Reply of Juan Cole to Peter Khan Talk in New Zealand of June, 2000.
I have been listening to Peter Khan speak since the early 1970s, when he was
teaching electrical engineering at the University of Michigan and I was an undergraduate at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Khan’s family was originally from Pakistan, where they had been Punjabi Sunni Muslims, but they emigrated to Australia and converted there to the Baha'i faith. Khan was brought up as a moderate fundamentalist, suspicious of liberal arts scholarship but nevertheless committed to education and to the sorts of science (e.g. engineering) that would not disturb his scriptural literalism. Those who knew him in Australia remember him as a fierce anti-communist cold warrior, a man of the political Right.
I remember him from thirty years ago as among the more level-headed Baha’i speakers then on the circuit. He often attacked popular Baha’i folk beliefs such as the idea that each soul had another soul predestined for it in marriage, which he said he could find no authenticated text from `Abdu’l-Baha about. I met him at a conference on human rights sponsored by the State Department in the mid-1980s, where I was part of the Baha’i delegation. He was then a counselor at the International Teaching Center, and on the cusp of being elected to the Universal House of Justice. By that time he seemed colder, more haughty, less level-headed than the man I had heard speak a decade and a half earlier. After his election, I attempted to correspond with him, and especially pressed on him the urgent need to abolish “Literature Review,” the system of prepublication censorship imposed on all Baha’is by his institution. He wrote genial but unresponsive replies, and the correspondence lapsed.
Then when the firstname.lastname@example.org email discussion group was founded in the mid-1990s, Khan came to the U.S. in 1995 and gave a number of talks. I heard him in Ann Arbor in September of 1995. Khan has perfected a personal style of address that allows him to telegraph to other fundamentalists in the community that he is one of them, while not appearing to attack the liberals. This stealth fundamentalism, which resembles American President George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” is an attempt to muddy the waters, to promote a far rightwing agenda while not enraging the majority of persons who would oppose it if they understood what was being advocated. I remember in Ann Arbor how he criticized the U.S. retail chain Walmart for refusing to carry a t-shirt emblazoned with a plea for a woman to be elected president of the U.S. Baha’is, he said, would support a woman for president. This tack appears to have been his way of papering over the fact that the Universal House of Justice on which he serves is all-male, and, as a Pakistani-Australian brought up in a highly patriarchal family, that he is among those most dedicated to keeping it that way. At one point Khan spoke of the fall of communism, and he almost spat the word “communist.” His nose flared, his eyes blazed. Then he spoke of the likely criticisms “Western liberals” would make of Baha’u’llah’s Most Holy Book. And, he almost spat the word “liberals.” His nose flared, his eyes blazed. If you hate both communists and liberals, I’m not sure who is left to admire but fascists.
The talk he gave in Wilmette in September of 1995 was much more hardline. He appears in some large part to have intended it as an attack on the talisman discussion group, without coming out and saying so. This was certainly the way the talk was perceived by members of the U.S. National Spiritual Assembly. Friends of mine with contacts in Wilmette said it was seen as a “green light” to try to crack down on the free discussions on talisman and to attack its more prominent posters. It was in the wake of Khan’s visit that David Langness began being threatened with removal of his administrative rights, apparently for disagreeing with Bob Henderson about what had happened during the NSA’s crackdown on dialogue magazine.
Gradually it has become apparent that Khan has for some time been a secret hardline fundamentalist, and that he has used his influence in the counselor corps and now on the Universal House of Justice to push the Baha'i faith in a strongly fundamentalist direction. He appears to think that it should adopt all the same main positions as the literalist Sunni Islam that is his family’s background. The problem of undeepened Baha’is from Muslim societies trying to import into the Faith of Baha’u’llah the literalism and rigidity of their upbringing is a huge challenge, especially given how centralized the institutions of the faith are and how just a handful of fundamentalist Baha’is can push the whole organization in an unsavory direction completely at odds with Baha’u’llah’s writings. Indeed, Khan has begun saying that Baha’u’llah’s principles are not very important, that what is significant about the faith is its administration. This is a sort of administration-worship, adminolatry. He talks about loving committees! It is a frightening heresy, to put aside Baha’u’llah’s teachings for the sake of the prerogatives of counselors (never mentioned by Baha’u’llah!) and UHJ members.
