Straw Fire: Juan Cole's "Baha'i Faith in America as Panopticon"
by Ian Kluge
Note: The opinions expressed in this review are personal and may not properly be attributed to any Bahai institution or member thereof.
1) In 1998, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (Vol.37, No.2, June, 234-248) published an article entitled “The Baha’i Faith in America as Panopticon, 1963-1997” by Dr. Juan Ricardo Cole, a former American Baha’i and a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan. This article, appearing in one of the premier journals in the field of religious studies, seeks to prove that the Baha’i Faith, at least in America, has become a dishonest, repressive and quasi-totalitarian organization that is antagonistic to the American Constitution, the Bill of Rights as well as American values and “American individualism” (Cole,1998). Dr. Cole has further pursued this theme on his Baha’i Studies website at the University of Michigan and in his posts to various Talisman e-lists to which he has been an active contributor.
2) Supported by copious quotations and examples from the article itself, this in-depth review will examine “Panopticon” in regards to its content and presentation. On the basis of an in-depth analysis, this review will conclude that “Panopticon” is not a reliable source of information about the Baha’i Faith either in the past or in its current state. The article contains numerous problems with facts, serious omissions, substantiation, logical reasoning, statistical reasoning, anecdotal evidence, hidden assumptions, and methodology. In addition it is filled with a wide variety of well-recognized propaganda devices.
3) The author of this review has been a member of the Baha’i Faith in Canada for over twenty years and has, at various times, debated with Dr. Cole among others about some of the issues discussed in “Panopticon”. This review has grown out of these discussions.
Part I : The Content
I. Problems with Facts:
4) “Panopticon” is marred by at least thirteen significant errors of fact the first of which is Cole’s statement that “[t]he problem with strict internal controls for missionary religions, however, is that they are most often incompatible in Western societies with significant growth” (Cole, 1998). Oddly enough, the exact opposite is true. Religious organizations with “strict internal controls such as the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as a wide variety of Evangelical and Pentecostal churches have experienced “significant growth” in Canada and the U.S., usually at the expense of more liberal denominations.
5) This error of fact is of enormous importance because one of the foundation stones of Cole’s article is that the “strict social controls” (ibid.) are what prevent the Baha’i Faith from expanding. In discussing an alleged “informant system”, Cole writes, “This practice, like many other control mechanisms, discourages spiritual entrepreneurship and keeps the religion from growing in the West” (ibid.). However, it is logically obvious that if other religions with “strict internal controls” are experiencing “significant growth” (ibid.) , such controls cannot be used to explain why the Baha’i Faith is not growing as fast as he thinks it should be. Some other factor must be at work. Thus, Cole commits the logical fallacy known as “the fallacy of false cause”, that is, the erroneous attribution of causality. It is also an example of special pleading. Why should "strict internal controls" hinder growth in the Baha'i Faith when it does not do so in other religions? Cole's article never considers what other factors might be because such consideration would draw attention to the weakness of Cole’s belief that “strict internal controls” cause poor growth.
6) Cole’s second factual error concerns his claims that ruling body of the Baha’i Faith, the Universal House of Justice, was at first “reluctant to abandon its quietism in order to protest the persecutions” (ibid.) of Baha’is in Iran under the Khomeini regime. From the moment the persecutions began, the Universal House made Baha’is around the world aware of the situation (See, Baha’i Canada, Iran’s Secret Pogrom, “People Are Asking”) and encouraged them to speak to their elected representatives about the matter in order to put pressure on Iran. This is not a quietist or acquiescent response. Indeed, pressure through other countries was the only effective response because the government of Iran, given its enmity to the Baha’i Faith, would hardly listen to protests by the supreme Baha’i ruling body. Any protests from the Universal House would also entrench the anti-Baha’i mind-set in Iran and expose Iranian Baha’is to further harassment and danger.
7) The effectiveness of this campaign of quiet but unrelenting diplomatic pressure on Iran through other countries and the United Nations is demonstrated by the fact that the persecutions, except for sporadic flare-ups, have largely stopped. Eager to normalize its relations with the rest of the world, Iran has been forced to conform to minimal standards of religious liberty. In short, Cole presents the fact that the Baha’i Administrative Order (BAO) did not do what he, perhaps, wanted it to do as proof of its inaction. This is reveals the polemic agenda underlying “Panopticon”.
8) Cole makes third error of fact when he writes, that the Universal House “offered no support to Iranian Baha’is attempting to flee” (ibid.). This statement is false because it does not distinguish between direct and indirect help. The Universal House of Justice most certainly helped “Baha’is attempting to flee” by making arrangements with neighboring countries (Turkey and Pakistan, not to mention more distant nations like Canada and the U.S.) to receive and shelter refugees and to encourage other countries to process them for immigration. The notion that providing a secure destination to their flight did not help refugees escape from Iran is absurd and cannot withstand rational analysis.
9) The fourth error of fact is Cole’s claim that “the Baha’i authorities wish to project an image more liberal than the reality” (ibid.). In effect, Cole claims that the BAO is deceiving vast numbers of people, including the media. However, this cannot stand up to rational analysis. The Baha’i Faith has never hidden some its supposedly less ‘liberal’ teachings, among them the ban on non-marital sex and homosexual acts, the ban on alcohol and illicit drugs, the strong discouragement of abortion, the fact that only men may be elected to the Universal House of Justice, the principle of obedience to the elected institutions and the acceptability of capital punishment in some cases. These ‘un-liberal’ Teachings have never been concealed from the public and are mentioned in a variety of teaching booklets in addition to readily available works such as Lights of Guidance . Consequently, the fact that some converts or reporters did not investigate the Faith thoroughly cannot rationally be blamed on the BAO.
10) Cole’s fifth error of fact lies in his claims about the standard practice of “censorship” (ibid.) which he confuses with the kind of pre-publication review process used by all major academic journals. Censorship, is defined by Oxford English Dictionary as “official licensing or suppressing as immoral, seditious, or inopportune, books plays, news, or military intelligence (vb, exercise such control over, make excisions or changes in.” (OED) Baha’i writers whose works deal specifically with the Baha’i Faith are required to submit their work to pre-publication review to ensure there are no errors of fact. Such a review is essentially different from “suppressing as immoral, seditious, or inopportune” (OED) factual information required for a thorough and accurate view of the subject at hand. Pre-publication review in the Baha’i Faith, like pre-publication review anywhere, also exists to ensure that controversies are presented in a balanced manner with due regard to all sides. Ensuring such balance is pre-requisite for establishing credible publications and cannot be reasonably regarded as ‘censorship’.
11) As an example of the systematic practice of ‘censorship’, Cole refers to the Baha’i magazine Dialogue, writing, “In 1988 the editors [of Dialogue] proposed the publication of a 9-point reform program, 'A Modest Proposal', which they submitted for censorship ... The article pointed to the decline in conversions, argued against continued censorship and proposed term limits for N.S.A. members” (ibid.). Cole then discusses the negative response from the American N.S.A. and the editor’s subsequent decision to close the magazine.
12) There are two serious problems with Cole’s example of ‘censorship.’ The first is that Cole flatly undercuts his own claims about the practice of censorship. According to Cole, the magazine survived for over three years even though there was “a feeling of distrust toward the magazine’s left-liberal editorial line that grew in Wilmette and in Haifa”. What does this prove except that despite serious tensions between the BAO and Dialogue, the magazine continued to publish? It was not suppressed - despite differences with the BAO. Such differences were tolerated for over three years in which Dialogue had time to spread its ideas and attitudes throughout the American Baha’i community. This is an extraordinarily poor example of an administrative order exercising “strict social control mechanisms” (ibid.) over its believers.
13) The second problem about Cole’s claim is that his Dialogue example misses the point entirely. It is not an example of censorship even in the widest sense of the term. The bottom line is that Dialogue was publicly proposing changes to the Baha’i electoral system, an electoral system that, in the Baha’i view, was divinely ordained by Baha’u’llah, and developed by His lawful successors, Abdu’l-Baha, Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice. Rather than taking their suggestions to the consultations at Feasts, to the annual convention via elected delegates, to the NSA and the Universal House of Justice, the editors of Dialogue took their suggestions to rank-and-file Baha’is in a widely circulated publication. In effect, their actions constituted an attempt to pressure the BAO by forming a ‘party of disaffection’ to change the electoral system in a manner not authorized by the Faith’s Founder and His authorized successors.
14) Attempting to change any political system in a manner not sanctioned by the rules (i.e. the constitution) is ‘sedition’ and rebellion, an attack on the fundamental principles of order. In the Baha’i case, the proper protocol for trying to make changes is for individuals to write the NSA and the Universal House of Justice with their suggestions. However, using the media to form a faction or party of dissent within the organization in order to bring about changes is simply a violation of Baha’i laws about avoiding internal parties and factions. Thus the matter is quite clear: by acting as they did, the editors of Dialogue had openly violated Baha’i law and forced a response from the BAO. Cole’s attempt to portray this as an act of censorship simply avoids the fact that “A Modest Proposal” was a serious breach of Baha’i protocol and law. The NSA’s subsequent reaction was not a case of censorship but rather a case of defending the Faith’s basic principles. This is also shown by the NSA’s charge that, in effect, the notion of term limits for NSA members was “negative campaigning” (ibid.), i.e. campaigning against incumbents simply because they were incumbents. Campaigning of any sort is forbidden in the Baha’i Faith.
15) Cole’s sixth error of fact concerns his statement that the Baha’i Faith attracted intellectuals only after the 1960’s: “Some of those [ who joined in the 1960’s and 70’s] who remained went on to obtain higher degrees, giving the community for the first time a significant number of intellectuals…” (ibid.). Cole’s statement - presented without any supporting statistical evidence or references - is easily refuted by referring to O.Z. Whitehead’s Some Early Baha’is of the West and Some Baha’is to Remember . These two histories show that of 42 early prominent American Baha’is, 15 had university education or trained in reputable artistic institutes. This represents 36% of the sample. Given the very small size of the early American Baha’i community and the fact that most converts came from the middle and upper classes, one can reasonably extrapolate from Whitehead’s sample of prominent Baha’is to the American Baha’i community and conclude that the Faith had a high number of intellectuals or ‘brain workers’ long before the 1960‘s and 70’s.
16) Cole’s seventh error of fact concerns his claim regarding the Counselors’ task of “imposing orthodoxy” (ibid.). This description is outrightly false because it contradicts the fact that all Baha’is explicitly have an unfettered right to their own personal understanding of the Writings as well as the right to express this understanding in their community. Neither Counselors nor anyone else have the right to ‘impose orthodoxy’ on personal understanding.
17) Cole’s makes this claim because he fails to understand the Baha’i duty to distinguish between personal understanding and official teaching when providing information about the Faith to interested non-Baha’is. In other words, the Counselors are there to ensure that Baha’is are engaged in truthful teaching about the Faith, that is, to ensure they are not luring seekers into the Faith under false pretenses. This is not “imposing orthodoxy” (ibid.) as much as imposing truthfulness in teaching. Since the Baha’i Faith has no clergy, that is, no professionally trained teachers, the task of ensuring accuracy in teaching is on-going, though, in reality, most Baha’is require no supervision. Even Cole admits this in his statement that
“[c]onventional Baha’is often never discover the informant system, since they never trip the wire that would lead to their being informed on” (ibid.).
18) The other aspect of what Cole mistakes for “imposing orthodoxy” (ibid.) concerns the conduct of Baha’is with heterodox interpretations of the Writings. The issue here is not the opinions, as Cole would have readers believe, but conduct. Baha’is with heterodox views must remember that their understandings are, in fact, personal and that while they have a right to express their views they do not have the right to press them on other individuals or the community once these have made it clear that they do not wish to hear any more. Essentially it is a matter of good manners. Freedom of speech does not entitle one to harass others with one’s views. Heterodox understandings may be expressed in the community, but they may not be advanced contentiously and may certainly not be insisted upon against the authorized interpretations of Abdu’l-Baha, the decrees of Shoghi Effendi and the decisions of the Universal House of Justice. On-going insistence is, in effect, harassment and lobbying which implicitly sets up a power struggle between the individual and the BAO.
19) At this point, a Counselor for protection may get involved in order to prevent individuals and the community from being needlessly disturbed by someone who has already been given and used his/her right to be heard. It is worth repeating at this point that the Counselor’s involvement is primarily for reasons of conduct not personal understanding; the Counselor’s involvement is a call to proper conduct rather than an imposition of orthodoxy. The Counselor may, indeed, discuss a person’s views and try to show where errors of understanding have occurred; however, in the last analysis a Baha’i may stick to his/her understanding so long as they do not hector others in the community or misinform seekers.
20) How does all this work in practice? One may, for example, say, “I don’t or can’t understand how the Universal House of Justice can be infallible” but not, “The Universal House of Justice is not infallible” or “The Universal House of Justice’s understanding of its divinely conferred infallibility is false.” The first statement is purely personal, perhaps a confession of an intellectual and/or spiritual shortcoming. The second is a direct challenge to the BAO on which the Faith is built and to which the declarant assents when s/he becomes a Baha’i . This challenge can lead to censure - but it is behavioral censure rather than intellectual censure. With his phrase “imposing orthodoxy” (ibid.) Cole glosses over the essential difference between the two.
21) Interestingly enough, “Panopticon” itself provides proof that conduct and not the possession of heterodox opinions are what invites involvement by Counselors. Cole quotes what he describes as a “threatening letter from Counselor Stephen Birkland” (ibid.):
… the International Teaching Centre has asked me - with the knowledge of the Universal House of Justice - to warn you that your promulgation of views contrary to the Teachings was damaging to the Cause. If you were to resume in any fashion this course of action, the effect would be to bring you into direct conflict with the Covenant (Birkland, 1996 quoted in Cole, 1998)
22) As the quote shows, it is the action of “promulgation” (Birkland, 1996) that is the problem not the possession of personal opinions nor even their expression as personal understandings as such. “Promulgation” (OED) is the persistent, public and systematic spreading of ideas which is a different thing altogether than personal and private expression of views. The latter is an unfettered right in the Baha’i Faith while the first is a right potentially limited by considerations of damage to the Faith as a whole.
