August 21, 2010
By Christopher Schwartz
Throughout the Muslim world, Baha’is are routinely subjected to systematic derision in the form of elaborate conspiracy theories. Hostile political, religious, and media figures portray Baha’is as a secretive and miserly network of heretics who serve Zionism and Freemasonry to sow discord and undermine a harmonious Islamic society. Worse, we are also often portrayed as deformed subhumans with hidden devil tails and horns.
These claims may be fantastic, but they actually distort certain innocent facts, and the record needs to be set straight.
The accusation of subhumanity is the most hateful. It’s the same kind of the superstitious hate-mongering that has plagued religious minorities throughout human history, including Muslims themselves in the former Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, such slander frightens the Muslim general public and prevents them from learning the truths behind the other accusations.
The accusation of heresy is the most insidious. We do not identify ourselves as Muslim, but as a separate and distinct dispensation and religion. The rationale for this lies in our vision of history. We understand the Koranic statement that Muhammad was the “seal of the prophets” to mean that he was the culmination of a specific spiritual cycle in human history. We are now in a new cycle, one that began in the 19th century with the Baha’i Faith’s two prophets, the Bab (literally, “the gate”), and Baha’u’llah (literally, “the glory of God”).
Yet, because we believe the relationship between God and humanity is an ongoing story — there will be yet more cycles and prophets in the future — we are seen by many Muslim authorities as a challenge to Muhammad’s status as the ultimate vicar of God. Consequently, we’re also seen as a challenge to their own authority, whereas in fact, we have no such ambitions.
To be clear, we believe human history is progressing, under divine guidance, toward world unity and peace. It’s an article of our faith that Baha’is will have a critical — if not the critical — role to play in this development, one of education and example. However, we also believe that peoples of all faith persuasions and traditions, including Muslims, will make key contributions to this process.
The accusation of Zionism is cynical. Because our World Center is in Haifa and our holiest city is Acre, it’s insinuated that we are Zionists or that we work for the Israeli government in exchange for land. In actuality, Acre’s holy distinction derives from the fact that Baha’u’llah was exiled there. The site of the World Center was purchased during Ottoman and British rule through laborious fundraising within the Baha’i community.
Unfortunately, what really bothers some of our detractors is that we have any formal relationship with Israel at all. In truth, the relationship is one of historical necessity, since Baha’is need official Israeli permission to go on pilgrimage. You’ll find very few Baha’is living in Israel or the occupied territories because our leadership asked the community there to leave the country in the 1940s.
Moreover, Baha’is such as myself consider the debate over Israel’s right to exist incompatible with our commitment to the unity of humanity and a distraction from the vital task of peacemaking. We believe in transforming the human landscape into a just and divine order, which means not getting lost in partisan murk.
Finally, the accusation of Freemasonry is just ridiculous. We are often confused about where this charge comes from. Perhaps it’s our scriptures’ themes of illumination and mystical assent or our community’s commitment to collective democratic decision-making. Whatever the case, the accusation overlooks the fact that one of our early leaders, Shoghi Effendi, stipulated that Baha’is cannot be members of secret societies, including the Freemasons.
Of course, I’m a Baha’i. So all I’ve said above could be artful lies. But we Baha’is also believe in every person’s God-given right to investigate truth on their own. So I challenge you: Find a Baha’i and ask to see our activities with your own eyes. Have a little faith in yourself and in your fellow human beings. You’ll find most monsters are nothing more than the shadows of fear.
Christopher Schwartz is a member of the Baha’i Faith and a graduate student of Islamic philosophy and history. The views expressed in this commentary are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL