves as Bahá’ís to feel free to participate in the process. The result has been to bring into existence what has been aptly termed a “community of interest”. As others benefit from participation and come to identify with the goals the Cause is pursuing, experience shows that they, too, are inclined to commit themselves fully to Bahá’u’lláh as active agents of His purpose. Apart from its associated objectives, therefore, wholehearted prosecution of the Plan has the potentiality of amplifying enormously the Bahá’í community’s contribution to public discourse on what has become the most demanding issue facing humankind.

"If Bahá’ís are to fulfil Bahá’u’lláh’s mandate, however, it is obviously vital that they come to appreciate that the parallel efforts of promoting the betterment of society and of teaching the Bahá’í Faith are not activities competing for attention. Rather, are they reciprocal features of one coherent global programme. Differences of approach are determined chiefly by the differing needs and differing stages of inquiry that the friends encounter. Because free will is an inherent endowment of the soul, each person who is drawn to explore Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings will need to find his own place in the never-ending continuum of spiritual search. He will need to determine, in the privacy of his own conscience and without pressure, the spiritual responsibility this discovery entails. In order to exercise this autonomy intelligently, however, he must gain both a perspective on the processes of change in which he, like the rest of the earth’s population, is caught up and a clear understanding of the implications for his own life. The obligation of the Bahá’í community is to do everything in its power to assist all stages of humanity’s universal movement towards reunion with God."

This, it seems to me, is the key context in which to view the spirit behind the goal of growth of the Baha'i community, and the overarching logic in the evolution of each Baha'i "cluster" toward the capacity to launch and sustain "intensive programmes of growth": "to assist all stages of humanity’s universal movement towards reunion with God", not in sole collaboration with fellow believers who accept without reservation every claim of Baha'u'llah, but also in full interelationship with those not prepared to take that leap, who yet grasp the power of the global vision animating our efforts, the authenticity of its spirit, and the beneficence of our intentions.

Nor is enrolment the goal, but rather a stage that may coincide with enrolment in the Baha'i community, but is more likely to take the rest of our lives and possibly our existence: "reunion with God". Between interest, attraction, commitment, servitude, consecration, sanctification, and complete evanescence before the Will of God, dying to ourselves and living in Him, is a journey that cannot be reckoned in words, or group identities. We are not a community of the elect, but of the determined improvers, so to speak, where, wherever we were yesterday, we seek again each day to "find" our "own place" in the "never-ending continuum of spiritual search". Together.

And as we come to this spiritual core of our visionary, divinely aided, if broken winged efforts, we recall that this is not some recent fad, or corporate rebranding, but of the essence of our genesis, a genesis to which we must return to grasp the heights that yet await us, in the claim which the example of those gone before us insistently makes upon us, legatees of a heroic history.

Indeed, in remarking on the distinctive aspects of this stage in the evolution of the Baha'i community, it is also important to recognise that, as a fundamental process, the labour of community building is not a new endeavour for us. On the contrary, it is a quintessential part of being a Bahá'í since the earliest origins of the Bahá'í community in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Dawnbreakers, first believers and heroes of the Baha’i Revelation, after all, embodied the spiritual process indicated by the Universal House of Justice in their above-cited description of Bahá'í community as “a composition of diverse, interacting participants that are achieving unity in an unremitting quest for spiritual and social progress.”

“"Most of those who surrounded Baha'u'llah," wrote Nabil "…exercised such care in sanctifying and purifying their souls, that they would suffer no word to cross their lips that might not conform to the will of God, nor would they take a single step that might be contrary to His good-pleasure." "

…The joyous feasts", comments Shoghi Effendi", "which these companions, despite their extremely modest earnings, continually offered in honor of their Beloved; the gatherings, lasting far into the night, in which they loudly celebrated, with prayers, poetry and song, the praises of the Bab, of Quddus and of Baha'u'llah; the fasts they observed; the vigils they kept; the dreams and visions which fired their souls, and which they recounted to each other with feelings of unbounded enthusiasm; the eagerness with which those who served Baha'u'llah performed His errands, waited upon His needs, and carried heavy skins of water for His ablutions and other domestic purposes …these, and many others, will forever remain associated with the history of that immortal period”

Such stories are not merely inspiring, they are crucial to what it means to build a Bahá'í community today, and provide an indispensable lens through which to understand the efforts of the last century. For Shoghi Effendi linked the “efficacy” of the “instruments” Baha’is fashion, the institutions, systems, agencies and organisations of the Baha’i community, to the spirit of those breakers of the dawn, writing:

“For upon our present-day efforts, and above all upon the extent to which we strive to remodel our lives after the pattern of sublime heroism associated with those gone before us, must depend the efficacy of the instruments we now fashion -- instruments that must erect the structure of that blissful Commonwealth which must signalize the Golden Age of our Faith.” (Shoghi Effendi, Dispensation of Baha'u'llah)

The Bahá'í vision of community thus harmoniously integrates the structural approach of sociologists of community; the personal and interpersonal approach of psychiatrists; and the visionary approach of artists, idealists and revolutionaries, embedding all three perspectives on community in the transformative context of the Day of God and the oneness of humanity.

The potential significance of the labours of the present-day Baha’i community is therefore breathtaking. Baha’is are not merely building local Bahá'í communities in clusters and localities, but they are building the basic units of a civilisation which Shoghi Effendi declares will constitute the “fairest fruit” of the revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, and signalise the advent of the promised “golden age”.

One’s degree of awareness about the nature and significance of such task, allows one to work towards this vision not merely consciously but, crucially, in a systematic manner. The pattern of such evolution is not dictated by accidents of geography or language, but by an understanding of organic growth, a focus on process, and vast stores of inspiration and guidance.

The achievement of a world-wide Bahá'í community made up of diverse individuals and families and a global infrastructure of local administrative institutions, has enabled the Baha’i community, in this second half of the second Bahá'í century, to turn its attention at long last from the building up the Administrative Order, to the birthing Bahá'u'lláh’s New World Order. Of this opportunity previous generations have been deprived, as Shoghi Effendi himself testifies:

“The second century is destined to witness a tremendous deployment and a notable consolidation of the forces working towards the world-wide development of that Order, as well as the first stirrings of that World Order, of which the present Administrative System is at once the precursor, the nucleus and pattern---an Order which, as it slowly crystallizes and radiates its benign influence over the entire planet, will proclaim at once the coming of age of the whole human race, as well as the maturity of the Faith itself, the progenitor of that Order.” (Shoghi Effendi, Messages to America 1932-46, pp. 96-7; letter 15-JUN-46, "God Given mandate")

It is now, in this second half of the second Bahá'í century, that the work of the Baha’is entails, as unveiled by Shoghi Effendi, the ushering in, on a global scale, of the first stirrings of Bahá'u'lláh’s new World Order. The last one hundred years saw the raising up of a wide-ranging network of basic administrative and spiritual instruments of community building. The task that faces Baha’is today is the building a wide-ranging network of comprehensive units of civilisation that, patterned on sublime heroism and working to a common purpose, promote the welfare of those within and outside their borders, achieving unity in a collective pursuit of spiritualisation and social progress. This, it seems to my obfuscated eyes, is the essence of growth, and the distinctive nature of our task.

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