In this talk of June, 2000, Khan delivered some fluff about five “developments” during the completion of the “Four Year Plan.” These Communist-style “plans” have been a feature of our religion for decades now, and it is time they were done away with. In actual fact, between 1987 and 1997 the Baha'i faith was completely stagnant around the world with regard to numerical growth. In that decade about 400,000 new Baha’is came in around the world (only 40,000 a year globally!) and these converts were offset by withdrawals and deaths. There is no reason to think that this stagnation ceased in 1997. In the U.S., as well, there hasn’t been real growth for a long time. The plans have accomplished nothing recently except to make the Faith more regimented and cult-like, and if anything they are probably driving away potential converts.
So, Khan droned on about his five points. First, the faith has spread around the world. But this is not new with the Khan Administration. The Faith had spread to many parts of the world already in the 19th century. There have not been any really significant numbers of conversions anyplace in the world for a decade and a half (the rumors about Albania were vastly exaggerated). So, this is just to make people feel good. We have coreligionists in Mozambique. (How many? 50? 100?). My question would be, what are we doing for them? Or for Mozambique in general? My guess is, almost nothing. And, this talk of a “rise” in the “receptivity to the Faith” and the US telephone campaign is just cheerleading. There is no practical evidence of such a “rise.” If anything, the hardline persecutorial actions of Khan and his cronies toward Baha’i intellectuals and moderates in the past decade have alerted thinking people in the West to some very serious human rights abuses within the Baha’i religion, as can be seen on discussion groups on the internet.
Then he talked about the “completion” of the “Mount Carmel projects.” Well, no doubt this was a big accomplishment for a small religious community (there are probably only really about 1.5 or 2 million of us, folks). That is, to be able to spend some $300 million over 15 years on major building projects is remarkable. Of course, a lot of the money came from Gulf Baha’i billionaires. But there was lots of individual sacrifice, too. I can’t, however, for the life of me understand what this “accomplishment” has to do with the Baha’i principles. How have we helped humankind by building these terraces? How is anyone’s life better? What have we done in the meantime for the poor, the homeless, the persecuted? The national budget of the US community in the 1990s was only about $20 million a year on the average. The Universal House of Justice took an average of $6 million a year from that. It impoverished the US community. It funneled enormous amounts of money to these projects. Local communities were left strapped. And, when one local community expressed its aspiration to build a local Mashriqu’l-Adhkar (house of worship), the UHJ sent agents out to bully these devoted Baha’is and make it clear to them that such a step (which would after all interfere with building terraces in Haifa) was out of the question and they should shut up and sit down, Or Else. Yet `Abdu’l-Baha commanded the building of local houses of worship, which he said was an urgent goal. And, the problem is that the “projects” are hardly completed. These Baha’i officials in Haifa have thought up loads of building projects. They want to go on spending $20-$30 million a year of our money on these white elephants for the next few centuries. In the meantime, local communities have to sit on the floor of someone’s apartment during Feast and the Faith spends almost none of its own money on charity or development. We don’t help anyone. We build large buildings and do landscaping. This was the purpose of Baha’u’llah’s suffering 40 years in exile??
Khan then talks about the Faith “triumphing” in Iran over “severe persecution.” I am
unable, as one who follows these matters rather closely, to see any improvement whatsoever in the past four or five years in the situation of the Iranian Baha’is. Moreover, any change that has occurred has not been because of anything Peter Khan did! Frankly, I don’t know what he is on about. There is enormous work to be done in emancipating them, and his glib suggestion that the kind of persecution they face every day is just fine now, and we don’t have to worry about them any more is just incomprehensible.