23) By pointing out that such “promulgation” would “bring you into direct conflict with the Covenant” (Birkland, 1996, quoted in Cole, 1998) Birkland was being no more than truthful in the plainest sense. Nor is it unreasonable for any organization, and most especially a voluntary one, to protect its fundamental principles from attack, particularly, from attack from within its own ranks. It is not, after all, too much to expect that these people have joined because they agree with the fundamental principles, or, at least, can live with them. Cole’s effort to portray the BAO’s reasonable response as a sign of control and censorship dissolves under rational scrutiny
24) The bottom line is that Baha’is may be censured or disciplined for insistently and publicly defying the bedrock principles of the Faith in a manner that disrupts the community. The rules on this matter are clear and unmistakable. Baha’is may not challenge the authority of Baha’u’llah as God’s Manifestation for this age, nor that of Abdu’l-Baha as Baha’u’llah’s appointed interpreter of the Writings, nor that of Shoghi Effendi, the successor appointed by Abdu’l-Baha, nor that of the Universal House of Justice. In the Baha’i view, these four form a divinely inspired and guided ‘apostolic’ succession originating with God. By accepting Baha’u’llah as the Manifestation of God for this age, a person accepts the decisions He makes directly or guides His successors to make. What Cole wants to characterize as “imposing orthodoxy” (Cole, 1998) is, at the very most, no more than a requirement for individuals to be consistent in accepting the logical consequences of becoming a Baha’i .
25) Cole’s eighth serious error of fact is found in his claim that “this article is not concerned with the essence or scriptures or theology of the religion, but with the actualities of its day-today technologies of control” (ibid.). Those familiar with the Baha’i Writings know this is simply untrue. Many of Cole’s critiques of the BAO its structure and its modus operandi refer directly to matters mandated by Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi whose work constitutes part of Baha’i “scriptures or theology”. A case in point is Cole’s discussion of the fact that in the Baha’i community, once consultation ends and a decision is made, further discussion ceases; all are to work as if the decision were unanimous. This is not an invention of the current BAO to control and manipulate but originates with Abdu’l-Baha for whom unity was no mere administrative matter but rather a matter of deep spiritual, theological significance. The same may be said about the ban on nominations and campaigning in Baha’i elections - issues for which Cole also attacks the BAO as being undemocratic and manipulative.
26) Cole’s ninth serious error of fact is the misrepresentation of the Baha’i Faith as torn in a struggle between “conservatives” (ibid.) and “liberals” (ibid.). “Panopticon’s” evidence - e-mails, personal communications, uncorroborated anecdotes - suggests nothing more than a small number of members and ex-members who disagree with the direction taken by the Faith. Cole has none of the credible evidence - surveys, corroborated anecdotes of LSA’s torn apart by internal conflicts, masses of e-mails from disaffected American Baha’is - to justify the claim for anything above a few dozen individuals out of the 60,000 adult American Baha’is admitted by Cole. (See the section on Errors in Statistics.) The smallness of their numbers is conceded by Cole himself when he writes that “antiliberals have captured the key posts” in Baha’i elections.
27) Given the fact that every adult Baha’i votes in elections for LSA’s and national convention delegates, it is clear that even Cole knows that the majority of Baha’is are not disturbed by the Faith’s alleged ‘conservative’ turn and, insofar as they are not outright supporters, are, at the very least, willing to accept it. In other words, the Baha’i Faith as found in America today represents what the majority of Baha’is want it to be, Cole’s personal animus notwithstanding. Consequently, the conflict suggested by Cole and alleged in the use of such words as “captured” does not really exist. What exists is a small group of Baha’is and ex-Baha’is whose opinions and activities have virtually no affect on the Faith as practiced by the overwhelming majority. Cole is in outright factual error when he presents readers with a portrait of a religion torn in struggle between alleged ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’.
28) This fact destroys the very basis on which the “Panopticon” article rests, since there is no reason to establish a panopticon when the overwhelming majority of members support and/or accept recent developments. One does not need to establish and maintain a panopticon among willing participants. Nor, does one need to establish an “informant system” among them as Cole claims. Dissidents inform on, that is, call attention, to themselves simply by holding heterodox views amidst a sea of orthodoxy.
28) Cole’s tenth serious error of fact relates to what he calls the “silencing of minorities” (ibid.) as a part of the usual “control mechanisms” Ibid.). There is no a “silencing of minorities” (ibid.) in the manner implied by Cole’s phrase which encourages readers to conclude minority viewpoints may not be heard during a debate prior to a decision. Every Baha’i has a right to speak during consultation before, and, if proper protocols are followed, even after a vote is taken. As is so often the case throughout “Panopticon”, Cole fails to present any evidence that these rights are being violated by the American BAO in a manner consistent with his presentation of the Faith as a tightly regimented organization.
30) It is true that once a decision has been reached, all are expected to support it, much as all citizens are obligated to respect even the laws they dislike. However, Cole is flatly wrong in his suggestion that Baha’is have nothing to say after a decision is taken and that a minority of critics is ‘silenced’. What Cole plainly misrepresents, is the fact that there is a certain protocol for voicing criticisms after a decision is made. Like all other Baha’is, critics have the right to being up their concerns to the whole community during the consultative portion of any Feast . There, before the whole community, they may make recommendations for changes to the LSA the NSA and the Universal House of Justice. They have the right to encourage discussion on what bothers them. However, they may not disturb others with lobbying outside the consultative session since those who agree with a decision or, at least, accept it, have the right to be left alone. There is no rationale for forcing them to listen to dissidents.
31) Cole errs yet again in presenting the Baha’i Faith as favoring a theocracy, nor does he cite any studies to support his pseudo-statistical claim that “many Baha’is ” (ibid.) believe in this form of government. There are several reasons why his presentation is in outright error. Most obviously, a theocracy requires a clergy which the Baha’i Faith lacks. Unlike any theocracy that ever existed, all authoritative and executive offices are held by election: LSA’s, NSA’s, delegates to the annual convention and the Universal House of Justice. Any decision made by appointees such as Auxiliary Board Members and Counselors may be appealed to the elected bodies, which, in the case of the Universal House, have the final word. This is so unlike any historical examples of theocracy that it is a gross misuse of the word to apply it to the Baha’i Faith.
32) Cole’s claim is also in outright error because it cannot be reconciled with the fact that all Baha’is have a right to their personal understanding of the Writings regardless of what the official understandings might be. No historical theocracy has ever allowed such interpretive leeway. It is true that in the interests of presenting the Faith honestly, Baha’is must inform seekers about the official understandings and not their own, but two facts remain firm: all Baha’is have full freedom of conscience to understand the Writings as they choose and, all Baha’is have the right to express their understanding so long as they are polite and do not try to force their views on others or the organization as a whole. There are no historical examples of such freedoms in a theocracy.
33) Thirdly, Cole’s claim is wrong because the Baha’i Faith is a voluntary organization. The individual’s right to leave the organization is deeply entrenched in the Faith which rejects compulsion in religious matters. There is no historical example of a theocracy in which individuals may openly leave the ruling religion. Here too, it is clear that Cole’s use of this word is factually incorrect and is simply being used as a propaganda scare tactic.
34) What Cole misunderstands and, consequently, misrepresents, is the fact that the Baha’i Faith recognizes that the separation of church and state is impossible to achieve. Though supposedly a foundation stone of American democracy, the truth is American civil society is saturated with Judeo-Christian religion in its values, laws, customs, political and social expectations and holidays. The separation of church and state is honored at least as much in the breach as in the observance. Given the close, though informal, integration of religion and state, it follows that any major change in American religion - such as mass conversions to the Baha’i Faith - would inevitably be reflected in changes in law, values and so on. Cole is offended by the frank recognition of this fact. However, in his defense it must be said that some Baha’is discussing this issue have been as loose and inaccurate in their use of the word ‘theocracy’ as he has. The difference is that they use it as part of their effort to understand what the Faith teaches while Cole is trying to use it to scare readers by trying to draw parallels between the Baha’i Faith and the theocratic Muslim Republic of Iran. Such parallels have no substance.
35) Cole’s twelfth error of fact concerns is his suggestion that the Baha’i Faith needs to hide its alleged anti-human rights agenda. Cole suggests the existence of such an agenda when he writes that a “clear condemnation of human rights principles” (ibid.) would deprive the Faith of new recruits. This is a pure fabrication on Cole’s part. The Baha’i Faith does not have any anti-human rights agenda, a fact supported by its long-time status as a respected NGO at the UN. To keep such status, the Faith must subscribe to and support international standards of human rights because NGO’s that do not are either not certified or lose their status. What Cole is trying to do here is turn a difference of philosophical opinion between himself and the BAO on how to interpret and implement some human rights in some areas into a wholesale “condemnation of human rights principles” (ibid.).
36) An example of such an interpretational difference concerns the service of women on the Universal House of Justice. The Baha’i Faith - unlike Cole - believes that men and women are complementary, equal but also different, and that these differences can affect the kind of work to which they are best suited under certain circumstances. In other words, equality does not preclude differentiation of function either permanent or temporary. Cole disagrees, and thinks the exemption of women from service on the Universal House is a violation of human rights. However, given the various privileges enjoyed by Baha’i women - priority in education for example - clearly demonstrate that there is no gender prejudice in the Baha’i Faith.
37) The thirteenth error of fact concerns Cole’s statement that “cults of leadership do grow up around Baha’i officials” (ibid.). As usual, he presents no evidence or studies to support this claim. However, its falsity is patently evident because none of the behaviors associated with leadership cults are evident in the Baha’i community. No individual names appear on any letters from the Universal House of Justice, NSA’s and LSA’s. They all sign as institutions. Baha’is are not required to display pictures of their leaders; if Baha’is display any picture at all, it is Abdu’l-Baha’s, and not that of any current official. This claim is simply an attempt to influence readers’ emotions by associating the Baha’i Faith with the Rajneesh commune, Scientology or the personality cults surrounding Hitler, Stalin or Mao.
2. Problems with Omissions
38) While errors of fact directly and in themselves convey false information, errors of omission leave out essential information and, thereby, misrepresent, misinform and mislead. Such errors are made by omitting any information that is directly relevant to the topic under discussion or that readers require to make informed judgments about what they are reading. While some authorial discretion is inevitable in any work, it is not acceptable to exclude material that can make fundamental changes in the readers’ understanding. At that point authorial discretion becomes suppression, of which Cole’s article provides at least three examples.
39) The most serious of these cases is Cole’s pose as disinterested scholar. Had Cole left himself out of the discussion entirely, there could be no objection but he does not do this. Rather, he tries to present his former membership as a source of validation and authority for his statements and claims; after all, as a ex-member, he ought to know. More, he tries to present his years of membership as “participant observation” (ibid.), stating that “The author has been studying the Baha’i religion for a quarter of a century, and spent much of that time as an adherent.” (ibid.). These words are calculated to create the impression of a man who has been an ordinary rank-and-file Baha’i, who, for some reason, left the Faith. They do not contain even the slightest suggestion of Cole’s highly visible activist role in a number of controversies.
40) In other words, Cole misleads readers by suppressing the fact that over the years he has been heavily and publicly embroiled in disputes with the BAO over such issues as pre-publication review, the powers of the Universal House of Justice, interpretation of Baha’i texts and conditions for membership in the Baha’i Faith. Perhaps not so coincidentally, these are also among the major issues for which Cole criticizes the BAO in “Panopticon”. Cole also fails to mention his prominent role in a number of personal disputes with various members of the BAO including Counselors and several on the Universal House of Justice. In reviewing Cole’s record, readers can only conclude that Cole has been anything but a disinterested participant-observer in these matters. Instead, he has been a heavily committed combatant on one side in these conflicts as a protagonist for what he describes as ‘liberalism’. A visit to his own web-sites will confirm this.
41) The fact that Cole has had disputes with the BAO is not, of course, the problem. Participants in disputes have as much right to tell their side of the story as anyone else. Winston Churchill, for example, wrote a multi-volume history of World War Two. However, objective and rational scholars do not read Churchill’s account without bearing in mind his partisan involvement in the events he describes; consequently, they read with a heightened awareness for erroneous and/or incomplete information, misrepresentation and prejudice. Unlike a world-statesman like Churchill, Cole, a relatively obscure scholar, is able to - and, in fact, does - hide his prominent role as a highly partisan combatant with the Baha’i Faith and the current Universal House of Justice. By omitting to reveal the extent of his struggles over issues on which he purports to provide a scholarly report, Cole seeks to lull his readers’ critical awareness and gain acceptance and authority for numerous statements that are factually inaccurate, factually incomplete and misrepresentative.
42) Such omissions prevent readers from making accurate critical judgments of statements like the following: “Although antiliberals have captured key posts, they shape the community’s ideology subtly by controlling media and silencing liberals who begin to become prominent” (ibid.). Cole, as his own website makes clear, sees himself as one of those “liberals” who have been silenced along with Linda Walbridge, Denis MacEoin, Alison Marshall and Michael McKenny. By omitting vital information about his own highly partisan role in the issues he discusses, Cole seeks to prevent readers from asking whether or not the statement quoted above is a self-serving piece of polemic or a statement based on genuine objective scholarship. The same may be said about all other statements regarding “liberals” and “conservatives” throughout “Panopticon”.
43) A second omission - one that is fatal to his argument - is Cole’s failure to take into account (and remind his readers) that the Baha’i Faith is a voluntary organization. One joins the Baha’i Faith voluntarily and can leave at any time either formally with a letter of resignation or informally by dropping out. Even Cole has not alleged that former Baha’is are harassed or persecuted by their former co-religionists. Indeed, doing so is forbidden since religious belief is regarded as a matter of personal conscience.
44) The voluntary nature of the Baha’i Faith leads to a crucial question: if people freely choose to submit themselves to rigorous discipline, can they be properly described as oppressed? The obvious answer is no. Oppression is oppression precisely because it is involuntary. But if Baha’i s voluntarily submit to ‘oppression’ by the BAO, why would the BAO need an “informant system” to keep in line those who apparently want to be ‘oppressed’? In terms of Cole’s panopticon image, why would the ‘jailers’ need a panopticon if the prisoners don’t want to leave and are happily obedient in their imprisonment? The truth is, they wouldn’t. Indeed, how is it possible for the ‘jailers’ to establish a panopticon when a prisoner can leave any time? Even Cole refers to a number of academics who “withdrew from the religion” (ibid.); nor does he refer to any follow up harassment. The truth is, no one can establish a panopticon under such conditions and this simple fact rips the bottom out of Cole's central thesis about the dictatorial nature of the BAO. A ‘voluntary panopticon’ that can be left at any time is an oxymoron. The peer reviewers at the JSSR should have easily spotted this fact.
