A dissenting movement has mushroomed in the Baha’i religion thanks to the Internet and the way it disseminates “reformist” proposals, according to Bei Dawei of Hsuan Chaung University in Taiwan.
In a paper presented at a June conference in Taiwan organized by CESNUR, a research center on new religious movements, Dawei noted that the Baha’i crackdown on the first wave of dissent in the 1990s, taking place in an Internet forum, resulted in the resignation and shunning of several prominent members, including historian and blogger Juan Cole. Although the Baha’i are known for their teachings on world unity and interreligious tolerance, dissenters have targeted the religion’s strong leadership that tends to view those who question its decisions as “covenant breakers” who deserve to be expelled and shunned by members.
In recent years, the leadership has to a degree softened its strictures against dissent, for instance, discarding the practice of shunning and calling such expulsion of members “disenrollment.”Dissent continues over Baha’i teachings on homosexuality and the exclusion of women from the highest level of leadership, known as the Universal House of Justice. Since many dissenters are scholars, there are also clashes over revisionist views and research on Baha’i texts and history.
The continuing conflict has led to a growing number of “disenrolled” and marginal Baha’is existing on the fringes of the movement. The growth of new Internet forums and blogs and even offshoots, with one leader writing a new Baha’i sacred text, is also leading to a more pluralistic situation. A major example of this is the recent formation of a Baha’i subgroup within Unitarian-Universalism (UU), which is not to be confused with the Unitarian Baha’i Federation.
Whether mainstream Baha’is classify these groups as “covenant breakers” who must be shunned or as “dissident or apostate coalitions operating within an interfaith context (since there are Jewish, Pagan and Christian subgroups within the UU) … remains to be seen,” concludes Dawei.