In fact, the last time the Iranian government tried to pull a mass arrest, I started a massive internet petition drive on their behalf among university people. This was enormously successful and spawned hundreds of spin-off petitions. It was only adopted by the “Institutions” after some waffling and hemming and hawing. And now, of course, people like Khan have written those grassroots petition drives out of the story altogether. Everything has to be about him.
He says: “The Universal House of Justice is divinely guided, it is not omniscient.” It actually hasn’t lately been acting like it is either one. Indeed, I find the idea that any divine guidance comes anywhere near people like Doug Martin and Peter Khan absolutely impossible to swallow. My grandmother was more saintly than either of them.
His fourth point is that he and his colleagues have “succeeded in accomplishing major change of tone and emphasis in the Baha’i community.” This is more Orwellian double-speak from a true master of the genre. What he really means is that he and his cronies have been trying very hard to push the Baha’i community in an ever more fundamentalist and even cult-like direction. They want a community that goose-steps and shouts “Heil!” to everything Khan and his associates ordain. Their emphasis on “training institutes” refers to cult-like mind-control sessions that use constant rote and repetition to dull the minds and indoctrinate them into unthinking submission. Thinking people who have suffered through these religious equivalents of Amway sessions complain bitterly about how mind-numbing and senseless they are. They give no opportunity for serious, open consultation. If 100,000 Baha’is were put through this hell over the past 4 years, no wonder the number of the glaze-eyed among them seems to have increased. These sessions have nothing to do with real “knowledge of the Faith.” In fact, many of the serious scholars of the Faith have by now either been bullied, intimidated, or chased out. “Knowledge of the Faith” would threaten Khan’s plan to put administration in the place of Baha’u’llah.
Finally, he says that there has been an increase in respect for the Faith in the wider society. I don’t know how you would quantify such a thing. Baha’is have their niche, and have had it for some time. Outsiders don’t know much about it. Mostly they are told about Baha’u’llah’s wonderful principles, without being told that Peter Khan thinks these are old hat and that absolute unthinking obedience to him is what the Faith is really about. I know that my own book, Modernity and the Millennium: The Genesis of the Baha'i faith in the 19th Century Middle East (Columbia University Press, 1998), has been read by thousands of academics, students, and journalists in the past three years. They will have gained a positive impression of the faith from it, despite the fact that Khan has acted behind the scenes to ensure that it is not carried by Baha’i Publishing Trusts.
Now in Part Two, Khan comes to the meat of his mission to New Zealand. He says, “These three components are firstly, the development of the world centre of the Faith, governed by the Tablet of Carmel of Baha’u’llah; secondly, the development of the Administrative Order, governed by the Will and Testament of Abdu’l-Baha; and thirdly, the spread of the Faith all over the world, governed by the Tablets of the Divine Plan revealed by Abdu’l-Baha.”
But in fact what he means is that the Universal House of Justice envisages itself continuing to hog the lion’s share of the Baha’is’ material resources for the foreseeable future. “Development” of the world center really just means more big buildings, more landscaping, more infallible pronouncements that no one can contradict without facing ostracism. The development of the “administrative order” means promoting the power of counselors and ABMs to dictate policy to local assemblies and national assemblies, turning the Faith into a centralized dictatorship instead of a democratic, consultative community. It has nothing to do with `Abdu’l-Baha, who bestowed no such primacy on anything called “counselors.” And the ‘spread of the faith all over the world’ is not really the spread of the Faith of Baha’u’llah in Khan’s mind, but a spread of theocratic dictatorship. He never mentions the main themes of Secret of Divine Civilization or the Supplements to the Aqdas. Since the latter speak of the need to cut down on fanaticism, Khan is poorly placed—being a fanatic of the first water—to represent Baha’u’llah’s desires here.