45) With these two facts - the BAO couldn’t and wouldn’t need to establish a panopticon in the Baha’i Faith - Cole’s central thesis dissolves and reveals the true nature of the article. “Panopticon” is most charitably described as a ‘position paper’; it is not a work of reasonably objective scholarship written to inform but rather a clearly tendentious interpretation of a pastiche of anecdotes, e-mails, half-truths, unsubstantiated claims, factual errors and even hearsay. It is the work of a prosecutor determined to ‘get his man’ no matter what.
46) In itself, there is nothing wrong with such a piece; position papers are a staple of academic life. However, the problem of honesty comes into play when position papers are not clearly identified as such and masquerade as purely informational scholarly work. On this score, both Cole and the editors of the JSSR have a lot to answer for especially since the JSSR does not allow rebuttals. This odd practice makes the JSSR an accomplice in spreading misinformation. What thoughtful reader can avoid asking how often and on what other subjects has the JSSR been complicit in spreading and legitimizing factual error, half-truths and careless reasoning? The JSSR has done its own credibility no good by publishing this work.
47) The failure to define crucial terminology is a third serious error of omission in “Panopticon”. Terms such as “liberal” (ibid.) , “conservative” (ibid.) and “antiliberal” (ibid.) are too nebulous and have far too much subjective content to be used by any writer without providing a clear and explicit definition for readers. Without such a definition to control and guide our understanding of these terms, readers can only make educated guesses at what Cole is talking about. This makes it easy for him to manipulate readers through the uncontrolled use, “slippage”, of these terms.
48) Indeed, one of the oddities of “Panopticon” is the persistent ‘politicization’ of Cole’s presentation of the Baha’i Faith. One problem with this is that fails to explain why the use of such terms as “liberal”, “conservative” and “antiliberal” drawn from American politics is appropriate and applicable to this religion. There is, indeed, good reason why the terms are inappropriate. As already noted, the Baha’i teachings on various issues impinge on both “liberal” and “conservative” portions of the political spectrum. On one hand, for example, we find the usual “liberal” beliefs about racial equality and economic justice while on the other, we find a “conservative” essentialism on gender and permission to use the death penalty in certain instances. Baha’is are free to interpret their Writings as they please - a “liberal” facet of the Faith - but are expected to teach seekers the official tenets instead of their personal understandings - a more “conservative” facet.
49) This leads to three questions. How can “Panopticon” improve the reader’s understanding of the Baha’i Faith by forcing the Faith into pre-determined politically based moulds that do not really fit its teachings? Doing so is as distorting as trying to view Christianity through categories derived from Buddhism. Such misapplication can serve no scholarly, pedagogical purpose. But this leads to the next questions: ‘If Cole’s purpose in “Panopticon” is not scholarly, then what is it? Why does Cole persist in this misapplication of terms?’ Given Cole’s history of deep and personal conflict with the BAO, one cannot automatically rule out a desire to paint the BAO in negative colors for the academic world.
50) A fourth error of fact by omission lies in Cole’s description of the Counselors’ tasks as “encouraging proselytizing and imposing orthodoxy”(ibid.). The latter phrase, “imposing orthodoxy”(ibid.) is misleading because it fails to mention the full list of protective duties which includes dealing with attacks on the Faith and individual Baha’is by external opponents. Such attacks can range from spreading misinformation and untruths to efforts to deprive individuals of the jobs and/or rights on account of being Baha’is. It also includes ensuring that Baha’is do not flagrantly and publicly disregard to rules of the Faith, as for example, abusing alcohol or drugs, engaging in forbidden sexual activities and engaging in partisan politics. All of these are theological issues on which Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha have provided rulings and are not inventions of the current BAO to control and manipulate.
51) Moreover, Cole fails to mention that those who violate the laws of behavioral and doctrinal orthodoxy are usually only called to account only if their behavior is becomes a public issue. In such cases, the BAO must get involved to maintain the reputation or cohesiveness of the community. Regarding behavioral orthodoxy, contrary to the false impression given by “Panopticon”, in actual practice there is no rigid consistency of action on these matters at any level because the BAO, from the LSA on up, takes a whole spectrum of information into account and does not confine itself solely to the cut and dry administration of laws. The BAO recognizes the distinction between dispensing justice and the simple-minded administration of law. Nor does the BAO get involved with doctrinal orthodoxy unless individuals create contention in the community by insisting that their personal understandings be accepted as the official teachings of the Faith. The mere fact that there is inconsistency and flexibility in BAO action on these matters undermines Cole’s portrait of rigorous and systematic suppression of heterodox belief and behavior.
52) A fifth error of omission is found in Cole’s misrepresentation of Baha’is relationship to political involvement. Critical of the ban on partisan political involvement, Cole leaves readers with the impression that this is somehow an unnatural imposition on the Faith, a deviation Abdu’l-Baha’s instruction to “take part in the election of officers and take part in the affairs of the republic” (Abdu’l-Baha, quoted by Cole). In order to misrepresent the Faith on this matter, Cole leaves out three pieces of information that contradict and undercut his assertions.
53) First, Baha’is may perform the most essential of all democratic acts - voting, which, the case of the U.S. means voting for a party. This requires them to be watchful and intelligent observers of the political scene, something which undermines Cole’s claims about the political isolation of Baha’is. They may be removed from personal activity but are certainly not removed from thoughtful concern which is in itself a form of involvement.
54) Second, he ignores the fact that partisanship in the wranglings of political parties is not the only way to “take part in the affairs of the republic” (ibid.). Nothing, for example, forbids Baha’is from discussing the philosophical issues that underlie political or social issues, or, for example, publishing an article on the role of government in family matters. What the writer may not do is identify his views with a particular party or publish them in a party forum. Such a discussion or article is certainly involvement “in the affairs of the republic” (Ibid.). Furthermore, Cole assumes that all involvement in public life must be personal, partisan political involvement, ignoring the fact that Baha’is can get involved in all kinds of reform groups and committees and in service clubs.
55) Another of Cole’s false assumptions is that the avoidance of partisan politics isolates Baha’is more than the large numbers of Americans who, like Baha’is, do no more than cast their ballots. Cole simply assumes it does, but fails to explain how and why his conclusion is reasonable. Voter turnout in local, state and even presidential elections does not suggest a society so passionately involved in politics as to make Baha’is stand out by their avoidance of public involvement. It follows that if Baha’is do not differ from millions of other Americans on this score, then they cannot be as isolated as Cole claims.
56) Third, Cole omits that in evaluating the ban on partisan politics, one must recall that the Baha’i Faith is a world-wide organization and that what may be a relatively innocuous activity in countries with strong democratic traditions, is not so innocuous and sometimes even destructive in other parts of the world. Once a global perspective is achieved, the wisdom of the ban on party politics becomes virtually self-evident - which is probably why the Universal House of Justice has re-iterated Shoghi Effendi’s decision. Cole, of course, has good reason to omit this information: it shows that there are solid, tangible reasons for the ban on partisan politics. These reasons undercut his thesis that the ban was instituted and is maintained by the BAO as simply as a control mechanism.
57) One of the most blatant and prejudicial omissions in “Panopticon” deals with the freedom of speech and particularly, the freedom of criticisms that Baha’is have by law. In his effort to show that Baha’is - especially liberal intellectual like himself and minorities - are ‘silenced’, Cole neglects to mention that before any decision is taken by a community or LSA, all members have the right to add their views for consideration. The only restrictions on this right are claims to divine appointment or authority above the elected institutions. As already noted above, no one is ‘silenced’. Even after a decision is taken, criticism may still be voiced. However, there are protocols to follow. At the LSA level, plans and the way they are carried out may be discussed and evaluated at Feasts and changes recommended to the LSA by individuals or groups. Individuals should also be careful that their private consultations with others about a past decision do not distress those who feel uncomfortable with such discussions. This, of course, is merely good manners. Furthermore, an LSA decision may be appealed to the NSA and a NSA decision may be appealed to the Universal House of Justice, which, like a supreme court, has the final word. The omission of such basic information is clear evidence that the purpose of “Panopticon” is not so much to inform about the Baha’i Faith as to misinform and slander.
58) Cole’s claims about censorship and suppression of dissent are also belied by the fact that numerous Baha’is take part in his Talisman9 discussion forum where the tone is generally ‘unsympathetic’ and, often ‘hostile’ to the BAO. Were Cole’s allegations on the heavy handed control, censorship and manipulations true, many of the participants on Talisman9 would have been ‘silenced’ and sanctioned long ago, especially if the Cole’s allegations of a vast “informant system” had even the slightest substance. The fact that enrolled Baha’is continue to remain active on Talisman9 is direct and incontrovertible evidence that Cole substantially misrepresents the issue of intellectual freedom within the Baha’i Faith.
3. Problems with Substantiations:
59) A third kind of content error undermining the scholarly value of “Panopticon” is Cole’s habit of making unsubstantiated claims. Were such claims confined to minor issues, this critique would be a quibble: an article of limited length cannot provide proof and documentation for every point - although ideally, it should. Cole, however, makes numerous unsubstantiated statements of a major nature. Such habitual lapses seriously weakens his case; indeed, because so much of what Cole says rests on unsubstantiated claims, readers have solid and rational reasons to question the accuracy of the entire article.
60) The most disturbing example of Cole’s unsubstantiated statements is his insinuation and - through the mouth of another - plain accusation of racist motivations on the part of the American NSA. Because this is such a serious matter, readers have a right to demand an extremely high standard of proof for such allegations but such proof is not even remotely forthcoming. Indeed, on this most serious issue, Cole’s evidence is notable for its utter paucity and his willingness to use such eager evidence to make such major accusations indicates that his prejudices are not properly controlled by his intellect.
61) Careful reading of the relevant passages in “Panopticon” shows how Cole orchestrates his material. He begins softly, with references to the American NSA’s alleged concerns about the Faith’s organizational capacity being overwhelmed by “newcomers” (ibid.), then, racializes the issue by references to Dr. Kazemzadeh’s alleged concerns about “an influx of poor southern Blacks” (ibid.) and finally proceeds to the crescendo - an outright accusation of racist motivations from an African-American Baha’i . Having made the charge - through the mouth of another - Cole tempers it and finally, in the closing moments, he concedes that the American NSA did “show concern to socialize”(ibid.) the new African American Baha’is. However, he has succeeded in leveling his charge.
62) The problem is, Cole lacks any credible evidence to impute racist motivations to any of the American NSA’s decisions. He presents no evidence to substantiate his claim that the NSA was worried about being “swamped by the newcomers” (ibid). Was it really? Perhaps, it was delighted; after years of slow growth, too many newcomers might be a nice problem to have. Either claim requires documentary evidence to be accepted as a certainty. Cole’s proof concerning Dr. Kazemzadeh is an uncorroborated report from a so-called “one eye-witness” (ibid.) who sent Cole a “personal communication (ibid.) in 1997, that is, thirty years after the events. Cole takes this report at face value, though he does not tell us why we should lay aside doubts about memory and motive after such a long time.
63) However, Cole’s ‘piece de resistance’ is an uncorroborated e-mail on the Talisman listserv discussion group in which (a) a correspondent reported that he had been (b) told certain things by an older African American Baha’i ! This is sheer, uncorroborated third-party hear-say - and by quoting it in his “Historical Background of the American Baha’i Community” Cole raises it to the dignity of a fact or at least reasonable possibility. The accusations made by this “older African-American Baha’i ” (ibid.) are nothing but his unsubstantiated suspicion about a “specific ratio of racial diversity” (ibid.) and an accusation that the American NSA stooped southern teaching because they did not want a Black majority.
64) Cole’s own misgivings about this man’s statements is shown by his disclaimer: “Of course, this is only one opinion, and may be incorrect but it shows that some African-American Baha’is entertained these doubts” (ibid.). Actually, this statement shows only that one African-American entertained such doubts, and Cole presents not a stitch of proof that allows him to extrapolate from ‘one’ to ‘some’. He makes this extrapolation in order to provide this man’s statements with the ‘credibility of the crowd’.
65) Reflecting on this part of “Panopticon” leads to two questions. What is the purpose of including all these uncorroborated innuendoes and accusations? How does the inclusion of these insinuations and accusations inform readers about the history of the Faith in America? The inclusion of such uncorroborated but highly serious accusations clearly indicates that “Panopticon” is intended as a polemic as much as an informative article.
66) Another of Cole’s unsubstantiated claims concerns “informing which is officially encouraged “(ibid.) and the BAO’s alleged “informant system” (ibid.) which “forms another important control mechanism” (ibid.). Given the enormous gravity of the charge, readers and peer-reviewers might reasonably expect Cole to have some documentary evidence supporting his assertion - but he does not. What he has is two personal e-mails (July, 1997; April 1996), one passing on hear-say and the other making a personal accusation. If the American Baha’i community were really a panopticon, evidence for an “informant system” should be overwhelming and unmistakable yet Cole’s article provides nothing of the kind. Indeed, what he offers is simply fatuous.
67) As proof that informing is “officially encouraged”(ibid.) Cole presents a letter from the Universal House of Justice in which Baha’is are asked to challenge those who make unusual statements to show how their views relate to the Covenant, the ‘constitution’ of the Baha’i Faith. Cole does not explain how such a direct challenge is informing. Furthermore, given the central role of the Covenant, it is not unreasonable to expect members to be able to explain how their views fit into the Faith’s constitutional framework. Realizing the weakness of this argument, Cole then interprets the fact that all Baha’is are free to take their concerns about doctrine and belief to the Institution of the Learned or the Counselors as a sign of official encouragement for informing. Others, of course, might rationally see this as a model of accessible leadership. In a desperate bid to shore up his rather feeble claim, Cole adds that “official will sometimes investigate” (ibid.) alleged remarks.
68) This last quote gives the game away: “sometimes” (ibid.). Informant systems do not work by “sometimes” (ibid.) investigating a claim; if they did, they wouldn’t be systems. Nor would they be reliable and effective in helping the BAO keep and maintain control. The death blow to Cole’s “Panopticon” comes from the realization that without a rigorous and utterly reliable informant system, one cannot have a panopticon. Occasional ‘informing’ and investigation makes genuine control impossible - a fact that undermines the entire thesis of Cole’s article. The bottom line is that Cole’s use of the word “sometimes” (ibid.) shows that even he knows there is no “informant system” (ibid.) at work in the Baha’i Faith.
