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The ‘margin’ is ahead of the curve

The beliefs held by Bahais, and Bahai practices, have changed over time. Some of those labelled as ‘dissidents’ by Moojan Momen, in an article published in Religion, are just ahead of the curve in the changes taking place in the Bahai community.

I had previously written:

> > As Moojan has noted, not a few of the “dissident” positions have been
> > taken up in some form by the mainstream community, not for political
> > reasons but simply because they were in accordance with the Bahai
> > Writings. In other words, some of the “dissidence” is simply
> > impatience, of people who are too far ahead of the community’s
> > development trajectory for the mass of the community to accept. I
> > think a small part of the talisman9 discussion is also fruitful and
> > promising in this way

I was asked to cite specific examples of the mainstreaming of formerly ‘dissident’ positions.

My reply on Tarikh, 26 November 2007:

On page 204 Momen notes two changes “in the direction suggested by
some apostates” (note that I am quoting Momen here, I am not adopting his
term or accepting his authority to designate people as ‘apostates’). These
are greater opennness to society and the development of a ‘community of
interest’ around the core membership. He does not show how these are
‘apostate’ positions, but that is precisely the point: what he labels
apostate or marginal is in most cases simply common sense or a core Bahai
belief which some members feel is not sufficiently emphasised or practised
in the community. Momen gives four examples of “openness” positions: study
circles, devotionals, youth groups and children’s classes which are open
to non-members. Again, the openness of these meetings to non-members is a
core belief, and in the case of devotionals (Mashriq) it is scripturally
stipulated. If it took an “apostate” to point out that this is so, then
the term apostate is being used far too loosely.

Over the past 40 or so years a number of positions that were at first
contested or marginalised in the Bahai community have been adopted as
acceptable or even normative. For instance, Dr. Muhajir’s teaching methods
at first met resistance, as noted in a biography (whose author and title I
cannot recall), were later adopted, and have now fallen into disuse again.
The emphasis on Baha’u’llah as a person, and devotion to him, and teaching
work based on this rather than on the “12 principles” was a position that
I and others advocated in the 70s and 80s, it was briefly in vogue with
the publication of the “Baha’u’llah” statement and then passed out of
vogue again — ‘back to Baha’u’llah’ is now used as a negative label by
Bahais (!!), as if it meant disloyalty to his institutions.

Another example of greater openness which Momen mentions, but without
making the logical connection, is the “network of core members, peripheral
members, ex-members and non-members” (page 194) enabled by internet.
Internet-connected Bahais, including those of the first Talisman
community, were naturally among the first to say that the internet was the
kind of global communications system envisioned by Shoghi Effendi and
leading the Bahai community and the world to open, discursive culture and
structures: it would change the world and the Bahai community. I think
this is presently a tolerated, but not accepted position today: Momen
notes only the usefulness of the internet for spreading “dissident views”
(194-5, also on p 196).

The questioning of the literal inerrancy of the Dawnbreakers — or
more broadly, the idea that sacred history is still history and can
be examined as such — at one time got one into very hot water. Later it
became acceptable, and I hope some signs of reversion to the previous
situation prove to be mere incidents. Note that MacEoin — whose initial
article did not attack the Bahai Faith but presented an alternative
reading of Babi history — is described by Momen as writing “apostate
articles” published in Religion. This is mean- spirited in the extreme; it
is thanks to the advance guard who break their heads on extreme orthodoxy,
that those who follow can discuss what was previously forbidden subject
without being accused of heresy or apostasy (at least officially), and
even if there is no gratitude for what was achieved, to attack the author
with negative labelling instead of critiquing his actual work deserves no
toleration in academic fora, let alone publication. At the time, MacEoin’s
reexamination of Babi history was construed as an attack on the Bahai
Faith, and it did evolve into a bitter dispute because of that response,
but surely with the benefit of hindsight everyone can see that there is a
difference between attacking a community and questioning the facts in its
own account of its history.

Peace movement activism is another position that was at first
condemned, later to some extent adopted (remember the Bahai peace
movement?) and is now out of favour again.

If we went further back, we could add the idea of mixed-race meetings and
racial equality activism, and membership of women on the local and
national Assemblies, which I think are accepted to normative now. Or
further back, we could think of Tahireh as a controversial figure,
scandalizing the more orthodox, whose radicalism nevertheless became
acceptable thanks to the Bab’s endorsement and Baha’u’llah’s support.

In any religion whose ideals are not determined at will by the
current leadership, but are set out and available to all in the
religion’s history and text, there will be gaps between that
challenging ideal and the practice, and therefore there will be a
kind of “dissidence” which Momen has not considered: people who far
from leaving their religion, or hating it, love it and endorse it and want
it to become all that it might be. And there will be people who label
them, or worse. It’s up to us what role we will play in this drama:
labeller, libeller, leader or loonie, peacemaker or polariser, every time
the curtain goes up, the same old roles ‘return’

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