He then says that the Western Baha’i world’s main need is “to develop a heightened spiritual consciousness.” What he really means by this spiritual consciousness is that Baha’is should give more and more money to Khan and his cronies so that they can build more and more buildings in Haifa, and that Baha’is should proffer abject, unthinking, knee-jerk obedience to whatever Khan and his 8 colleagues summarily decree. He means by “spiritual consciousness” the transformation of people into glaze-eyed cultists sacrificing their families’ well-being and their own autonomous consciences for the sake of Khan’s particular values. Notice that he never mentions anything about helping anyone in need, unlike `Abdu’l-Baha.
He says: “And if we don’t do that, we will be swept away. And already we’re seeing signs of this. In your community you may be aware of the fact that people are drifting away from the Faith. Why? Because they have neglected that sense of heightened spiritual consciousness. They’re becoming bitter, they’re becoming disillusioned, they’re becoming frustrated, they’re giving up on the Baha’i community - not because there is anything wrong with the Baha’i community or the Baha’i Faith, because they have failed in their primary duty as Baha’is to develop this sense of heightened spiritual consciousness. We will be swept away with them also over the years to come unless we make this our highest priority.”
This is among the most flagrant exercises in blaming the victims in Baha’i history. What Khan is referring to, without being brave enough to come out and say it, is that he and his colleagues summarily declared Alison Marshall of the Dunedin, NZ community, to be “not a member of the Baha’i community.” They declared her an infidel, which in Islam is called a decree of takfir. Such decrees were forbidden in the Baha'i faith by `Abdu’l-Baha, but of course Khan deeply dislikes `Abdu’l-Baha and everything he stood for, so this doesn’t matter to him. Alison Marshall was never contacted by any Baha’i institution with any concerns about her email messages. She was investigated behind the scenes but never contacted directly. She was never warned, never cautioned. Her messages were to small, private email lists with no-forwarding policies. So even the “evidence” of her objectionable views could only have been obtained by Khan through spying, as with the Stasi spies for the communist party in East Germany. And, her objectionable views appear only to be that she thought women should be able to serve on the House of Justice and that intellectuals have been badly treated. She woke up one morning to find that Khan and his colleagues had decided she didn’t belong to her own religion, with never a by your leave. It is like something out of Kafka. And, of course, the New Zealand Baha’is who knew the particulars and had any backbone were outraged. This is the “disillusion” Khan is speaking of. It is the disillusion of devoted Baha’is who thought they were joining Baha’u’llah’s religion of universal peace, love and tolerance. They have suddenly found themselves in Khan’s religion, where Khan straps on his scimitar, binds up his pugri turban, and issues the fatwa of being a despicable infidel against inoffensive New Zealand business consultants. And, of course, if these New Zealand Baha’is object to people’s souls being toyed with, that means in Khan’s view that they aren’t “spiritual” enough!
As for his condemnation of “materialism,” this is pretty funny coming from someone who has wheedled $300 million out of a small, poor community for the construction of faux classical buildings to house his and others’ offices in Haifa. Couldn’t he have done with a less ornate office? Who is materialistic here?
Khan goes on to reveal his fundamentalist traditionalism when he says: “The whole question of obedience to the laws of the Faith is far more than a rational or a logical issue, it is a spiritual issue. If somebody wishes to argue about the laws of the Faith, ‘why, why do I have to follow this, why not follow something else’, we get nowhere, if there is not a spiritual perspective.”
But Baha’u’llah forbade blind obedience (taqlid) in his religion. He wanted people to consult (i.e. argue about) the meaning of the Baha'i faith, including its laws. He commanded them to do so. Such consultation is the cornerstone of the Baha'i faith. But Khan, with his Sunni Muslim background, wants to make blind obedience to the dicta of the council of jurisprudents (i.e. the House of Justice) the touchstone of “spirituality.” In other words, he wants to put blind obedience, which Baha’u’llah ordered us to forsake, at the very center of Baha’i spiritual life. By no accident, the blind obedience owed is to Khan and his 8 colleagues. How convenient.
He adds, “There is no way in the world in which you can sit down logically and prove to somebody that this group of nine individuals who gather in the holy land several times every week and deliberate and make their decisions, that their decisions are divinely guided by the Bab and Baha’u’llah and are free from error.”
This is because their decisions are obviously not free from error. In fact, their decisions since 1996 or so have frequently been inquisitorial, fascistic and illogical. Moreover, dragging the poor Bab into it seems awfully cruel. I have seen him in dreams, and he deeply disapproves of what they did to Alison. Khan says that Baha’u’llah guaranteed the houses of justice “divine guidance” but he did not do so in a blanket way. Baha’u’llah says that they are centers of divine inspiration when they engage in true consultation and strive to do what is best for their constituents. Baha’u’llah says that no one but the Manifestation is infallible. Khan then tells little anecdotes about the way he managed to turn new Baha’is into glaze-eyed cultists ready to accept the infallibility of X institution “because Baha’u’llah said so.” Khan never actually quotes Baha’u’llah because he knows he said no such thing.
Khan says of this attitude of blind obedience to infallible authority, “It gives us also insight to Baha’i strategy. For example, consider the Baha’i strategy to spend a vast sum of money on beautifying Mt Carmel at a time when the world is crying out for hospitals, for schools, for more effective means of agriculture, for scholarships for bright kids to get a good education.” He is practicing misdirection here. He admits that many in the community are disturbed by this set of priorities. His answer? We just have to blindly obey whatever Khan and 8 of his colleagues order us to do, or else we aren’t spiritual. Then he mumbles something about the fulfillment of prophecies. But no prophecy requires the deliberate investment of $300 million. If it is a good prophecy it will take care of itself. And, our children can have toys and shoes and not live in penury to fulfill it.
Now Khan lets his bombshell drop. He says, “One of the very pressing needs in countries such as New Zealand is a big improvement in the moral character of the Baha’i community. We need in New Zealand as well as other countries - I’m not picking on this poor country more than anybody else – but in this country as well as others, we need a far greater commitment than we have at the present time, as far as I can see, to the moral life of the Baha’i community - to the extent to which believers follow our moral teachings, particularly our teachings on chastity and holiness; the extent to which their sexual conduct conforms to the laws of the Faith; their freedom from involvement in narcotics; from involvement in criminal activity; to the observance of the rectitude of conduct. We need in this country, as in others, a far greater commitment from the rank and file of the Baha’i community to the pursuit of the moral, ethical teachings of the Faith. If this does not occur, the community will disintegrate. Masses of people will become inactive, or leave the Faith, or become sour on it. The time is late. This should be given the highest priority in this community.”
The 3,000 or so Baha’is in New Zealand are not in fact, of course, sex-crazed drug addicts. Khan’s audience was clearly shocked at what he said to them. But what was apparently going on in the obscure cult-speak of the Baha’i Right, was that he was blaming the whole community for producing independent-minded Baha’is like Alison Marshall and many others. On the theory that the best defense is a good offense, he is deflecting criticism for the high-handed, arbitrary actions of himself and the other House members against Alison by attacking the nice, perfectly law-abiding New Zealand Baha’is as pot-smoking bohemian orgiasts. It is a basic principle of the cultic manipulation of adherents’ minds that you keep them off balance, deprive them of self-esteem, make them guilty for no reason. That way you can control them more easily. We are seeing this sort of cultism in action in Khan’s shameful and completely unjustified attack on the Kiwi Baha’is.
Then he tells some potted anecdote, the point of which is that in some country a local spiritual assembly was lenient with a druggie Baha’i youth and didn’t sanction him, and this failure on their part almost led the Faith to be embarrassed in the press, especially before the baleful eyes of the Iranian Shi`ites. But the real point of the story was not to attack the LSAs for being unduly lenient about drug use among their congregants. It was to attack them for being too accepting of moderate and universalist Baha’is who were not Khan’s sort of hardline theocrat. He wanted to stiffen the backbone of the LSAs in throwing out the independent-minded. That he makes the justification for all this the angry gaze of the Iranian Shi`ites is doubly ironic. Fascistic discourse often appeals to the notion of the “nation” being humiliated before the gaze of outsiders, which justifies training the young people to goose step and wear brown shirts.
