Sen McGlinn's blog

                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

A theocratic cabal ?

This was posted on Talisman, on Feburary 9, 2002, in response to some really over-the-top remarks by XXX about a cabal of leading Bahais promoting theocratic ideas.

“Baha’i al-Qaida” XXX?

As rhetoric rises over the top and into the skies, there comes a point at which you just *know* the speaker hasn’t got his feet on the ground any more. No string could be that long.

There’s a story about Pooh bear and the honey, in which he uses a balloon to get close to a bee hive in a tree. After a while this doesn’t seem such a good idea. Then comes the question of getting down again. Fortunately his friend Christopher Robin has a gun to pop the balloon.
“But if I do that, it will spoil the balloon.”
“But if you don’t,” said Pooh, “I shall have to let go, and that would spoil me.”
Christopher Robin saw how it was, and aimed very carefully at the balloon, and fired.
“Ow!” said Pooh.
“Did I miss?”
“You didn’t exactly miss,” said Pooh, “but you missed the balloon.”

I am sure you have read some of the literature of the Islamic brotherhood, al-khalifa and other such groups whose programme is basically theocratic. One finds a set of scriptural references and arguments and terms that are used in much the same way by different people. These are the traces that show there has been a group of people discussing the issues and working out the ideas. They have put up arguments and weeded out the weak ones and have come up with a reasonably consistent programme. You can see much the same in the new Christian conservatism in the US, and for that matter if you look at early unitarian literature, in the polemic against trinitarianism.

If you look at the Baha’i secondary literature that touches on politics and economics, you find the silliest things said. But you don’t find any authors with a developed system of ideas, or the sort of markers that would indicate that they have been talking with others. There is a world of difference between individuals who say silly things about politics or economics or science because they know no better and haven’t thought about it, and a group who have worked out an ideology and how to defend it against counter-arguments. The latter is more interesting, because it has some intellectual content, and also more dangerous. A developed and defended system of ideas can be used to justify action, whereas spontaneous silliness is just the way people see their world. For instance, if you took 100 people off the street and said that the greengrocer buys potatoes at market for $10 a sack and resells them in little bags for $25 a sack, you might well find that half or more would regard that as something close to theft. Most people don’t understand how an economy or a small business works. That doesn’t make them a marxist underground. They don’t have to understand their system, and their not knowing does it no harm. Their consensus doesn’t prove a conspiracy, it just shows that the ideas you have when you are not having ideas, turn out to be pretty simple and similar.

If you asked the same 100 people questions about the way western democracy and the legal system work, you would probably find a large proportion would support reforms which would undermine the system. You would find a large proportion who consider politics as such to be a dirty business best avoided. I doubt that the proportions would be much higher if the 100 people you chose were Bahais. The Baha’i community may to some extent have become a vehicle for supporting anti-democratic ideas and an anti-political, anti- economic ethos, but I bet the major source would turn out to be the ideas and lack of ideas that reign in society as a whole. In other words, Bahais who come from backgrounds where more people are anti-political, anti-business and anti- intellectual will show the same characteristics.

What is particular about the Baha’i faith is that its leadership really is a lay leadership. There is no eligibility requirement for electors or elected, either in terms of general education or knowledge of the Baha’i teachings. So you can find people in high positions, and institutions, that say silly things in public. But there is still a difference between a full-blown ideology, such as political-islam (or christianity / judaism / hinduism) and the pronouncements of powerful people and institutions in the Bahai community. There are examples enough of anti- democratic, anti-western, anti-science things that have been said, but I think you are misreading the signs if you think there is a fundamentalist ideological system behind them, or a cabal promoting such ideas.

I have said before that I have an ongoing project, collecting Baha’i secondary literature (books and articles) that favours a theocratic position. With 40 or so authors in my collection, I still have only one theocratist who quotes any scriptural support for the theocratic position (and that is a corrupted text of some notes, not actually “scriptural”.) Nor have I found authors with developed arguments, let alone worked out defences against the counter-evidence. All the evidence I have shows that Baha’is adopt theocratic positions mainly because they haven’t thought about the issue. This has become more and more of a liability as the years pass: “theocracy” has now become a pejorative term in the media in a way that I don’t remember it being used 20 years ago. I have resisted the temptation to shout “I told you so.” It wouldn’t be fraternal, and it wouldn’t be helpful. Rather, I would like to see the Baha’i community examine the issue squarely and put this foolish misunderstanding behind it. More light, not more heat.


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