Cyberspace and the Future of the Baha'i Faith

date: 17 September 1997


from: (Juan R. I. Cole)

re: heresy baiting, [cyberspace], and the future of the [Baha'i] Faith

[Let me] . . . say some things about the current juncture the Baha'i faith is going through. I think it is fair to say that the Information Revolution has been very hard on the Baha'i leadership. It has suddenly allowed the expression of individual opinions, the emergence of public controversy, the spreading around of information the leadership would rather see repressed, glimpses into the true nature of Baha'i governance (that it is highly authoritarian), and the beginnings of a public opinion that might end up successfully putting pressure on the leadership to alter some of their policies.

In the old Print world, things were much easier. Most opinions remained private. The old joke was that anyone could own a newspaper in a democracy. All you needed was a million dollars. Literature Review could be used to ensure that only official opinions (which is to say, the opinions of officials) could be aired in print. Communication was very top down. The American Baha'i went out to a few tens of thousands of households, and nothing was expected to come back except obedience. The system was that, essentially, of a one-party state.

Like all one-party states, the Baha'i administration is extremely worried about the internet and the Web. But its worries have only just begun. Because information is getting cheaper to acquire and transmit, at *exponential* rates. In the summer of 1996 I needed a $3000 computer and basic HTML code writing skills to run a Web page. A better computer than the one I had then can now be had for $1200 and falling. And there are increasingly easy wysiwyg (what you see is what you get) programs for setting up Web pages that do not involve so much as knowing that makes for italics. Chips are getting cheaper by the minute. That means processing bytes of information is also. The cyberspace communities that have grown up, like Talisman, Irfan, Bahai-St., H-Bahai and others are only the beginning. When Web tv becomes a mass market item these will explode in numbers and effect.

The gentlemen who run the Baha'i faith make no secret of being absolutely horrified at this outbreak of free speech and cheap communication. Their idea of the Baha'i faith is that it is a mechanism for preventing controversy and for controlling speech and for projecting the monopoly on discourse and power within the community of the "administrative order" (which they just happen to control, as lifetime incumbents). Probably this was always an unrealistic idea in a voluntary organization that aspired to being a world religion. Tight control and significant growth just don't go hand in hand. Moreover, this kind of system *always* fosters corruption and inefficiency, dooming it. That the US Baha'i administration was largely incapable of taking full advantage of the openness to the faith obvious among tens of thousands of Americans in the 1970s only proves my point.

The new Information Age is the biggest revolution in human affairs since the advent of movable type metal cast printing in the 1450s. But note that there were winners and losers in that printing revolution. The Western Europeans allowed printing and benefitted enormously from the spread of scientific and technological knowledge and literacy that it allowed. The Muslim sultans recoiled from printing for almost exactly the same reasons as the Baha'i authorities are now recoiling from cyberspace, and they banned it. As a result, the Renaissance and Enlightenment occurred in Europe, as did great technical advances that left the Muslim world in the dust. Muslims were demoted from being bearers of a great world civilization to being largely illiterate and relatively backward, only even getting the news about the earth going around the sun in the 19th century.

In the same way, those religious communities who embrace the new information technologies will gain powerful means to project themselves in the world. Those, like the Hare Krishnas, the [Jehovah's Wintesses], and the Baha'is, who mainly see the Information Highway as a policing problem on which free discourse must be squelched, will remain small sects and perhaps disappear altogether.

But it might be objected that if the Baha'i authorities let go and allow Baha'i cyberspace to flourish unimpeded, that it will put the unity of the religion in danger and weaken the authority of the central institutions. These are not completely unfounded fears. But they are largely unfounded. In fact, by flailing around accusing its scholars of verbal covenant breaking or declaring its devoted servants "not Baha'is," the Baha'i institutions are only making themselves look ridiculous and small minded, and are undermining their authority within significant elements of the community.

The right response is to have the same courage the Indian nsa had when mass conversions began there in the 1960s. It decided to let chain conversion run its course, and to open things up. This is the opposite decision of the one the US nsa made around 1971, when it was decided to undermine the mass teaching by shifting resources to consolidation instead. The difference in outcomes is obvious. India claims 2 million Baha'is, and even if that is an exaggeration, there are still lots and lots of Baha'is there. The US claims 130,000, which is a phony figure deriving from Wilmette's propensity to simply raise its claims rather than bothering with real teaching.

People sometimes complain that I have become so negative about the Baha'i administration that I offer no positive advice on how to deal with the problems. But this *is* my advice. Open it up. Call off the doberman pinschers. Nothing bad will happen. The same nsa was elected in Ridvan, 1997 as had been elected in the Ridvans before, despite the negative press that resulted from the crackdown on Talisman I. But if all that negative press could not affect the outcome of the election, then how could Talisman I's continuation have done so? Talisman was irrelevant. Coming after its prominent posters was unnecessary, and, being unnecessary, was a stupid mistake. Dropping Mike McKenny from the rolls was an even more stupid mistake. Since Baha'is will be in increasing communication in cyberspace (see above), they cannot help expressing their views, but now they will feel that Big Brother is looking over their shoulders. And Big Brother is sometimes feared; he is never loved.

Perhaps in the hothouse and cloistered atmospheres of Wilmette and Haifa, it is easy to forget that institutions can squander their popularity. Before 1967 the Pope was universally loved and respected in the US Catholic community. Then he issued the ban on condoms, making himself both intrusive and ridiculous, and now only half of US Catholics say they even pay any attention to him on such issues. The current uhj's Inquisition against a mild-mannered Canadian fantasy writer is similar in form. It is ridiculous and intrusive. And in the end such actions will cause the Baha'is to hold their institutions in contempt. That there was a 60% fall-off in contributions to the international fund from the US community in 1996, the same year in which the uhj came after the talisman posters, may not entirely be a coincidence.

The Baha'i institutions were not designed to control the *opinions* of adherents. In fact, `Abdu'l-Baha explicitly says that opinions may be freely expressed, and only behavior is punishable. Making internet speech into punishable "behavior" is breaking with this covenant `Abdu'l-Baha made with free and thinking human beings who had seen the excesses of religion and wanted no more religions like that. The uhj should stick to legislating, which is its only legitimate role, not interpretation of scripture and deciding whether McKenny's interpretation is the right one. Doug Martin and Farzam Arbab, by their arrogance and narrow-mindedness, have turned the Baha'i faith into just another inquisitorial religion, distinguished from past ones only in preferring psychological to physical torture of dissidents.

If the Baha'is are unleashed to deploy the full power of the internet, to catch the wave of the Information juggernaut, they can hope to amount to something in the coming century. Except in the narrow field of posting translations of scripture, more has been accomplished with regard to making information available about the Baha'i faith on the Web by Juan Cole, Jonah Winter and Don Calkin, three individuals, than has been by all the Baha'i institutions put together. If the Baha'i institutions go on behaving like the elders of the Jehovah's Witnesses, then that is the sort of religious organization they will be. And the stagnating 30,000 American Baha'i Witnesses can sit around into the 21st century and congratulate themselves for the rest of their lives on how loyal to the Covenant they are and how wicked the other 270,000,0000 Americans are, who have joined religions focused on unleashing their individual potential rather than on repressing it.

cheers Juan

  • Return to Talisman Index

    Last Updated 9-17-97
    WebMaster: Juan R.I. Cole