69) Cole’s third unsubstantiated claim is that “antiliberals” (ibid.) have managed to “shape the community’s ideology subtly by controlling media and silencing liberals who begin to become prominent” (ibid.). Precisely what did they do to be so influential and so subtle? Cole says they controlled the media but provides no examples or evidence of such control and the reason why is obvious: in a religion that forbids campaigning, it is impossible to run ads calling attention to LSA and NSA candidates, much less their supposed ‘political’ leanings. How is this influence supposed to work?
70) A perusal of official Baha’i magazines shows their preoccupation with teaching, the fund and, in recent years, the Arc. There are also messages from the NSA and the Universal House of Justice on a variety of topics from economics, Baha’i scholarship, women’s rights to the internet. These letters bear no individual signatures and, therefore, cannot function as campaign literature. Their statements are copiously supported with quotes from Writings that are widely available to all Baha’is who wish to examine matters more deeply. Baha’is who are puzzled by a statement or a scriptural understanding are free, even encouraged, to write the NSA and the Universal House for clarifications and many have done so. If the ‘subtle’ influence is happening through these means, then it is up to Cole to provide examples that support his otherwise empty claim.
71) Could it be that Baha’is are being influenced by the fact that members of the BAO get their pictures published more often than others? Cole seems to think such things are “informal campaigning” (ibid.). Again, it is hard to imagine how seeing a picture of a particular Counselor or NSA member could sway a Baha’i to adopt an “antiliberal” (ibid.) position and it is Cole’s responsibility to explain how such an unlikely scenario could unfold. Given their positions and widespread duties, frequent publication of some BAO members’ photos is unavoidable unless one deletes all photos and name references entirely. This is unreasonable, especially in a highly visual age. The letters from individuals found in official Baha’i magazines are almost exclusively positive but who would reasonably expect otherwise in a religion that stresses accenting the positive? Besides, such letters don’t elect anyone.
72) Finally, there is nothing ‘subtle’ about “silencing liberals who begin to become too prominent” (ibid.). Silencing individuals who are becoming prominent is not an activity that can be hidden, most especially in the age of the telephone, fax, internet and personal web-pages. Indeed, even before his resignation from the Baha’i Faith, Cole was an example of how very difficult it is to silence a prominent believer; his struggles regarding the Talisman discussion list not to mention pre-publication review were all very much in the public eye. His own experience belies his extravagant claims.
73) Typical of Cole’s lack of hard evidence is his presentation of what he calls “informal campaigning” (ibid.) for office at the national level in the USA. Cole, and some others, cite the following evidence: current NSA members enjoy “all the advantages of incumbency” (ibid.), that is, their duties allow them to travel and speak widely; they attend conferences with “close associates” (ibid.), they are widely photographed for Baha’i magazines and in general engage in the “semiotics of prominence” (ibid.). Cole does not explain just how exactly they could avoid doing these things without also neglecting their duties. Moreover, it seems clear that if the publicity that accompanies doing their jobs is an accidental and unavoidable by-product, then it is not appropriately understood as “informal campaigning” (ibid.). Campaigns are intentional actions undertaken to achieve a predetermined electoral result; what Cole describes here is an accidental by-product of fulfilling one’s duties. The truth is that Cole has nothing worthy of being called evidence for his claims.
74) What does he really have? Two e-mails, and an anonymous anecdote in which individuals relate what they claim to have heard and believe! None are corroborated. From these meager sources, he concludes that “there is a widespread perception among some portions of the community” (ibid.) that “some sort nomination” (ibid.) and subtle campaigning is going on. Later he mentions the “semiotics of prominence [that are] thought by many to operate at the National Convention” (ibid.). Cole presents no studies to justify the extrapolation from three to ‘many’ in a community of at least 60,000 adults.
75) Cole also makes other unsubstantiated statistical claims. He writes that “many Baha’is believe” one thing or another about “their ecclesiastical institutions” (ibid.) or their “individual consciences” (ibid.). To the detriment of his article, Cole provides no evidence to support his use of ‘many’ - whatever ‘many’ might mean. Does it refer to an overwhelming majority, a bare majority or a strong minority? The bottom line is that Cole doesn’t know and a scholarly journal has no business in printing such pseudo-statistical claims. More on “Panopticon’s” problems with statistics follows below.
76) Still another example of Cole’s unsubstantiated claims is his statement that the “ban on campaigning leads to a situation where a great deal of suspicion falls on any active intellectual or any medium of communication not directly controlled by the NSA” (ibid.). “Suspicion falls on any intellectual … not directly controlled by the NSA”? Surely, readers have a right to expect some hard, documentary evidence for a claim of such proportions - but at this point, well into “Panopticon”, they have already noticed that the more grandiose Cole’s claims, the weaker the evidence. In this case, it is non-existent.
77) Does Cole mean to suggest that all Baha’i intellectuals not under suspicion are “directly controlled by the NSA”(ibid.) ? It would be fascinating to see his proof, as one would for the following statement : “Great suspicion attaches to any Baha’i teacher or lecturer who is not an elected or appointed official and is thought to be ‘gaining a following" (ibid.) The best Cole can do on this issue is an anecdote about a single Baha’i , an anecdote which he closes with the statement that “The rumor was that it [the closing down of his tour] was because he as developing a following (personal communication, 16 April, 1997)” (ibid.). The evidence we have here is not exactly high grade: a rumor and an uncorroborated personal communication about a single incident which is then extrapolated into a common feature of the entire American Baha’i community. There will be more about this particular anecdote in the section on anecdotes below.
78) The paucity of substantial and credible evidence for his claims leads Cole into errors of reasoning, as he tries, among other things, to connect his scraps into a coherent pattern.
4. Problems with Reasoning:
79) “Panopticon” contains numerous errors of reasoning which lead to self-contradiction or to incorrect, irrelevant or unwarranted conclusions. Some of these have already been mentioned, and others will be discussed below under the heading of “Errors in Statistics” and “Presentation”.
80) One of the most pervasive logical errors in “Panopticon” is called “proof by selected instances”. The physicist Richard Feynman provided a good example: he once dreamed a relative was going to die, but the relative didn’t. Feynman did not write a parapsychology institute about this negative example; if, on the other hand, the relative had died, he probably would have and thus his letter would have become additional ‘proof’ for a theory of pre-cognition. From the number of all death-dreams, only a few are selected. Similarly, from the entire repertoire of e-mails (conversations, letters etc.) about the American BAO, Cole has selected those that support his case. However, without some sort of statistical study comparing the number of e-mails supporting Cole’s views with the total number of e-mails written about the BAO, it is a logical error to assume Cole’s selected examples represent anything other than isolated instances.
81) “Panopticon” contains a major - and fatal - logical error in its second paragraph, where Cole writes: “One solution to this difficulty [of growth with strict internal controls] is to attempt to control what are thought of as key pressure points - vocal intellectuals, media, prominent institutions - and to give greater leeway to ordinary believers” (ibid.). The body of “Panopticon” makes clear Cole’s belief that the BAO is following this strategy.
82) The error of reasoning is simple: self-contradiction. One cannot, on one hand, claim that the Baha’i Faith is a panopticon where everyone is informing on everyone else to ensure orthodoxy and, on the other hand, also claim that the vast majority of members are given “greater leeway” (ibid.), that is, less supervision, for their thoughts. A panopticon in which the vast majority are free or even relatively free of supervision is not a panopticon, not even in Foucault’s sense of the word. With the admission that only some (instead of all) are under surveillance, Cole, once again, destroys the rational foundation of his belief that the Baha’i Faith is a panopticon.
83) Cole contradicts himself on this matter elsewhere in his article. On one hand, he claims that “the cadre of 4,000” (ibid.) that serve as part of the Baha’i Faith’s monitoring system “forms a significant portion of the active believers” and on the other, that “[c]onventional Baha’is often never discover the informant system, since they never trip the wire that leads to them being informed on” (ibid.). If a “significant portion” (ibid.) of “conventional Baha’is” (ibid.) are knowingly a part of the alleged “informant system” (ibid.) , then it cannot be true that conventional Baha’is never discover it. After all, many of them, are part of it. How can they help but notice that the “informant system” (ibid.) exists?
84) “Panopticon” also falls into a circular argument. On the subject of ‘tripping’ “the wire” of the “informant system” (ibid.), Cole writes, “The independent-minded, however, usually discover fairly early on in their Baha’i careers and then have to decide whether they wish to live the rest of their lives in a panopticon” (ibid.). In other words, anyone who ‘trips the wire’ is independent and anyone who is independent trips the wire. The argument is obviously circular, though Cole seems unaware of this problem.
85) This circularity itself leads to the fallacy of false alternatives because it suggests that people are either independent thinkers (and, therefore ex-Baha’is or Baha’is ‘in trouble’ with the BAO) or they are not genuinely independent thinkers. He rejects out of hand the reasonable possibility that people may independently have come to agree with the Faith or do not interpret the actions of the BAO as he does.
86) Another argument that ends in a vicious circle involves Cole’s use of an anecdote related to membership in the Baha’i Faith. Here, Cole refers to yet another experience relayed to him by a “personal communication” (ibid.) regarding how there were only 3 Baha’is in Compton, California, whereas the NSA had 22 addresses. The Cole admits “[t]his case cannot be typical but it is suggestive” (ibid.). Aside from the fact that the anecdote doesn’t prove much if it’s only an atypical isolated incident, we have a serious problem. If this atypical incident is “suggestive” (ibid.), one can only ask ‘Suggestive of what?’. Obviously it suggests Baha’i numbers are inflated - but then it is not typical … and so we go around and round. A atypical example cannot prove or support a general conclusion. It is difficult to imagine how credible peer-reviewers at the JSSR missed such a logical lapse.
87) Another formal fallacy in “Panopticon” is the “fallacy of false attribution” or Straw Man fallacy. He attributes to the BAO the policy of trying to overcome the incompatibility of strict intellectual controls with growth by keeping an eye on “vocal intellectuals” (ibid.) and giving “greater leeway” (ibid.) to ordinary believers. Only the most short-sighted leadership would even try this because giving “greater leeway” (ibid.) to ordinary believers, creates and stimulates the very conditions for heterodoxy which the BAO is supposedly trying to suppress. Given the obvious silliness of such a policy, Cole is obligated to provide some hard, preferably documentary evidence for this claim, but none is forthcoming. He simply attributes it to the BAO.
88) This leaves Cole falling into another self-contradiction. He claims, on one hand, that the BAO is subtle and insidious in its manipulations, while on the other he claims these supposed masters of subtlety and intrigue have adopted a self-defeating strategy of curbing heterodoxy in a small minority by allowing “greater leeway” (ibid.) for heterodoxy in a vast majority. Without documentary evidence, such claims are unworthy of serious consideration.
89) Cole contradicts himself again in his final paragraph, where he writes that “[c] conventional Baha’is often never discover the informant system, since they never trip the wire that would lead to their being informed on” (ibid.). Yet, at the start of “Panopticon”, Cole states that BAO is so confident in the conventionality of most Baha’is that it will even give them “greater leeway” (ibid.) in their thinking in order to isolate a few “key pressure points”(ibid.).
90) Another lapse in reasoning raises a fatal problem for “Panopticon”: if most Baha’is are so obedient and “conventional” (ibid.) that they never “trip the wire that would lead to their being informed on” (ibid.), why would the American BAO need an “informant system” (ibid.) ? There is no rationale for the establishment of an “informant system” (ibid.) or a panopticon. Among so many conformists, dissenters will be immediately obvious and vocal ones will inevitably draw considerable notice. Why then a need for all the subtle subterfuges Cole attributes to the BAO? Unless confronted by overwhelming evidence - especially of a documentary nature given the gravity of Cole’s accusation - thoughtful readers can only dismiss Cole’s claims about an “informant system” (ibid.) as a figment of his imagination.
91) Another major error in reasoning stems from Cole’s misunderstanding of the requirements of a panopticon. Unlike Cole, both Bentham and Foucault recognize that compulsory presence is essential in establishing and maintaining a panopticon. Bentham’s model is a prison and Foucault’s is society as a whole which encloses all who live in it regardless of their wishes. Except by immigration, leaving a social panopticon is extremely difficult. The problem is that the Baha’i Faith is a voluntary organization.
92) This fact leads to a simple question that strikes at the heart of Cole’s article: how can anyone establish and maintain a panopticon in an organization which one joins and leaves voluntarily?. By ignoring the voluntary nature of membership in the Baha’i Faith as well as the need for compulsory presence in a panopticon, Cole creates a model that makes no sense: a panopticon with open doors to freedom in a different environment. To escape observation and being spied upon one need only resign or leaves the organization and thereby go beyond the reach or the attention of the BAO and its alleged its alleged “informant system” (ibid.).
93) The fact that the Baha’i Faith is a voluntary organization leads to a deeper problem with Cole’s reasoning. The voluntary nature of the Baha’i Faith gives rise to another fundamental question: “If people freely submit to the discipline of organizations they choose to join, are they being oppressed?” Cole seems to think so and yet, there can be no rational defense of such views. Oppression means precisely that people are subjected to pressures against their will. Being ‘voluntarily oppressed’ is a contradiction of terms.
94) One of Cole’s most pervasive logical errors is known as “special pleading”. For example, he is disturbed that “Baha’i elective institutions are not beholden to the electorate and may decide as they please” (ibid.). Logically, this statement is true - but trivial because it says nothing more than the obvious. This is true of any elected institution, Baha’i or non-Baha’i : they can do as they please until the next election. But if this is true of virtually all elected bodies, why is it evidence of control and manipulation in the case of the BAO? Cole’s critique has no rationale, and does nothing to prove the control and manipulation he alleges.
95) Another example of special pleading involves his attempt to portray the BAO as controlling and manipulative in regards to what Baha’i owned businesses do with the commercial materials related to the Faith. Like any other organization, the Baha’i Faith has certain symbols that function as its trademark. Their manufacture and sale is closely monitored - as plain common sense, not dictatorial delusions, would suggest. The same is true with teaching materials, musical or literary, as well as with other Baha’i -related work. Although virtually all commercial enterprises, service organizations, clubs, educational institutions, religions, political parties engage in such ‘product control’, Cole - without ever explaining why - interprets these standard practices as evidence of a special dictatorial trend in the BAO.