Khan finally breaks down and at least hints at what he has been driving at all along:
“The House of Justice has been appalled in recent weeks to receive vitriolic, nasty, vicious letters from New Zealand Baha'is concerned about actions the House of Justice took with regard to a believer from the South Island. I'm sure you are aware of it. These letters are not many, there are a few of them, but they're probably the worst letters I have ever seen written to the House of Justice and they came from people who are part of the New Zealand Baha'i community. That, if nothing more, is an indication of the need for a far greater attention to this issue in this country as well as in other countries. New Zealand surely doesn't want to go down in Baha'i history as the community that has produced such nasty correspondence. Correspondence of such a kind that I am embarrassed to have my secretary see it because of the kind of language that it uses. Anyhow, be that as it may, it's their spiritual problem and they will deal with Baha'u'llah as they wish.”
In other words, Khan is outraged that some Baha’is in New Zealand (and, actually, some non-Baha’i friends of the Faith) dared protest the arbitrary, summary expulsion of Alison Marshall to the House of Justice. The letters of protest I have seen were not the sort of poison pen letters Khan describes them as. They were polite but firm, and were unyielding that this sort of action is unacceptable to civilized people. Khan wants a community of yes-men, so of course any letter of protest would seem to him “vile.” Dictators never like being called on the mat for their tyranny. The irony is that news of what they did to Alison hadn’t in fact penetrated a lot of the New Zealand community, and in the videotape the audience is clearly puzzled and dismayed at Khan’s words. They have no idea what they have done wrong or why he is ragging at them like this.
Khan goes on ranting, “But the point is that here it is an indication that something is fundamentally wrong with the Baha'i community in this country in terms of its depth of understanding of the covenant and the authority of the institutions of the Faith. What you take as normal is not normal, but abnormal.”
Of course, all cultists would say the same thing. Jim Jones wanted his People’s Temple followers to believe that drinking poison cool-aid, which they quite reasonably thought was not normal, was in fact normal. While Khan is only advocating that we surrender our independent moral judgment to him, rather than urging mass suicide, the former is the prerequisite for the latter. That is, once any community is taken over by glaze-eyed cultists and deprived of their individual moral compass, it becomes easier and easier for some tragedy of the People’s Temple sort to occur.
Khan says, “What is normal is to have in a Baha'i community a number of Baha'is who are very knowledgable about the covenant who can share their insights with others so that the entire community has a good knowledge of the covenant and follows it.”
In other words, what is “normal” is to have a permanent Spanish Inquisition, in which the Baha’is who are “knowledgeable” about the “covenant” constantly spy on, inform on and bully the community into abject surrender of any hint of independent thinking.
He goes on, “And if that is not done, then what I foresee in the future in New Zealand is more of the same – more vitriol, more foulness, more people rebelling against that crowd of kill-joys in Haifa who call themselves the Universal House of Justice and what do they know and this kind of stuff.”
In other words, Khan considers that crowd in Haifa who call themselves the UHJ to be omniscient (contrary to what he says above). They always know about any “stuff” they choose to take up. Why, they are Oxford dons when they write history, and they are Cardinal Ratzinger when they promulgate doctrine, and they are Ayatollah Khomeini when they lay down the law and declare Baha’is to be infidels. If anyone ever utters so much of a peep in contradiction of some silly thing they have done or said (and by now the list is a long one), then that is “vitriol” and spiritually dangerous, little short of murder on the scale of sins.
Khan says, “Finally, let me mention, associated with this, a need for a vastly greater study of the writings of Shoghi Effendi. People read Gleanings, people read the Kitab-i-Aqdas, they read the Hidden Words, they read Some Answered Questions, they read Seven Valleys and so on and so forth. What is not being studied well enough, not nearly well enough, not a quarter well enough, are the writings of Shoghi Effendi.”
