Monday, March 29, 2010

Moojan Momen's "Marginality and Apostasy..." Article

Moojan Momen's "Marginality and Apostasy in the Baha'i Community" Article in the journal Religion has received lots of attention, including the delightful response of Alison Marshall here.

Much has been written about this controversial article, and if I may, here are some points that I have not seen covered.

1. In this commentary, Religion is depicted as a prestigious academic publication. But I wonder. Is it peer-reviewed? For a time, I served on the editorial board of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, in which I had previously published a social psychology research paper. I've also done peer review for Brain Research, Archives of Neurology and others. Now, if Religion is peer-reviewed, I tend to think that the review was insufficient in this case. Why?

For one thing, a model is presented and some 12 real persons with their real names, etc, were discussed! This in itself seems extraordinary. In professional research, the "subjects" used to test a theoretical model are usually not named -- their identity is protected! If Dr. Momen is a faculty in a reputable academic institution, it would likely have a review committee with reference to usage of human subjects. "But this is history, not biomedical research," one might counter. Still, in the abundant internet commentary on this article, including posts by most if not all of these 12 persons, there is not a single mention of any one of them being contacted beforehand (prior to publication) concerning fact-checking of the manuscript. It is quite impressive that many of these real persons, in their posted responses, contest information presented, to the point that it may seem to the observer that most, if not all, of them do not fit Dr. Momen's theoretical model.

Whatever the case, serious questions remain. Did Dr. Momen have permission to use the real names of these persons? Did he attempt to contact them? Or can these persons and their lives be considered somehow to be part of the "public domain"? For me, the apparently incomplete and possibly inappropriate use of these specifically named persons as "research subjects" seems to undermine the perceived prestige of this Religion journal.

2. Is there a legal angle in all this? Does the article in some specifics misrepresent actions of these persons? Does it wrongfully do damage to the reputation of any of the "subjects"? If so, is it libelous? In Dr. Momen's favor, I don't recall any of the "Momen 12" raising any legal issues in their published responses to his article.

3. To the extent that the actual cases presented (real named persons) do not actually provide credible support for Dr. Momen's article, is his model for marginalized or alienated members of the Baha'i community simply false. Ironically, the model might well be useful, if applied to the perhaps hundreds, if not thousands, of Baha'is who have "dropped out" of Baha'i community activities, due to some of the factors Dr. Momen posed. Indeed, Karen Bacquet wrote a detailed treatment of this very important subject -- "Enemies Within: Conflict and Control in the Baha'i Community".

Why so important? It seems that certain events in the Baha'i community are indeed associated with the loss of a great many of its most prominent members, including professionals, including proven academicians, and people very active in promoting the Baha'i Faith. This would seem to be a huge loss to the Baha'i community, in every sense including economic.
© 2010 James J Keene


  1. One of the biggest flaws in Momen's methodology, and one which I wish had come out more strongly in the aftermath, is that he completely misuses Bromley's model. If you go back to Bromley's articles, it is clear he is talking about *contested* leave-taking. That is, cases where either the member of the group is forcibly ejected or where the group itself tries to prevent the leave-taking. Only a few of the named people on Momen's list fall into this catagory. Indeed, the vast majority of religious leave-takers, even in "high-demand" religious groups are not contested.

    Secondly, Momen implies that somehow the "apostates" are trying to make the Baha'i Faith into what Bromley calls a "subversive" group -- defined as one that is in high tension with society. He has it backwards. In Bromley's papers, it is clear that it is largely because the group is in tension with the wider society that the leave-taker is able to have an "apostate career", usually supported by anti-cult organizations. In other words, it's the cult (as seen in the surrounding society ) that creates the apostate, not the other way around. Ironcially, in using Bromley's model, it is actually Momen who is implying that the Baha'i Faith is a "subversive organization"

    And, no, Moojan Momen has never so much as addressed an email to me, even though we have both been on the same forums. He has judged me entirely from my writing, both published and online.

  2. I can answer some of your questions.

    1) Religion is indeed a refereed journal:
    http:/ /

    It has a good reputation, despite this fiasco. I don't know how this article got through review, but as I recall an editorial in Religion after the event said they were revising their procedures.

    2) The persons are not mentioned by name, but are easily identified. Most of the information Momen has used is taken from one anti-Baha site that collected exit narratives, and the names can be read there. The problem in this respect is not that identifiable people are used, but that there was no in-depth interview with them, indeed no contact with them at all. The sociology of religion has developed good methodologies for the study of disaffiliation, and within that, the study of what Bromley calls the apostate career. Momen has not used any of this.

    3) Dr Momen does not have any academic appointment. Nor, so far as I know, does he have any formal training in sociology or the sociology of religion. The 'doctor' title is that of a General Practitioner, which he was for many years.