96) Cole’s special pleading is also evident in how he treats the relationship between individuals and Baha’i institutions. He states that “[n]o public criticism of Baha’i institutions is permitted” (ibid.) though he admits criticisms may be voiced at Feasts among other Baha’is and by letters to the institutions. These exceptions, which he tries to gloss over in a subordinate clause, are already broad enough to blunt the worth of Cole’s critique. However, if one remembers that service clubs and political parties have similar rules and take a dim view of members airing laundry in public, Cole’s special pleading is irrational. Why is a behavior that is normal in other parts of American society interpreted as a sign of repression with the BAO? Cole provides no reason for doing so.
97) A far more serious error of special pleading - and consequent gross misrepresentation of the Baha’i Faith - involves the issue of the role discipline in the Baha’i Faith. Membership in any community unavoidably involves restrictions on one’s actions and speech; Rotarians, for example, are expected to conduct themselves to a certain standard. Cole, however, seems oblivious of the fact that both voluntary and involuntary communities not only have certain rules by which all members are expected to abide but also have sanctions with which to punish violators. This is necessary to maintain the integrity and cohesiveness of the community so that it and its members may go about achieving their goals. Any community that fails in this task will soon disintegrate. Given this universal state of affairs, it is difficult to see why what is common to all - disciplinary measures should - in the Baha’i case - be viewed as evidence of something special. Cole certainly gives us no reasons to take this path.
98) Because Cole misrepresents the Baha’i disciplinary system in his effort to use it as proof of the controlling and manipulative nature of the BAO, it is necessary to provide a more accurate account.
99) In the section titled “Control Mechanisms and Sanctions” (ibid.), Cole lists the removal of administrative rights, being dropped from the membership rolls and being declared a “covenant breaker” (ibid.) and “shunning” (ibid.). He writes that “Baha’i leaders employ a number of important control mechanisms to shape the speech and behavior of Baha’is” (ibid.).
100) In essence, the Baha’i Faith has three grades of sanctions, the first of which, loss of administrative rights, does not involve loss of membership. Without administrative rights, a Baha’i may not be married as a Baha’i, may not take part in Feasts, vote or hold Baha’i office until whatever difficulty which occasioned the loss is remedied. Loss of these rights is caused by clear and publicly flagrant violations of Baha’i laws pertaining to alcohol, marriage political involvement and homosexual acts. LSA’s have the right to recommend such a loss to the NSA but they are obligated to investigate matters fully and have considerable leeway in making such recommendations. They must decide, for example, whether medical or psychiatric conditions are involved, whether or not the well-being of children must be taken into consideration and how much time people may need to mend their behaviors. In other words, these matters are far from cut and dry and lack the consistency one would expect from the kind of tightly controlled panopticon described by Cole. The variety of LSA actions on such matters alone refutes the central thesis of Cole’s article about programmatic, persistent and rigorous control and manipulation by the BAO.
101) According to Cole, “[i]n some instances the NSA has removed rights for essentially political reasons, because a believer has publicly or even privately criticized (Baha’is would say ‘slandered’) the National Spiritual Assembly” (ibid.). Unfortunately, he offers neither names nor details, to support his claim that the motivation was “essentially political” (ibid.). Given Cole’s penchant for politicizing his presentation of the Faith as torn between liberals and conservatives, aware readers simply cannot take such claims at face value.
102) A second, more serious sanction is being removed from the membership lists. This is an intermediate step between the removal of administrative rights and the most serious sanction, being declared a covenant breaker. Being removed from the rolls results when an NSA or the Universal House of Justice decides that a person’s words and actions demonstrate that s/he does not really understand the nature of their commitment to Baha’u’llah. Such individuals may even have areas of agreement with the Faith but their actions show that they do not understand - and, therefore, cannot genuinely have consented to - the requirements of full membership in the Baha’i Faith. Their words and actions are not motivated by ill-will or personal ambition but rather by simple misunderstanding of the nature of the Faith and membership.
103) Even though “Panopticon” is supposedly about the controlling practices of the American BAO, Cole cannot name a single American who has been dropped. The only example he names is Michael McKenny, a Canadian science-fiction writer. Cole’s inability to name an American treated in this manner deals a serious blow to his portrait of an all-controlling and dictatorial BAO in the U.S..It should also be noted that since McKenny’s departure, one other Baha’i has been dropped from the rolls - in New Zealand. In other words, even three years after his article, Cole could find exactly two cases - in the entire Baha’i world - of someone being dropped from the rolls. None of these cases are American. The rarity with which this sanction is used flatly disproves Cole’s portrait of a highly regimented, controlled, panopticoned community.
104) Elementary math demonstrates the rarity of this sanction. If we use a very conservative 20,000 as the Canadian Baha’i population, we find that Mr. McKenny represents .00005%. This miniscule percentage is clear mathematical proof that this sanction is rarely used. This fact leads to an obvious question: “Does a method of discipline used against 5/10,000 of a population constitute a credible threat or deterrent to anyone? Is it likely to be effective in controlling people? This question becomes even more forceful when we recall that Baha’is are people who have already shown enough independence of mind and spirit to leave behind the main-stream religions in their society. The unlikelihood of such rarely used discipline being effective obligates Cole to provide evidence that it is.
105) Contrary to the impression given by “Panopticon”, the decision to drop someone from the rolls is made only after consultation and correspondence with those concerned. On this matter, “Panopticon” unfortunately descends into plain disingenuousness when it states, “Baha’is who publicly disagree (e.g. on email lists) with policies of Baha’i institutions can also be simply dropped from the rolls and declared non-members, as happened to Michael McKenny, in July, 1997” (ibid.). The writer of this review has, in fact, corresponded with Mr. McKenny since they both belonged to an earlier incarnation of the Talisman9 listserv. The truth is that Mr. McKenny was not “simply dropped” as unceremoniously as suggested by Cole.
106) Indeed, Mr. McKenny had long and extensive discussions about his issues with all levels of the BAO. Nonetheless, he chose to continue his challenges on such basic matters as the composition of the Universal House of Justice. This placed the BAO in the position of having to decide whether he was intentionally subverting the Faith, that is, a covenant breaker, or whether he genuinely didn’t understand the nature of his membership in the Baha’i Faith. The BAO chose the latter, less severe option which allows for the possibility of an eventual return to the Faith and allows Baha’is to remain in contact with him.
107) The fact that Baha’is may remain in contact with Mr. McKenny and the other person who has been dropped from the rolls seriously undermines “Panopticon’s” portrait of Baha’is as rigorously controlled, manipulated and isolated by the BAO. So does the fact that numerous Baha’is remain in contact with Cole himself for the purposes of intellectual discussion. Some Baha’is, of course, may choose to avoid individuals who have been dropped but this is no more than the exercise of their personal freedom of association. Since this is a matter of personal choice, it is a complete misrepresentation to present this state of affairs as “shunning” as Cole tries to do. Genuine shunning is a community action, not a matter of choice simply because it is ineffective if not supported by all. Other Baha’is, however, may stay in touch with individuals dropped from the rolls. Cole’s portrait of Baha’is as rigorously controlled, manipulated and isolated is factually false.
108) The third and by far the most serious sanction against a Baha’i is being declared a covenant breaker, that is, a person who knowingly and intentionally tries to subvert the basic teachings and organization of the Faith while claiming to be a Baha’i. This sanction is so serious that only the Universal House of Justice can impose it. Like being dropped from the rolls, this sanction is rarely applied because the consequences are so extraordinarily severe: Baha’is are forbidden all contact with the individual; spouses and even children can only evade similar sanctions by removing themselves from contact or by resigning from the Faith.
109) This is a tough measure but not without its rationale. In the Baha’i view, covenant breaking is like an infectious, albeit spiritual, disease. Some may find this medical metaphor distasteful, but thoughtful analysis shows it to be most apt. This is because covenant breaking originates in the person’s mind. It involves a belief that s/he is superior to the elected authorities, that s/he possesses the ‘real’ Teachings and that s/he has a duty to bring these true teachings to power by converting others from within the Faith. In other words, covenant breaking involves the attitude that one is above the law - entitled to challenge duly elected authority - and, in some way, the recipient divine guidance to correct the institutions established by Baha’u’llah. It involves the belief that one is somehow necessary for the good of the Faith, that is, it involves an immense egoism, as well as the conviction that others must be made to see this fact. Furthermore, covenant breaking involves intellectual and spiritual dishonesty. The fact is, Baha’u’llah has clearly designated His successors. People who feel they belong in this line have obviously abandoned their faith in Baha’u’llah and His decrees and should, therefore, resign in an orderly manner and then go about their mission. However, they refuse to do this; they refuse to recognize that their self-appointed mission contradicts and subverts Baha’u’llah’s instructions and that, in effect, they no longer believe in Baha’u’llah. Rather than admit this, they create problems within the Baha’i community.
110) Once the psychological nature of covenant breaking is understood, one can readily see why the disease metaphor is appropriate. As any classroom teacher or other person in a leadership position can attest, bad attitudes and their consequences are, in fact, infectious. Others around the problematic individual pick up the attitudes, often as the result of clever manipulation. If consultation fails, the only remaining alternative is rigorous isolation; in schools, students are put in corners, sent into the hall or to the office, and in extreme cases, expelled. Military recruits can be expelled with a dishonorable discharge. These tough measures are taken because long experience has demonstrated that bad attitudes can spread from one person to another and destroy any organization. For this reason, the severe sanction of covenant breaking is not only reasonable but also is the only action a responsible leadership can take for the good of all.
111) Cole’s presentation of covenant breaking is a gross misrepresentation for two reasons. First, he does not make it clear that this sanction is used with extra-ordinary rarity and then only as a last resort. Second, Cole misrepresents the issue by writing that individuals can be declared CB’s “for expression of conscience” (ibid.). He then disproves his own statement in the immediately following quote which uses as an example, an individual who had “urged reform of Baha’i judicial procedure” (ibid.). This has nothing to do with individual conscience; this individual was lobbying for changes in the Baha’i justice system as established by Baha’u’llah and His appointed successors. By challenging the system, i.e. claiming to know better than God’s duly appointed successors, this person’s behaviors, his actions, were a clear violation of his contract to accept Baha’u’llah’s guidance and judgment. Cole’s claims to the contrary, this person, was in actual fact “ fomenting a schism” (ibid.).
5. Problems with Statistics:
112) In his “Historical Background of the American Baha’i Community”, Cole provides a variety of statistics on the growth and alleged shrinkage of membership in the U.S. . Unfortunately, however, problems with these statistics themselves as well as with Cole’s statistical reasoning devalue much if not all of his claims.
113) Cole’s most obvious problem with statistics lies in his use of a 1990 CUNY (City University of New York) poll which estimated the size of the American Baha’i community at 28,000. Even Cole admits this is “perhaps on the low side” (ibid.) but the utter worthlessness of the CUNY poll is definitively demonstrated by the fact that the American NSA has confirmed addresses for 60,000 adults, a number which even Cole accepts. Oddly enough, Cole then tries to use this deeply flawed study to “confirm that there are not a large number of lost Baha’is floating around the general population” (ibid.). How, one might ask, how can such a worthless study be used to confirm anything at all - except sloppy statistical work at CUNY?
114) One of “Panopticon’s” most astounding lapses in statistical reasoning concerns Cole’s belief that the actual number of American Baha’is is well below the 130,000 claimed by the American NSA. He describes this number as a “vast exaggeration” (ibid.). One reason for disputing the official figure is a NSA survey showing only one third of Baha’is attend the regular nineteen day Feast. Unfortunately, this evidence does not support his conclusion because there is no clear and easy connection between regular attendance at religious services and actual religious affiliation. If, for example, a different third attend every Feast, there will be 100% attendance over the course of three Feasts and most certainly over the course of a year. Without knowing the mix of ‘regulars’ and ‘drop-ins’ over a period of a year, one cannot use the NSA’s attendance data to conclude anything except that one third of Baha’is attend Feasts. Cole is going beyond his data.
115) Furthermore, religious membership is too complex an issue to permit sweeping conclusions on the basis of the simple attendance data. In Canada, for example, 45% of Canadians list themselves as Roman Catholic, but less than 20% attend mass on a regular basis. Non-members may also attend on special occasions. In other words, there is no straightforward and reliable way to extrapolate from attendance to actual membership and doing so is Cole’s error. Finally, Cole misinterprets the 33% attendance at Feasts as a sign of weak loyalties to the Baha’i Faith whereas it may also be used to prove the precise opposite. Most Christian churches would be delighted with a regular 33% turnout and would view it as a sign of strengthening and even growing membership.
116) “Panopticon” also disputes the NSA figures because “Wilmette insiders give a figure closer to 60,000 adults in good standing, for whom the authorities still have confirmed addresses, and probably only half of these could be considered ‘active’ or committed” (ibid.). Leaving aside the thorny problem of reliance on anonymous and uncorroborated ‘insider’ reports, Cole’s lapse in statistical reasoning is obvious. Especially in a highly mobile society, not to mention a society in which institutional tries tend to be more informal and loose, there is no easy and reliable way to extrapolate from confirmed mailing addresses to actual membership. Once again, the data Cole uses does not support his conclusion. Moreover, Cole’s statement that only half of the alleged 60,000 are “’active’ or committed is hollow; he presents no data to justify this conclusion and there is no logical reason for anyone to accept it.
117) One persistent problem with statistics is Cole’s habit of extrapolating from a small number of e-mails, personally communicated anecdotes or e-lists to the Baha’i community as whole. The error is glaringly obvious. One what rational basis can one extrapolate accurately from a handful of e-mails to a community of at least 60,000 adults? Without a comparative study involving the total number of e-mails and communications about the BOA, how does Cole know that the e-mails reflect the whole Baha’i community’s experiences with and opinions of the BAO? He doesn’t - and can’t because he has no positive reasons to allow an extrapolation to the wider community. This means that on the basis of the evidence provided, “Panopticon” describes, at most, the experience and views of a small number of Baha’is and ex-Baha’is. This flaw tears away the entire ‘factual’ foundation of the entire article, showing it to be little more than speculation based on an elementary error in statistical reasoning..
118) It is also worth noting that e-mails listserv members are self-selected and not randomly selected; this lack of randomness also makes his extrapolations worthless from a statistical pint of view.
119) Perhaps the oddest thing about Cole’s statistical reasoning is that even if all his claims were true, his implied conclusion - the Baha’i Faith is weaker than it portrays itself to be - is still false. A religion in which 50% are “active” or “committed” and in which 33% attend regular services is a religion with a strong and stable core. A political party with 30,000 committed adult campaign workers would be a potent force in all but the most populated nations on earth.