Funny, I remember `Abdu’l-Baha ordering us to read Baha’u’llah’s Supplements to the Most Holy Book before all else. How remarkable, to find Khan discouraging Baha’is from reading Baha’u’llah. What am I missing here? Aren’t we Baha’is? But perhaps Khan is not a Baha’i, in the sense of a follower of Baha’u’llah. Shoghi Effendi spoke of the dangers he saw in a group of Baha’is he called “the extreme orthodox.” It seems to me that in this talk, Khan has given every evidence of being one of those “extreme orthodox.” Indeed, much to Shoghi Effendi’s dismay, this group has now taken over the religion and is perverting it to the extent that people are being discouraged from reading Baha’u’llah’s works!
On the belief of Baha’i cultists that the world was going to end or eternal peace come or something in the year 2000, Khan quotes a questioner as saying: “Related to that is the question: “I’m still waiting for the unseen calamity by the end of the 20th century. Are we still getting it?”
He replies, “I’ve got news for you folks, you’ve got it. This stuff going on in New Zealand at the present time, if this is not a calamity, what is? Would you rather lose your spiritual life and your spiritual condition and go through all eternity spiritually crippled by this? Is that worse or better than the physical calamity of having your house blown up or having a war occur or something like that? Our values are spiritual. The things we value most are spiritual things. We are facing spiritual tests and a spiritual calamity is before us. And one of the things I wanted to do this morning is to alert you to my understanding that the Baha’is in New Zealand are facing the very real prospect of a spiritual calamity unless urgent and immediate measures are taken.”
In other words, Khan is reinterpreting the Calamity that Baha’is have been waiting for (and which obviously hasn’t come in the way the cultists expected) as the tendency of New Zealand Baha’is actually to think for themselves and not bow down in glaze-eyed uniformity before the infallible pronouncements of Peter Khan. This is so extreme, so absurd, that it is hard for me to believe that the audience didn’t just walk out on him at that point.
Khan continues answering questions. Someone asks him, “Why is it not appropriate to exchange the word “he” or “she” when reading a healing prayer for a woman?” He replies: “ This is part of a much broader issue in terms of gender neutral language and you find that what we’re doing is, rather than adjusting to the existing system, we want to move the goal posts. What we want to do is to recover the original meaning of “he”, which is the meaning in the Oxford English Dictionary, where “he” is used as a generic term applying to male as well as female. This will take probably some generations to do, and in the interim it feels a little awkward to be using “he” when referring to a woman, but one can condition oneself psychologically to return to the original meaning of the word, where “he” is used as a generic rather than a male term.”
Not content to engineer everything else about our lives, Khan now intends to retool the English language. The fundamentalist mind is astonishing to watch in action. Once a premise is perceived to be from God, everything else has to be moved around to suit the premise. Moreover, what Khan says here is grammatically absurd. “He” has never been used to refer to a woman in English. What in the world is he talking about? This is the mouthpiece of infallibility???
The next day Khan answers more questions. He says, “There are always extremes in the Faith to be avoided. The other extreme is the witch hunt. And there are some personalities that derive a great deal of satisfaction from witch hunting, psychological satisfaction. There are people who like to go around because it gives them a sense of superiority, who like to feel that they’re sort of holier than thou and they know what’s going on, and who will be very happily snooping in key holes unless we stop them. And this is not so, this is not what the Baha’i Faith’s about. It doesn’t have a CIA or a KGB or anything like that. It doesn’t go around snooping on people.”
Mark Twain said that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. This particular load of horse manure must be one stage beyond statistics. Khan as a counselor ran odd people called auxiliary board members for “protection” who of course are the KGB of the Baha'i faith. And of course they snoop on Baha’is and conduct witch hunts against them. Alison Marshall was the victim of one such witch hunt. I was. The Walbridges were. Denis MacEoin was. There have been more witches burnt, metaphorically speaking, by the Baha’i authorities in the past 20 years than in all of Salem’s history. This is typical of Khan’s technique of misdirection, which is that you admit the main critiques against yourself obliquely at the same time that you deny their validity. The witch hunt Khan went to New Zealand to prosecute can now be confidently characterized as “not a witch hunt,” because Khan says we don’t have those. George Orwell was an unimaginative piker next to these people.
