Do Unitarian Bahais support or oppose the organization that most Bahais belong to, the Haifa-based Baha’i Faith? To understand the answer to this question, a brief history lesson would be helpful.
During the 1980s and 90s, a number of liberal Bahais argued for reform of organized Bahaism. At first, they tried to work within the Haifan organization to promote some modest changes to make the Bahai community and its leadership more open and democratic. After the people who tried to do this were censored by Bahai leaders, another attempt was made in the form of a free-thinking online Bahai discussion list. Official Bahai institutions reacted to this by forcing the moderators of the discussion list to resign their membership in the Baha’i Faith organization, on pain of shunning if they refused to resign. One of those forced to resign was Dr. Juan Cole, Professor of Middle Eastern History at the University of Michigan, who has since become a Unitarian Universalist.
A couple years later, a Bahai named Karen Bacquet left the Baha’i Faith organization and started an online discussion group called Unenrolled Baha’i, for people who considered themselves Bahai but chose not to belong to the organized Bahai community. This forum became very active during the mid 2000s, and hundreds of people joined it. Most of them were liberal, open-minded Bahais who were disappointed with the authoritarian doctrines and policies of the Haifan Baha’i Faith. Some remained hopeful that the mainstream Bahai organization would eventually reform, while others gave up that hope. A few unenrolled Bahais, such as Frederick Glaysher, decided to start an alternative organization called the Reform Bahai Faith. Others joined Unitarian Universalist churches or other progressive religious groups.
By the late 2000s, it had become clear that the Haifa-based Baha’i Faith was continuing its conservative path and was not amenable to any kind of reform. In early 2010, Stephen Birkland, the very Baha’i Faith official who had threatened Dr. Juan Cole with systematic shunning by the Bahai community about a decade earlier, was elected to a seat on the nine-man Universal House of Justice, the highest leadership institution of the Haifan Baha’i Faith — a powerful demonstration of how the conservatives won and the liberals lost the battle for the future of Haifan Bahaism.
It is in the context of these developments that a new type of Bahaism is now emerging — Unitarian Bahaism — Bahais who share the liberalism of the Unitarian and Universalist religious tradititions and find community in UU churches. The Unitarian Bahai movement represents a decision on the part of many liberal and unenrolled Bahais to simply “move beyond” the desire to reform the Haifan Baha’i Faith, and accept that Haifan Bahais have chosen their path and we must choose our own path, independently of their organization and tradition. Instead of either remaining loyal to the Haifan tradition in theory without belonging to its organized community, as some unenrolled Bahais have done, or rising up in opposition to the Haifan Baha’i Faith and constantly arguing against it, as others have done, Unitarian Bahais are not interested.
That’s right, we neither support nor oppose the organization that most Bahais belong to. We’re just not interested. Instead, we are developing our own way of understanding and practicing the Bahai faith and, in the Unitarian Universalist Association, are finding a new religious home — a community that welcomes and celebrates our liberalism and open-mindedness.
Nigar Bahai Amsalem, the great granddaughter of the Prophet Bahaullah, was interviewed in a 2006 Israeli documentary about the Bahai organization in Haifa, Israel, called Baha’is In My Backyard. In this film she described how the international Bahai leaders — whose offices are located within walking distance of her house — have alternately denied that she and her family even exist, or instructed Baha’i Faith members to shun them.
Why have they done this? Because she and her family are unenrolled Bahais — they consider themselves Bahai but choose not to belong to the Haifan Baha’i Faith organization. Mrs. Bahai Amsalem’s grandfather, Muhammad Ali Bahai Ghusn-i-Akbar, was the second son of Bahaullah, and he advocated a Unitarian interpretation of Bahaism that sought to limit the power of Bahaullah’s successors and encouraged freedom of thought and conscience among Bahais. Most of Bahaullah’s descendants supported that liberal view of the faith, rather than following the organization created by Bahaullah’s eldest son, Abdul-Baha — and for that they are shunned.
“We are the family,” says Nigar Bahai Amsalem, “and they cannot say that we are not the family, as they tell their people that come from abroad: ‘Do not talk to them.’ But, I think, personally I think it’s very childish, because what are they so afraid of us for? What can we do against all them? We are not interested!”
We are not interested. What a wise lady. “We are not doing anything against them,” she goes on. “We are just living peacefully, and doing exactly what Bahaullah told us to do. So we are Bahais — we are true Bahais.”
Mrs. Bahai Amsalem, the UU Bahais are with you. We don’t want to fight with Haifan Bahais; we just want to live peacefully and do what Bahaullah told us to do: “Associate with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship. Whatsoever has led the children of mankind to shun one another, and has caused dissensions and divisions among them, has, through the revelation of these words, been nullified and abolished.”
That’s why we’re Unitarian Universalists. We don’t need a supposedly infallible religious “Administrative Order” led by nine men in Israel to tell us what to believe and do. Nor do we need to focus our spiritual life on opposing such religious leaders and institutions. We’re beyond all that. We have better things to do. We’re not interested.