120) “Panopticon” is also filled with pseudo-statistical claims often involving the word ‘many’ as in “[m]any Baha’is seek out and destroy covenant-breaker materials in libraries, and believe it virtually a mortal sin to possess such books or pamphlets” (ibid.). What percentage of the Baha’i population is ‘many? What studies were performed to establish this ‘many’? This is no quibble. Cole uses such statements to portray the Baha’i community in a negative light, as indoctrinated, thoughtless and ‘superstitious’ as a result of the BAO’s manipulation and control. Consequently, this careless statistical claims cannot be accepted as credible evidence in an academic paper making serious allegations about the behavior of Baha’is as well as their BAO.
6. Problems with Assumptions:
121) Errors of assumption occur when authors make assumptions that are either erroneous, unsupported or inappropriate to the object of study. We do not, for example, expect egg-beaters to function like frying pans. Faulty assumptions inevitably lead to serious failures in understanding.
122) The information Cole presents can only be seen as evidence for manipulation and control only if one shares Cole’s unspoken assumption that the Baha’i Faith in America ought to reflect American values and ways, and that its failure to do so is evidence of isolation, manipulation and control by the BAO. To readers living in other types of democracies as found in Canada, Britain, France or Germany, Cole’s erroneous assumptions are glaringly obvious.
123) “Panopticon” catalogues the ways that the current BAO supposedly uses to isolate believers from mainstream American society . To support his views, he cites Baha’is “disparagement of the institutions and values of mainstream American society” (ibid.) and the criticisms of the “U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights …[by] conservative Baha’is” (ibid.). He then interprets the fact that some Baha’is believe in a great “Calamity” (ibid.) as “Baha’i antagonism to existing American society” (ibid.). Cole’s disapproval of these “isolating beliefs and practices” (ibid.) is made clear by the way he identifies practices and beliefs critical of the U.S. with “conservatives” (ibid.) and opposition to these practices and beliefs with “liberals” (ibid.). According to him, Baha’is’ “attitudes can generally be described as ‘anti-liberal’ “(ibid.) and thus opposed to the liberal American intellectual tradition expressed by Locke, Jefferson and Mill.
124) This is all quite baffling. First of all, if disagreement with and voluntary distancing from the values and institution of mainstream America constitutes isolationism, then numerous American liberals - and even conservatives - are equally isolated. Why are Baha’is singled out for special pleading in this case? Why should we interpret such isolationism as a product of manipulation and control by the BAO when millions of others beyond the BAO’s reach have similar attitudes? Why would the BAO need to establish a panopticon to foster attitudes that Baha’is already shared with millions of other, often prominent, Americans? (Indeed, given the conservative trend in religion, politics and social policies, Baha’is should, by Cole’s logic, be less isolated than ever and in harmony with American society.) Reflection only multiplies the questions. Why does criticism of the Constitution and the Bill of rights make someone “conservative” (ibid.) as Cole suggests? What is wrong with “antagonism to existing American society” (ibid.)? There is more than enough such antagonism to go around outside the Baha’i community in the U.S. What is wrong with having an electoral system different from America’s? Numerous other democracies do.
125) Underlying Cole’s disapproval of these Baha’i attitudes is his ‘Americanist’ assumption: the Baha’i Faith in America ought to support the “institutions and values of mainstream American society” (ibid.) - as understood by Cole. This assumption is no more than a display of patriotic, ethno-centric preference that is ill-suited to a scholarly work because it detracts from genuine understanding of the Baha’i Faith on its own terms. It forces readers to examine the Faith through the political and patriotic preferences of an ex-member who has been heavily involved in conflicts with the BAO. Oddly enough for a historian, Cole ignores the fact that if we want to understand something, we must first understand it on its own terms and not in terms imposed on it from outside. His Americanist assumption leads to a serious failing of understanding.
126) Consequently, Cole does not seem to understand that the purpose of the Baha’i Faith is not to reflect the societies in which it operates but to reform them and to bring their norms and behaviors into harmony with the revelation of Baha’u’llah. Given this mission, it was predictable long before the present BAO was set up that there must inevitably be some distance between the Baha’i community and the nation in which it resides. Therefore, expecting the Baha’i Faith to approve American practices which it sees as highly flawed and detrimental to the people is like expecting egg-beaters to function like frying pans. For example, since in the Baha’i view, party politics is itself a problem, there is no point in engaging in such politics. Voting adequately fulfills the current practical exigencies of citizenship but further participation merely serves to legitimize and strengthen a practice the Faith sees as out-dated.
127) Once Cole’s assumption is recognized and identified as a personal patriotic preference as well as an intellectual failure to understand the Faith on its own terms, much of what he calls the “isolating beliefs and practices” (ibid.) loses force. These beliefs and practices, from dispatching lay missionaries around the world to “the ban on participation in politics” (ibid.) and critical attitudes towards American institutions and values, are the inherent results of the Baha’i Faith’s reformist mission and not the products of manipulative members of the BAO. His attempt to interpret and represent them as such shows a deeply deficient understanding of the Baha’i Faith and its chosen task in the modern world.
128) There are other signs of Cole’s Americanist assumptions. In the section entitled, “Isolating Beliefs and Practices”, he comments about the “beliefs and practices that underpin control mechanisms practiced by Baha’i institutions” (ibid.) by claiming that “Baha’is are isolated from mainstream society” (ibid.) because they cannot “belong to political parties, vote in primaries that require party affiliation, contest partisan elections, contribute to political campaigns or even express political views” (ibid.). This statement is only partly correct. Baha’is may certainly take part in political debates if they debate the principles involved in various issues and avoid open partisan comment. For example, in a discussion of taxation policy, a Baha’i may apply the Faith’s Teachings on economic justice or progressive taxation, or even discuss the principles of taxation.
129) Furthermore, Baha’is may vote in all elections and this - voting - is the quintessential democratic act. In other words, Baha’is are not isolated from the basis of democracy. Finally, they avoid official party affiliation because they believe that partisan politics themselves are significant political liability and do not serve the people well any longer.
130) Baha’i elections are another area where Cole’s Americanist assumptions lead to serious misunderstanding. He is, for example, intensely critical of the low turnover on the American NSA, a phenomenon he blames on lack of public criticism of Baha’i institutions and “the silencing of defeated minorities” (ibid.). Without Cole’s Americanist assumptions, this aspect of Baha’i elections presents no reason for concern. Why must leaders have term limits? Why must there be a constant change in leadership simply on principle? Readers who live in well-established parliamentary democracies such as Canada and Britain can only be puzzled why Cole sees the lack of term limits and the slow turn-over of leadership as evidence of manipulation and control as well as a lack of democracy. This is certainly not their experience and might just as well be interpreted as evidence of satisfaction among Baha’is or a sign of institutional stability as the Catholic Church. In other words, the low turn-over rate and the lack of term limits proves nothing except that the BAO has a different set-up than Cole’s preferred American model.
131) Furthermore, Cole is critical of the unity rule by which “all members of the Baha’i community must support the result, and defeated minorities may not continue to criticize” (Hornsby,1983:31 quoted by Cole.). In his view, the notion that errors will eventually reveal themselves is flawed because it “denies the need for checks and balances” (Cole, 1998). However, this lack of checks and balances can be presented as a problem and a sign of manipulation and control only if one assumes they are necessary and, if one assumes they are necessary in the American form. Practice in other successful democracies shows that such is not the case. Cole’s statements on this matter tell us a great deal about his political preferences but prove nothing at all about the Baha’i Faith.
132) Cole’s Americanist assumptions also cause him to misinterpret and misrepresent the issue of criticism within the Baha’i Faith. As he himself points out, criticism is permitted within the Feast, by means of letters to the institutions and by personal discussion, which, in any case, cannot be stopped in an age of telephones, faxes, and e-mails. However, there are conventions in Baha’i discourse, as there are conventions in the discourse of any particular community. Cole mistakenly tries to present these conventions as means of repression because he fails to take into account that these conventions are balanced by guaranteed freedoms.
133) These conventions have four simple rules. First, one may present any viewpoint provided it is expressed as a personal understanding and not presented as a truth that others must adopt. This ensures freedom for others’ right to personal understanding as well as room for the fact that on certain issues, Baha’is have final interpretations given by Abdu’l-Baha. Second, there is to be no campaigning or faction building to promote or oppose any particular personal understanding. In this way, the right of personal understanding does not become a source of schism. Third, in keeping with the Baha’i Faith’s emphasis on the positive, criticisms should be presented in the form of suggestions for additions, alternatives and/or remedies. This prevents the development of ‘negaholic’ attitudes that foster criticism for its own sake. Fourth, communications with the institutions and their representatives must be polite and respectful. They are, after all, doing God’s work on earth. Even if members fall short of ‘perfection’ as individuals, one should, nonetheless, respect the institutions through them. Readers living in a (constitutional) monarchy, like Canada or Britain, will understand this attitude quite easily: one may not care for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, but one deals respectfully with her regardless of her short-comings because she represents something greater than herself, namely, the Crown.
134) Cole’s Americanist assumptions which associate the political process with wrangling and conflict, makes him unhappy with the Baha’i modus operandi. When he complains about the prohibition of criticisms, he really means to complain about the prohibition against organizing campaigns of criticism, against into developing criticism into a faction or into a ‘loyal opposition’ as in parliamentary democracy. Because such developments divide and weaken the community, the formation of such factions is discouraged and, in some cases, forbidden.
135) In short, because of his Americanist assumptions, Cole seems to think that any form of discourse and criticism differing from his own preferences, is evidence for manipulation and control by the BOA. To prove and support this unjustifiable assumption forces him to use even the weakest evidence - uncorroborated e-mails and anecdotes - as ‘proof’.
7. Problems with Anecdotal Evidence:
136) In scholarly writing, anecdotes have a single purpose: they may properly be used to illustrate and support conclusions already been proven in other ways in order to convey nuances and subtleties that are difficult if not impossible to describe in abstract language. Anecdotes must also be carefully chosen to provide maximum support for one’s contentions.
137) Anecdotal evidence creates problems when it is used to support a general assertion because the anecdote may only be an isolated incident. In the “Errors with Statistics”, we have already seen how Cole tries to use an incident which, in his own words “cannot be typical” (ibid.) to prove that BAO numbers for the Baha’i community in general are inflated. An atypical instance cannot lead to a general conclusion.
138) In another example, Cole asserts that “[b]elief in infallibility can act as a powerful control mechanism” and then supplies a story from an annual convention in the U.K. . There is a obvious but serious difficulty here. If Cole means ‘it is possible in theory for belief in infallibility to be a control mechanism, he is correct and his example suffices to illustrate that possibility. However, a single example can only illustrate but not prove a general statement. One cannot extrapolate from single or even dozens of anecdotes to generalizations that cover thousands or tens of thousands of individuals without having evidence that such an extrapolation is accurate. Cole provides no such evidence.
139) Oddly enough, just as Cole had to use a Canadian example when discussing members being dropped from the rolls, Cole turns to a Canadian example, in the case of infallibility. Unfortunately, these examples prove nothing about the American BAO and community which - allegedly - the topic of “Panopticon”. Cole’s lack of American samples is a serious short-coming.
140) Readers have reason to conclude that “Panopticon” is incapable of using anecdotes in an academically credible manner. After citing a number of anecdotes - all uncorroborated and some literally no more than second-hand hear-say - Cole concludes that “these anecdotes suggest, to be a Baha’i is to be under constant surveillance by one’s community and to be open to being reported on …” (ibid.). This is, in effect, a statistical claim: if “to be a Baha’i is to be under constant surveillance” (ibid.) , then all Baha’is must be under surveillance. However, this is not something that can be established by a mere handful of anecdotes - some of which don’t even come from the American community. Cole’s claim can only be credibly substantiated by statistical surveys, documented orders from the BAO or a number of corroborated anecdotes so large that it forms at least a significant minority of the American Baha’i population.
141) Cole’s uncritical use of hear-say anecdotal evidence throughout “Panopticon” is especially annoying. For example, one supposed victim claims that “a member of the National Spiritual Assembly put a fellow conference participant ‘under secret orders’ to keep an eye on him but that the person recruited to spy on him later confessed (personal communication 1996)” (ibid.). Cole adds that “it was alleged to me” (ibid.) that this NSA member “maintained a network of informers nationally” (ibid.). By including such uncorroborated and low-grade material, Cole proves nothing except his willingness to use even the flimsiest evidence to shore up his case. The fact that he feels it necessary to rely on such allegations and hear-say about “secret orders” (ibid.) clearly indicates that even he knows his case against the BAO is weak enough to require even the most meagre help.
142) Another example of Cole’s often self-refuting use of anecdotes concerns alleged racial prejudice in the BAO. After quoting an elderly African-American Baha’i, Cole writes, “Of course this is only one opinion , and may be incorrect…”(ibid.). However, if it’s only one, possibly incorrect opinion, why is it being quoted at length to support racist allegations? Cole’s own statement undermines and refutes, his insinuations about the BAO. Cole makes a similar self-refuting remark about Compton, California, where he describes events that “cannot be typical” (ibid.) and then says they are “suggestive” (ibid.). Of what? By itself, the head-count in Compton suggests the Faith had drooped 1100% from 22 to 2, whereas Cole believes the Faith is about 50% of its claimed 130,000.
143) Cole’s attempts at unwarranted extrapolation from single anecdotes is illustrated by story about the Florida believer who faxed a copy of an “offending email message along with commentary to her opponent’s spiritual assembly, which passed the material on to an auxiliary board member” (ibid.). What does this anecdote prove except that even among Baha’is there are zealots who over-react to heterodox views? Neither this anecdote nor anything else Cole presents shows that all, half or even a significant minority act this way. Moreover, Cole’s concluding remarks show that even the BAO does not always take such forwardings seriously: “Official sometimes act on such reports…” (ibid.) One cannot run a panopticon on an occasional, hit-and-miss basis because, as every classroom teacher knows, intermittent and inconsistent surveillnce and discipline encourages violations.
8. Problems with Methodology:
144) Errors in methodology occur when a writer’s way of studying, describing and evaluating the subject matter is flawed. Cole’s error on this matter is simple: he fails to understand and present his subject on its own terms. Instead, he imposes his external categories onto the subject and then describes what he sees. Anthropologists ceased working like that decades ago, because they realized that such methods inevitably caused serious misunderstandings and gross misrepresentations.
