Subject: Re: Majnun post
Date: Thursday, February 11, 1999 5:57 PM
It is typical of the Gilbert and Sullivan sort of silliness of high Baha'i officialdom that this little message should have been seen as some deep dark conspiracy. I think it is actually hilarious the way it was taken and is taken by the glaze-eyed, like Maneck.
I was on Majnun. It was a little email list with seven or eight members, most of them Baha'i academics or intellectuals. It was set up at a time when group email was relatively new, so we could discuss things with one another. It was the kernel of what became later firstname.lastname@example.org and ultimately H-Bahai (the latter now with a membership moving toward 200). Most of our discussions were about things like Arabic philology, which is evident even in the stray message. For what it is worth, I was personally tepid about making majnun into talisman, and warned that it probably wasn't a good idea, given how many narrow- minded people there were with power in the community. At one point one of the members was really upset about the prosecution of David Langness for an email message to email@example.com. David had his administrative rights removed for differing on a minor historical point with the secretary of the NSA. Moreover, it was clear that Birkland was going to try to use the 'covenant' as a pretext to close firstname.lastname@example.org down, and he had already made one feint in that direction. It seemed obvious that the Baha'i administration was at that time unalterably opposed to the existence of an unmoderated email forum not under their control, where views they did not like could be posted.
So this person momentarily lost his head and said he thought someone should organize and that a Manifesto aimed at reform should be published. He also thought that evidence of corruption on the part of some Baha'i officials should be released.
I told this person he was out of his mind. Then the wife of the person who
posted below weighed in that this was a very bad idea.
And then the author of this message responded, accidentally sending the post
to both majnun and talisman.
What did he say?
What did he say?
1. He said that an organization would not be tolerated in the Baha'i community, that this lack of toleration for any Baha'i civil society went back to the time of the Guardian, and that the very attempt would badly damage the Baha'i faith when it backfired, because the intellectuals involved in such an organization would be declared covenant breakers and all intellectuals in the community would be tainted with that brush. I'm not sure why it is bad to say any of these things. Note that other religions permit organizations to exist; look at Roman Catholicism.
2. He pointed out that a manifesto would not work and would in fact simply make things worse. Why is this bad?
3. He opposed any whistle-blowing on corrupt officials, on two grounds. 1) The officials' corruption would sooner or later be its own punishment and 2) any open criticism of such officials would leave the house of justice, which was also unhappy with the situation, no choice but to *defend* them--in other words criticism would have the opposite of the desired effect. NSA.
4. The poster pointed out that it was unwise to take hasty action in response to the Langness case and also unnecessary. Thus far, email@example.com had not been interfered with by the NSA despite the open knowledge that they were *very* unhappy with its very existence and the 'tone' of some postings. This was viewed as a 'win' situation by this person, not only for firstname.lastname@example.org but also for the future of the Baha'i faith. The NSA had made noises about attacking a talisman poster, but we had heard back that they were nervous that Indiana University might take a dim view of their interfering in one of its academic listservs. And, for this poster, the fate of the Baha'i Encyclopedia was still important, and he perceived the NSA to be making a stand that it not be fundamentalized in the way that Farzam Arbab was insisting it be. The poster regrets the language about the NSA eating its horses, which was meant to be a colorful way of saying that one knew they didn't want email@example.com to exist, but seemed to feel they could do nothing about it.
I don't actually see what is objectionable about the posting at all, even in a conservative Baha'i context. It might be shocking to conservative Baha'is for its implication that the poster was not on the best of terms with 'the institutions,' but people *on* the institutions talk like this all the time. A staffer told me about a time an NSA member met with them to discuss a letter from the House that the member didn't like, and slapped on the table, saying "Look what they've done to us *now*!" It is only the naive in the boondocks who don't know about such inter-institutional frictions. It may also be shocking to some that the person to whom the posting replied could even suggest organizing and whistle-blowing; though if that person saw real corruption I should think it natural that anyone barnstorming about how best to improve the Baha'i religion might think about both. In the end, I think the poster who sent out this message was being 'way too naive. In fact, in the Baha'i organization corruption is very seldom punished, because of the horse trading high officials are always doing with one another. Everybody's got something on someone else, and often it is the most morally compromised who are promoted, because their superiors know they can be ruined.
Moreover, of course, the Baha'i institutions did not in fact (and this was already a decision taken by early winter 1996) intend to allow firstname.lastname@example.org to continue as it was. They had for a long time controlled all public discourse in the community and had been ratcheting it to the Right, toward scriptural literalism and cult-like conformity. Talisman was intolerable to them. Finally, no one imagined that they would be willing to be so cynical as to use the threat of charges of *covenant breaker* against professors for their academic email messages! In the end, the worst possible thing happened, the thing this poster was nobly attempting to prevent. Academics were in fact attacked as covenant breakers, even though they hadn't done anything wrong. And the community was in fact to some extent polarized over this issue, with native anti-intellectualism being reinforced. The reputation of the Baha'i faith in many circles suffered because of the attack on the professors. And it was all for naught. H-Bahai has replaced Talisman for the academic stuff, talk.religion.bahai for the general schmoozing. (I, incidentally, was the one who put Fred up to promoting talk.religion.bahai, after my discussions with Usenet officials about the censorship policies on srb). Neither list is controlled by the 'institutions'. So they completely failed in their objectives, and just made the faith look bad in the attempt. At least, the evidence is that they have backed off trying to control discourse in this heavy handed way for the foreseeable future. If I am right about this, it is a wonderful development and augurs very well for the Baha'i faith. I'm sorry about my own faith being destroyed. And I'm sorry that glaze-eyed Inquisitors are continuing the failed Birkland policies of 1996 on talk.religion.bahai, hoping to throw up smokescreens by crying heretic and making the poster the issue rather than allowing substantive conversations. But, well, this is what the Baha'i faith is like for thinking people, so it may as well be public. I hope it can mature and grow.
History, U of Michigan
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