Khan says: “Next question concerns my reference to a situation that had occurred in the South Island of New Zealand, which seemed to elicit some rather um, some rather condemnatory responses to the House of Justice from some friends down there. And the question points out that most people don’t know what the devil I’m talking about or what on earth I mention and why don’t I tell them, and obviously I’m not going to do anything like, the laws of backbiting still apply to all of us.”
This is further confirmation that while Khan thought he was coming down to condemn Alison Marshall and put out any fires her summary takfir had caused, his audience hadn’t the slightest idea for the most part what he was talking about. I find it extremely amusing that Khan says he doesn’t want to “backbite” Alison by actually mentioning her name. But he backbit her relentlessly without naming her! And what is worse anyway, backbiting someone or kicking them out of their spiritual community for no good reason?
He continues: “But there is nevertheless an important point to be made and that is: the reason I raised it is that it relates to our approach to the covenant. It relates to an extreme form of behaviour where a few individuals felt they had the right to judge the House of Justice’s actions on the basis of an incorrect piece of information that they received from heaven knows where.”
I don’t know what “incorrect” information he is referring to. The New Zealand protest letters were complaining that Alison Marshall suddenly and without warning was declared not a member of the Baha’i community, and that such an action contravened not only civilized norms of governance but the explicit procedures of Baha’i law. And, look at what he says: No one has the right to judge the House of Justice’s actions! They are above judgment, above the law. They are a theocratic dictatorship before which the entire world must bend the knee in clenched silence, no matter what acts of tyranny they commit! What an awful world this man is trying to build, so reminiscent of medieval theocracy and absolutism. It is everything that Baha’u’llah stood against.
Khan ends on this note:
“Another intriguing form of questioning that’s becoming more prevalent in the present day concerns the word “infallible”. And this is a very interesting way to try and erode the authority of the House of Justice, because “infallible” is a pretty bad word - you know, nobody likes to talk about things that are infallible or individuals who claim infallibility, it’s sort of an unsavoury concept. So in that sense, one of the forms of opposition at the moment that’s being spread in a clandestine way, is to say: well, the word is mistranslated, it really doesn’t mean “infallible”, it means “immaculate” in terms of integrity, or sinlessness, or freedom from moral stain or anything like that, and that somehow these folk in Haifa have taken it to be “infallible” and they go around sort of parading up and down the place saying that they’re free from error in their decisions. And the problem with that school of thought, whether you can speak Arabic or Persian or Turkish or any language at all, the problem is that Shoghi Effendi has, as authorised interpreter, used the word infallible over and over again, explaining that he means this, even though it doesn’t mean that, and so on and so forth. So one then has to tackle Shoghi Effendi, and that leads you then to have to tackle what Abdu’l-Baha said about Shoghi Effendi and his authority as interpreter in the Will and Testament, and then you have to deal with Abdu’l-Baha and so it goes on. So, these are issues that I think we need at least a few friends, if not as many as possible, in the community to be very clear on so they can be a help and a guide to the other believers when these sorts of issues become prevalent, because they become the basis for assertions attempting to erode the authority of the House of Justice.”
This argument is so ridiculous that I wonder if I need say anything about it. First of all, the word ma`sum in Arabic does not mean “infallible” in the Roman Catholic sense. It does mean protected from sin, among other things. How Baha’u’llah and `Abdu’l-Baha used it in the original is not irrelevant to understanding it. That Shoghi Effendi translated it “infallible” does not tell us everything that the word means in the Baha’is scriptures (but then, Khan has already announced himself opposed to reading these). Basically, Khan is using the mere fact that Shoghi Effendi translated the word in this way to impose his fundamentalism on our understanding of it. And, any attempt to understand the concept from the original sources is a form of “undermining” Peter Khan’s authority. God forbid. I wonder if the man knows Pakistani generals. They often think in just exactly the same way.
Department of History
University of Michigan