145) In particular, he does not understand purposive organizations. Such organizations do not share an intellectual framework that stresses individualism and civil rights; they are focussed on common goals, not individual aspirations. Those who join such organizations, voluntarily set aside some of their preferences, civil privileges and even curtail some of their own civil rights for the good of the organization as a whole. They do so because they have a greater loyalty to the goals of the cause they have chosen than to their own views and ‘rights’. Such individuals understand - as Cole does not - that restrictions are a necessary and inevitable part of any purposive organization and that personal sacrifices are required for the organization to work. Membership has privileges - but also its duties.
146) Because of his misunderstanding, Cole interprets such voluntary limitation of individual rights as evidence of the BAO’s control, manipulation and violation of rights. However, most members neither see nor experience these voluntary relinquishments as violations, and, just as important, there are no reasons for Cole to interpret them as such on their behalf. If they interpreted their voluntary self-restraint negatively, the Faith would be suffering a mass exodus, which it is not. They know that these freedoms and rights can be re-assumed at any time by leaving the organization.
147) Cole’s failure in understanding the Baha’i Faith as a purposive organization whose members practice voluntary self-restraint of secular rights and freedoms, is the reason he relies so heavily on personal communications, anecdotes and personal e-mails. The only evidence he can find must, by its very nature, come from others like himself who are unable to adjust themselves to a purposive organization. That is why he provides none of the mass surveys needed to support his claims: he can’t get it because the vast majority of Baha’is don’t have his problems with joining a purposive organization.
148) Had Cole seriously intended to show that the BAO was genuinely controlling, dishonest and manipulative, he should have shown how the actions of the BAO violate Baha’i laws and Teachings by which all Baha’is freely consent to live. Then he would have had a convincing case because he would have shown how, on its own terms, members of the BAO were engaged in doubtful and illegal repression. Only in that way could one sensibly say that those who voluntarily joined the Faith had been abused and deprived of rights that were naturally theirs. However, his slender evidence - a few e-mails, anecdotes and personal communications - simply do not support his claims of manipulation and repression.
149) One of “Panopticon’s” deepest methodological flaws is the attempt to portray Baha’i Teachings and law through the lenses of political categories largely derived from American political practice. This weakness causes him to evaluate, select and interpret materials in terms of categories that are fundamentally alien to the Baha’i Faith itself. Nowhere, does Cole explain why one should impose bipolar ‘liberal / conservative’ categories based on American political experience on a globalized religion, needing a globally inclusive intellectual framework for discourse and action. It has already been shown how some Teachings and practices fit into one camp, some into the other. Consequently, there is good reason to reject as the application of those bipolar categories as inappropriate to the subject.
150) Another methodological flaw is inappropriate fragmentation. The Baha’i Faith is not a smorgasbord of teachings but an entire package, an integral entity, in which all parts must be seen in relationship to each other. For example, the fact that women cannot be elected to the Universal House must be seen in light of women’s stated priority in education, their absolute right for economic support and their exemption from military service. Cole’s practice of picking one aspect in isolation and trying to evaluate it in isolation is another of his serious methodological errors simply because it provides an incomplete and unbalanced view.
9. Problems of Understanding and Misrepresentation:
151) Errors of understanding are not errors of logical reasoning but a failure to think matters through completely with all pertinent information taken into account. They might even be called errors of thoughtlessness. Errors of understanding often cause writers to misrepresent their subject matter, a fault into which “Panopticon” falls on a number of occasions.
152) Oversimplification is one common way in which errors of misunderstanding manifest themselves. There are at least three major errors of this type in “Panopticon”. The first concerns the issue of interpretive authority. Cole writes that “With the end of the guardianship, conservative Baha’is are eager to invest the House of Justice with de facto interpretive authority …” (ibid.). By presenting matters in such a black and white manner, Cole ignores the genuine complexities of the situation. How can any legislative and executive body like the Universal House of Justice, fulfill its functions without at least some interpretation? To put a law or teaching into practice means to interpret it, to decide what it means under particular circumstances. This is unavoidable and Cole’s complaints on this point are frivolous.
153) In particular, Cole oversimplifies and consequently misunderstands and misrepresents what he describes as the Universal House’s stance “against ‘secular humanism’ and ‘materialist’ methodologies in academic scholarship, which would appear to be interpretive issues (UHJ 1997)” (ibid.). This presentation is intellectually naïve.
154) Despite his two decades as a Baha’i, Cole does not seem to have grasped that the Baha’i Faith is a religion, and as such, seriously believes three things. First, it teaches that the material world is only a part of reality. Second, it teaches that there exists a non-material realm which has a role in the unfolding of events in the material, natural realm. Third, it teaches that no simple empirical-materialist methodology can provide adequate knowledge about reality, especially when relating to historical events involving God. In the latter case, the strictly material explanations demanded by contemporary academic scholarship are, by definition, incomplete and, therefore, inadequate and inaccurate. They are factually false by virtue of their incompleteness, especially in regards to the most important aspect of these events, namely divine involvement. In expecting scholars to recognize this situation, the Universal House is not engaging in interpretation but simply reminding scholars about the logical consequences of their beliefs. Cole’s misunderstanding and philosophical naiveté cause him to misrepresent the matter completely.
155) Cole also grossly oversimplifies, misunderstands and misrepresents the issue of “literalism” (ibid.) and “non-literalism” (ibid.) in the Baha’i Writings. Indeed, this matter is a serious problem in all religious traditions: when do we read the texts literally, when do we read them metaphorically and how do we know when to do which? For example, Shoghi Effendi has written, “No matter how devoted and fine the love may be between people of the same sex, to let it find expression in sexual acts is wrong.” On what rational grounds can a ‘liberal’, a non-literalist according to Cole, claim a non-literal understanding of this? What internal, textual clues tell readers that this passage should not be read in its self-evident sense? On the other hand, when Baha’u’llah writes that we are “the leaves of one tree” (Tablets of Baha'ullah, p.27), what reasons, what internal textual clues, do we have for a literal reading? Cole associates literalism with Baha’i conservatives - and yet no ‘conservative’ would read Baha’u’llah’s statement in a literal sense. Cole'’s simplistic identification of literalism with conservatives and non-literalism with liberals is rationally untenable.
156) Another oversimplification and resulting misrepresentation occurs in connection with Baha’i refugees from Iran. Cole writes that the Universal House of Justice “even punished many who succeeded [in fleeing] on the grounds that they could only have gotten out by denying their Faith. In many instances it refused to certify such Baha’is as members, preventing them from being granted asylum and thereby putting them in severe difficulty and sometimes even danger” (Cole, 1998).
A review of the facts, however, shows that the situation was not as simple and clear-cut as suggested by Cole.
157) First we must recall that the years between 1979 and the mid-1980’s (the period covered by Cole’s remarks) marked highly unstable and often extremely hostile relations between Iran and the West and particularly, the U.S.. At that time, non-Baha’ Iranians also wanted to leave, nor could the possibility of Iranian agents among the refugees could not be dismissed out of hand. In order to help Baha’i refugees find asylum in western countries, it was imperative for the Universal House of Justice to be absolutely accurate in certifying refugees as Baha’is. Otherwise, if non-Baha’is, not to mention Iranian agents slipped into the west as ‘Baha’is’ and subsequently used the Baha’i communities to circumvent immigration laws, or worse, as bases of operations, the Universal House would lose credibility and all Baha’i refugees would suffer as international doors closed.
158) Contrary to the impression given by Cole, it was not cold-heartedness but rational prudence that made the Universal House extra careful with some refugees, among them, those who violated Baha’i law and declared themselves, or allowed themselves to be identified, as Muslims on Iranian exit papers at various airports. More than likely, the Iranian authorities could identify every Baha’i in the country, and so, a reasonable question arose: if a Baha’i got through customs, was it by good luck - or design? And if by design, was it because of bribery or friendly assistance from a sympathetic Muslim, or because a deal of some kind had been made with authorities? In the hostile climate of the times, it was, in some cases, too risky to certify a person as a Baha’i without endangering the asylum of those who had fled north to Turkey.
159) On occasion, Cole’s willingness to misrepresent the Baha’i Faith leads him into plain silliness. For example, he writes that the American NSA “enjoys all the advantages of incumbency” (ibid.) and cites the following facts as proof: NSA members get their pictures in the “The American Baha’i”; they send video-tapes to LSA’s and communities; they go to Baha’i conferences; they appoint people they know and trust when such appointments are possible. A moment’s reflection shows that such complaints are ridiculous: how else can the elected leaders do their jobs? In order to prove repression and manipulation by the BAO, Cole must show how Baha’i leaders have systematically misused the resources they are given to carry out their tasks. Without such evidence, his remarks are no more than grousing. He lapses into similar silliness when he presents as and isolating practice the encouragement Baha’is get to pioneer to other countries. Missionary religions do not grow by keeping members at home.
160) Just as silly is Cole’s claim that Baha’i leaders do need to present a ‘false’ image of liberality to the world. The fact is, on a wide variety of issues the Baha’i Teachings easily fall into the spectrum of ‘liberal’ thought about race, gender and class equity; the acceptance of other religions as genuine revelations; the independent investigation of truth and far-reaching economic reforms. Consequently, there are no contradictions between how the Faith presents itself and what it actually is. The fact that some converts or reporters did not investigate the Faith thoroughly cannot be blamed on the BAO when all materials are readily available. As for its ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ nature, the only objective and scholarly conclusion one can draw from a study of Baha’i Teachings and law is that the Baha’i Faith is not accurately described as either ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ but rather in some ways, a mixture of both and so, neither.
Part II: Presentation
161) Because Cole is a master of presentation who knows how to make his article communicate both at the denotative and connotative levels, it is also necessary to analyze his use of language and imagery. On this score, one must recall that in an academic or pedagogical work, the purpose of diction and imagery is to support and illustrate the ideas, to clarify what has already been established by facts or reasoning. Such pedagogical use of literary devices is to be distinguished from their propagandistic use, the distinction being that in propaganda such devices are used to sway emotions, short-circuit critical awareness and cover up weaknesses in evidence and reasoning.
162) “Panopticon” is extremely heavy in the propagandistic use of language not only to compensate for its weak evidence, errors of reasoning and flawed methodology but also to reinforce Cole’s negative portrayal of the BAO and his belief in the existence of a power struggle between ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ within the Baha’i Faith. Without the skillful use of propaganda devices, the paucity of his case would be all too apparent.
163) It is, of course, impossible to catalogue every single instance of propagandistic uses in “Panopticon”. The best that can be done is to provide samples of such usages in order to equip readers to find the numerous other examples of their own.
10. Creating a Paranoid Mind-set:
164) Introductions to scholarly articles are intended to prepare readers by providing necessary background information either about the subject and/or the author so that readers can achieve genuine understanding of the topic and evaluate the article rationally. The task of an introduction is to construct a frame of reference that contextualizes the material and provides guidance for understanding; it exists to clarify. Introductions to scholarly work should not aim at arousing emotions since emotionality is not conducive to rational and critical reflection. Such introductions are appropriate to propagandistic, not scholarly works.
165) The introduction to “Panopticon” is blatantly propagandistic. To create reader receptivity for his thesis that the BAO in the U.S. has become deceptive, controlling and manipulative, Cole begins the article by arousing emotions. Indeed, his first sentence encourages readers to adopt a suspicious, paranoid mind-set and engage in conspiratorial thinking: “Despite the large literature on American religious bodies, some groups remain curiously off-limits to investigation” (ibid.).
166) The phrase “curiously off-limits” (ibid.) suggests that something odd or ‘fishy’ is going on. “Off-limits” (ibid.) has strong authoritative (police, military) connotations, which, of course, is exactly what Cole wants to suggest about the BAO. The word “curiously” (ibid.) insinuates that perhaps somebody may even be hindering a “careful investigation” (ibid.), a possibility that feeds Cole’s portrait of a dishonest and manipulative BAO that, according to him, maintains a network of spies.
167) Cole’s attempt to arouse emotions is reinforced in the second sentence of “Panopticon” which points out how these “curiously off-limits” (ibid.) religions “carefully cultivate public images that hide important facets of their outlook and internal workings” (ibid,). As used here, both of the italicized words carry strong suggestions of intentional deceit. To complete this orchestration of connotations, Cole refers to the disastrous “collapse of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s Oregon commune” (ibid.). This reference is intended to arouse reader’s emotions by recalling the extreme isolation and regimentation undergone by Bhagwan’s followers as well as the absolutely uncritical adulation they accorded him. Cole wants readers to transfer such associations to his portrait of the BAO.
168) Having attached one negative allusion to the BAO, Cole proceeds to attach another, this time making use of the controversial practices of Scientology which “employs techniques of harassment against critics” (ibid.). Obviously Cole wants us to transfer the negative emotions aroused by such practices to the BAO - even though “Panopticon” does not refer to a single instance of the BAO doing the same.
169) These allusions to strictly hierarchical organizations which lack even the slightest resemblance to democracy are either completely off-topic or they are included only to arouse emotions. Rationally, they cannot function as frames or contextualization for the benefit of understanding because the Baha’i Faith is democratic in structure. In the Baha’i Faith, the final word rests with the elected organizations. This indicates that Cole includes these references only to arouse negative feelings that he wants readers to attach to the BA. This is a propaganda device known as guilt by association.
170) Throughout “Panopticon”, Cole reinforces his emotion arousing contextualization by drawing in other irrelevant allusions. For example he refers to the BAO enforcing “’party discipline’ in the “Marxist sense” (ibid.) on members. As already shown, the clearly defined rights of individual Baha’is make such a statement factually absurd. Since it has no factual basis, the only reason for including this statement is the emotional shock value of the word “Marxist” (ibid.) with all of its connotations of gulags, midnight arrests and the entire police state apparatus that to one extent or another identified all Marxist states. Cole wants readers to transfer the negative emotions. In his factually erroneous discussion of the Faith’s alleged theocratic pretensions, he does the same by raising the spectre of the Baha’i Faith working to establish a theocratic state like Iran’s in the U.S.. This is blatant fear-mongering.
11. Buzz Words: Using Diction to Manipulate Feelings:
171) Skillful writers choose words not just for their denotations (dictionary meanings) but also for their connotations, the emotions, ideas and images associated with a word. Connotations may be thought of as the ripples that spread out from a stone thrown into a pool. In competent writing, these associations interact positively, reinforcing each other and thus create a general impression which cannot be linked to any specific passage in the text but is a function of the whole. The appropriate, informative use of such use of language is to reinforce ideas proven by other means; such pedagogical usage helps clarify and communicate facts. Propaganda uses buzz-words not to educate but rather to hide weak or non-existent evidence and errors of reasoning. It appeals to emotions because its intellectual content is lacking.
172) Cole carefully selects his diction to provide on-going support to the paranoid mind-set and conspiratorial thinking he wants readers to indulge. The words he chooses carry negative connotations associated with threat, suspicion, unchecked governmental, police or ecclesiastical power, and deception.
173) Numerous examples of such emotive diction may be found in those portions of “Panopticon” already quoted in this review. However, in order for readers to gain a more precise understanding of how this works, I will analyze three examples. Once readers have seen these, they will be able to find numerous others on their own and begin to see how Cole uses highly connotative language to deflect reader attention from the problems with his content.
174) The following statement serves as the first example.
“Thus an open insistence on a fundamentalist orthodoxy and a clear condemnation of human rights principles might deprive the religion of an important recruiting ground. Although anti-liberals have captured the key posts, they shape the community’s ideology subtly by controlling media and silencing liberals who begin to become prominent” (ibid.).
175) Given the way Cole has contextualized or framed the entire article in terms of power, fear and control, his attempt to rouse negative reactions by means of emotional ‘buzz-words’ is obvious. Either by itself or in its use, each of the italicized words becomes a hot-button word triggering emotions related to suspicion, fear, conflict and oppression. This is exactly what Cole wants. Of special interest is the word "subtly" (ibid.), which allows Cole to encourage conspiratorial thinking without having to provide hard evidence; since the activity is so ‘subtle’ proof cannot be readily available. Otherwise it wouldn’t be subtle, would it? Thus, the very lack of evidence becomes proof - of how dangerous and subtle the really BAO is! This is paranoid thinking at its best.
176) Here is another example, this time, portraying Baha’is as ‘un-American’ because they do not agree with all aspects of the American political scene. This is a good example of how buzz-words can be used to create a polarized ‘them vs. us’ mind-set and orchestrate an accusation without ever explicitly making one.
177) "Another way in which many Baha’is are isolated from social supports is their disparagement of the institutions and values of mainstream American society. Many Baha’is exalt their own community, values and procedures and denigrate those of what they call the “Old World Order”. The U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights are often criticized by conservative Baha’is as embodying the Old World Order values and inferior to those found in the Baha’i Writings. Baha’i antagonism to existing American society is expressed in a number of ways." (ibid.)
178) Once again ignoring the pseudo-statistical “many” (ibid.) for which he has no supportive studies, Cole’s choice of diction makes it obvious that he wants to portray Baha’is as un-American. Baha’i disagreement, i.e. difference of opinion with some aspects of American political life is portrayed as “disparagement” (ibid.) , i.e. an emotionally dismissive contempt. ‘Disparage’ has a nasty and hostile connotations which are reinforced by Cole’s use of two other strongly emotional words: “antagonism” (ibid.), which directly brings up the issue of hostility, and “denigrate” (ibid.), which means to “blacken; defame” (OED). By using the word “denigrate” (Cole, 1998) Cole presents Baha’i disagreement with some aspects of American political and social life as an odious and hostile attack. This reinforces his suggestion that Baha’is - or least, Baha’is in good standing - are enemies of the United States. Further reinforcement of this portrait of Baha’is as disloyal Americans is the statement that they “exalt their own community” over what currently exists. In other words, not only are Baha’is (except ‘liberals’) of dubious loyalty, they also have the gall to believe they have something better from which America may learn. The word exalt means to praise, dignify, ennoble (OED), but it also carries connotations of exaggeration, irrationality and of what today is termed ‘triumphalism’. This supports the portrait of Baha’is as enjoying a fanatic and malicious sense of their own superiority.
179) It should also be noticed that throughout “Panopticon”, Cole often widens his target from the BAO to the Baha’is and what they (supposedly) believe in general. Why not? After all, these are the people who elect the ‘conservative’ LSA’s and convention delegates who, in turn, elect ‘conservative’ NSA’s and Universal Houses of Justice. In passages such as one cited immediately above, Cole is, in effect, suggesting, that Baha’is in general represent a hostile, disloyal and un-American segment of U.S. society. This is a patently obvious use of a propaganda technique of demonization.
180) Cole’s remarks are inflammatory because whatever he says of the Baha’is can equally said of millions of individual Americans, even those who are members of established political parties; disagreements with current U.S. politics and society are the stuff of TV talk-shows, articles in mass circulation magazines and newspapers, not to mention wide variety of lobby groups. At the present time (November, 2000) dissatisfaction with the American presidential election process is wide-spread as the system’s short-comings become apparent to all. “Panopticon” provides no rational justification for singling out the Baha’i s in this manner nor for describing them as he does.
181) This reveals a problem Cole does not want readers to see: if other Americans, even from traditional political parties, can also be intensely critical of American politics and society, then the Baha’is are not nearly as isolated as he presents them. This realization reveals a major flaw in “Panopticon”, since one of its major theses is that the BAO controls Baha’is by isolation techniques. Cole tries to cover up this problem by demonizing diction.
182) Three things are worth noting in the passage quoted above. First, Cole’s identification of this anti-American sentiment with the “conservatives” (ibid.) among the Baha’is, whatever that term might mean in a Baha’i context. By way of contrast, the passage suggests, Baha’i "liberals" (ibid.) are not guilty of such un-American attitudes and beliefs and are, therefore, trustworthy. Second, this passage is an obvious appeal to patriotism, one of the least reputable propaganda devices known. Third, that a scholar who publicly identifies himself as a ‘liberal’ should stoop to such McCarthyite tactics is a rational ground to question not only the genuineness of his liberalism but also the objectivity and rational presentation of his scholarship in general.
183) Here is a third passage that shows how Cole uses buzz-words to portray the Baha’i Faith as a repressive organization:
"Informing which is officially encouraged, forms another important control mechanism. If accusations of covenant breaking do not cow the liberal, the conservative Baha’i will often “report” the offender to the spiritual Assembly or to a member of the increasingly clergy-like Institution of the Learned. In the U.S. this body consists of four North American Counselors, who command nearly 70 auxiliary board members, each of whom has an average of 60 assistants. This cadre of over 4,000 persons forms as significant portion of active believers, and those concerned with protection in particular vigorously monitor the community for their superiors. An official will sometimes investigate the accused, and then meet with the offender in an attempt to persuade him or her to orthodoxy. The authorities keep files on those so reported and sometimes blacklist them … (ibid.)
184) Numerous words here have strong negative connotations associated with police (“investigate”, “accusations”, “the accused”); spying (“informing”, “monitor” “ ‘report’ “); threats (“blacklist”); the communist party (“cadre”) and ecclesiastical repression (clergy-like”, “orthodoxy”). This web of negative connotations, already a part of such an extensive web in “Panopticon”, is strengthened by the use of numbers to portray a solitary dissident overwhelmed by so many who eventually get him ‘blacklisted’ from appointments. Here too we see all the standard techniques of demonization.
185) Why does Cole need to indulge in such propagandistic practices? He must for three reasons. This paragraph alone is a mass of unsubstantiated claims; for example, he merely asserts but does not prove that “informing … is officially encouraged” (ibid.). It is a case of irrational special pleading: why shouldn’t the Baha’i Faith, like all other organizations, reserve special positions and tasks for obviously reliable members? It is dishonest because in this overwhelming portrayal of a repressive organization, it downplays the fact that, by Cole’s own admission, these measures only happen “sometimes” (ibid.). But this “sometimes” (ibid.), so easily lost among all this negativity, is the Achilles’ Heel of “Panopticon”: if the repressive pressure is only applied “sometimes”, then obviously the Baha’i Faith is not as repressive as Cole suggests. This, in turn, undermines the thesis of the entire article.
186) A small but telling choice in diction is his claim that the “antiliberals have captured the key posts [and] they shape the community’s ideology subtly by controlling media and silencing liberals” (ibid.). The military connotations of “captured” not only reinforce Cole’s attempt to portray the Baha’i Faith as torn by a power struggle, but also suggest that the conservative victory is more by ‘force of arms’ than by legitimate democratic means. However, that is exactly what happened. If conservatives dominate Baha’i institutions, that is because Baha’is elected them to LSA’s and to national conventions where NSA’s are chosen. These people represent the majority of American Baha’is. Cole undoubtedly knows this - which is why he has to explain the liberals’ loss as a result of manipulation, repression and isolation.
12. Scare Tactics:
187) The purpose of scare tactics in propaganda is to turn readers against the target by making them afraid for their own well-being and/or safety without presenting any rational or adequate reason for such fears.
188) One of Cole’s most obvious scare tactics is guilt by association. He works hard to link the Baha’is with the threat of a theocratic dictatorship which would deprive non-Baha’i Americans of their civil rights. Leaving aside Cole’s misunderstanding and misrepresentation of this issue (See above) let us focus on Cole’s propaganda. He raises irrational fears, by linking the Baha’i Faith specifically with the Khomeinist regime in Iran. For example, he writes that Baha’is “do not see them [their institutions] - - as Protestants would - - as a mere church, but rather as an embryonic theocracy (in this they resemble the Khomeinists)” (ibid.). "Khomeinist" (ibid.) with its associations with Iran, the hostage crisis of 1979, the failed rescue attempt and Hezbollah suicide bombers is an effective way of making readers, especially those in the U.S., nervous.
189) More such fear-mongering is found in his statement that “Only Baha’is may vote in Baha’i elections and presumably only Baha’is would be allowed to vote in the unlikely event of a theocratic Baha’i government being established in the U.S. This policy would create religious minorities with less than full civil rights, as was, and is still common in the Muslim Middle East” (ibid.). This claim is nothing but speculation - as Cole admits by using the word “presumably”. Nonetheless, he continues to develop this idea as if it were a real possibility and, therefore, a matter of serious concern. Not only does his concern lack evidence, it flies directly in the face of Shoghi Effendi’s injunction that Baha’is must respect civil rights, even those of covenant breakers.
190) By withholding the fact that Baha’is are obligated to such information from his non-specialist, Cole, in effect, presents ordinary Baha’is as enemies of American freedoms and values. He vivifies this portrait shortly after this statement by saying that “Many Baha’is believe they must subordinate their individual consciences to UHJ decisions and obey it implicitly, a value strongly at odds with American individualism” (ibid.). Given the context he has created for interpreting such statements, Cole’s intended meaning is obvious: Baha’is are potentially dangerous anti-Americans because they willingly surrender their consciences to their institutions and could potentially threaten the rights of their fellow citizens. By failing to mention those parts of Baha’i scripture that preclude illegal and immoral acts, Cole creates a portrait of a potentially dangerous fifth column in the midst of U.S. society. Yet again, it is obvious that the Cole’s is not only demonizing the BAO but also ordinary American Baha’is and their community as well.
191) A minor, but nonetheless noticeable example, is his reference to the “cadres” (ibid.) who work for Counselors. ‘Cadres’ is a word specifically associated with communist party functionaries and is not usually employed to describe political or even church workers. Here, and in his reference to the Baha’i Faith alleged attempt to “enforce … ‘party discipline’ in the Marxist sense” (ibid.), Cole tries to forge an emotional link between the Baha’i Faith and the police-state tactics of communism. A similar allusion to the excesses of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot is the allegation that “cults of personality” (ibid.) develop around Baha’i officials. Given the outright falsity of this claim (see above under Problems with Facts), there is only one reason to make it: the strong negative emotions its arouses.
192) Another frequently used propaganda device is to involve irrelevant information if such information can serve to manipulate emotions. In “Panopticon”, as much as one quarter of the article is simply irrelevant to Cole’s self-stated goal of describing the controlling practices of the BAO. Instead, a significant portion of “Panopticon” focuses on Baha’i folklore, that is, the alleged beliefs current among rank-and-file Baha’is regarding such issues as one’s personal relationship to Baha’i institutions. Aside from the fact that Cole never substantiates the currency of these beliefs, they are irrelevant because they tell us nothing about how the BAO supposedly controls its members - unless, of course, Cole wants to assert that such folklore is also the work of the BAO. He does not. But this raises a troubling question: since this material is irrelevant to his case regarding the BAO, why is it here? Being irrelevant, it cannot strengthen his argument and so can only serve one purpose: creating a negative portrait of the American Baha’i community as a whole, and, in some instances raising questions about their loyalty as Americans.
193) The problems considered above do not exhaust the various and numerous errors and problems with Dr. Juan Ricardo Cole’s “Panopticon”, but they do provide enough evidence for readers to conclude that this article is not a reliable source of information about the Baha’i Faith neither in the past nor in the present.
194) Some readers will no doubt wonder if “Panopticon” has any redeeming qualities as a work of scholarship, and in my view, the answer is “No.” The most charitable description one could offer is to call it a highly tendentious position paper which should have been labeled as such by the editors of the JSSR so that non-specialist readers would be alert for biases and inaccuracies. The failure to do so raises serious questions about the editorial policies of the JSSR. Do the editors habitually allow such blatant position papers to pass as scholarly studies? Indeed, just how thorough and objective is the peer-reviewing process at this prestigious journal? That an article of this low academic quality can pass review is not re-assuring. Finally, one cannot help but question the policy of not allowing replies, at least in the case of seriously flawed papers. In the case of “Panopticon”, this policy makes the JSSR an accomplice in spreading misinformation and in giving credibility to substandard academic work.
195) Naturally, on the basis of this article, readers can only draw unhappy conclusions about Dr. Cole’s scholarship. One would hope that “Panopticon” is a sad exception to the rule, yet, the willingness to publish such a biased and inferior work in a major journal cannot help but raise doubts on this matter. After reading “Panopticon”, readers have plenty of rational grounds to approach Dr. Cole’s other work with healthy suspicion as to its reliability and fairness of presentation. Are they too, like “Panopticon”, part of his campaign to provide scholarly support for ‘liberals’ in the Baha’i Faith? How has his conflict with the current BAO affected his selection and evaluation of historical materials? His performance in “Panopticon” makes these questions worth asking and it is only a matter of time before thorough critics will arrive to analyze these works as well. .
196) Dr. Juan Ricardo Cole’s “The Baha’i Faith in America as Panopticon, 1963-1997” is a poor showcase for the author’s undoubted intelligence and ability.