    4) You are correct that some of his facts are incorrect, but this is not as serious in my opinion as the clear fallacies in his analysis. For example, he uses three different definitions of an apostate at different points; the first is that of Bromley which is cited simply to justify using the emotional term 'apostate,' but since all but one of his 12 subjects don't fit Bromley's model, he successively widens the criteria to fit the sample, rather than let the criteria determine the sample!
    He says his subjects have anti-values, the negation of Bahai values, but also says that some of the positions they took were later adopted by the mainstream Bahai community. (See ) That reveals what the paper is really about - the tension within the community between progressive and conservative forces, between those impatient to hurry change and those resisting change and seeking to slow it down. Momen, a partisan of the latter group, is labelling the former as apostates and then ducking under a sociological umbrella to avoid the howls of outrage at his use of the word. It’s a dirty trick.

    -- more --

  3. -- continued --
    5) Yes, there is a potential legal angle, and I did take steps to sue both Momen and Religion. As a result, Momen's response-to-responses was withdrawn from the journal number in which it was scheduled, and he rewrote it so that instead of defending his first assertions about me, he instead conceded that they were "inferences" he had drawn. That is, he conceded that he had no factual basis, but didn't go so far as to apologise, and I didn't insist. Unlike most of the others smeered in that article, I was in a position to sue him because I'm an EU citizen, and so is he, and because British law makes this relatively easy (Elsevier, the publisher, is also in the UK).

    6) The Bromley model is not entirely inapplicable: Ficicchia, one of Momen's subjects did indeed have a contested exit, find support from an anti-Bahai sponsor organisation, and the two together sought to mobilise government action against the Bahai community, with very little success. As such, this case is a minor but useful footnote to add to Bromley's work: useful mainly because it occurs in Germany rather than in the US but shows the same dynamics among the same 4 actors: religious community, contested leave-taker, anti-sect organisation and government. Momen could have written about this usefully, in more detail than he does in this paper (it would need interviews with all 4 parties), but I do not think that he had any serious desire to contribute to the sociology of religiom: the sociological surface was just a cover for a personal attack on his subjects.

    7) Bromley's model does not apply to people who leave the Bahai community in general, for the overwhelming majority of them do so without difficulty and without seeking or finding any anti-cult organisation to ease their transition. This is because the Bahai Faith is not, in Bromley's sense, a cult: it does not have a high tension with society, so (1)joining and leaving is not so difficult, and (2) there is generally speaking no anti-cult organisation interested. In Germany, the anti-Bahai organisaiton appears in fact to have been one person with a bee in his bonnet, working for the apologetics department of the Evangelical church and using its resources. The church itself does not, as I understand it, condone what was done in its name against the Bahais. (see under 'apologia' )

    There is however a wide range of sociologial literature on disaffiliation, which could be drawn on for a study, with proper methodology, of Bahai leave-takers.

    For further reading:

    ‘Enrollment and not” (on disaffiliation, and the internal political context of Momen’s paper)

    Polemics revisited (on the resolution of my defamation action against Momen)

  4. Many thanks to Karen and Sen for comments adding content which was new to me. [I finally found that using the "Read More" syntax caused your fine comments to be automatically displayed on a post page.]
    Re Sen's point -- "2) The persons are not mentioned by name", I thank you and stand corrected. [Having read Dr. Momen's paper, I surfed out eventually finding links to the responses of the "Momen 12" and by the time I created this new blog, I wrongly thought that these persons were listed by name (buy, hey, wouldn't many of their names be in the references cited?).] My bad; note to self: be more scholarly.
    Lucky for me, seems the comments thus far confirm my suspicion that the theory/model and the "subjects" did not really match.

  5. Sen McGlinn wrote, "2) The persons are not mentioned by name, but are easily identified" and in a previous reponse, I accepted that critique. However, in this version of Momen's paper, which purports to be a pre-publication manuscript, eleven "apostates" are specificly named (in order of appearance): Francesco Ficicchia, Denis MacEoin, Juan Cole, K Paul Johnson, William Garlington, Eric Stetson, Frederick Glaysher,Alison Marshall, Karen Bacquet and Kai Borrman. And curiously, six other "apostate" persons are discussed designated as "AA" through "FF", without their real names.

    Why are eleven "apostates" named and six not?

    Additional terminology note: Regarding "marginality", are not all Baha'is "marginal"? So Momen is talking about the "most marginal", which may be a trivial distinction. Regarding "apostate", not being a theologian, I had to look that word up. Generally, it is a very unflattering adjective. Indeed, reading through the definitions, the words "immoral degenerate" came to mind. With this internet record, what employer would hire any of these persons? Hence, regading my question on libel in the post, yes, there may be a case here.

  6. I was named in the published version, and can prove the falsehood of several accusations made by Momen. While very offended by this publication, I can't see any reasonable case for damages as my literary reputation has nothing to do with Baha'i. Of course Momen never contacted me or made any effort to factcheck as my complaint mades evident.

  7. I will add that in private communication with the editors I raised the issue of reckless disregard for truth in Momen's remarks about alleged apostates. Am mystified by your blog remarks about the supposed devastating effect of the Momen Moment on Baha'i conservatives. Would like some explanation and evidence on that. Any question of Momen's associations should begin with evidence and not with speculations about double agents. Who among his known associates could possibly have put him up to a scholarly self-immolation? I think it was a blunder in terms of the outside world PR, but assumed it succeeded politically for the author as a circle-the-wagons Baha'i political maneuver. Perhaps it was a blunder at that level as well?