Sunday, April 11, 2010

Moojan Momen: Free Speech Psych-Op Hero?

“Marginality and Apostasy in the Baha’i Community”, by Dr. Moojan Momen, in Religion, may have been a sort of psych-op to promote a need for increased freedom of speech and tolerance for intellectual diversity in the Baha'i community.

This thesis is approximately the 180 degree opposite of the blunder theory which emerges from the quite extensive writings directly stimulated by the publication of Momen's paper. These writings have almost universally criticized Momen's paper, and by implication, Momen himself, from about every conceivable angle -- unscholarly, poorly researched, illogical, factual mistakes, misrepresentation of named persons, falsification of history, unfair, as if Momen was a foolish shill for authoritarian elements in the Baha'i Administration, intent on persecuting certain Baha'is. Instead, the full and final true story might be that Moojan Momen is a hero for all Baha'is acting to promote individual freedom. How did I get here?

Blunder Theory An obvious first question: Which event in the last several years, other than Momen's paper, has generated more discussion, publicity and focus on the question of individual freedom in the Baha'i community? Considering various circumstantial evidence, the pieces do not seem to fit together; something is out of place or missing. Could all this be a mere accident?

If Momen is an intelligent, logical, experienced scholar, as seems to be the case, why would he risk his own reputation and that of the Baha'i Faith and its administration, by publishing what is widely agreed to be a very sloppy, poor quality paper in a relatively prestigious peer-reviewed academic journal? The conventional explanation that he merely goofed or intended to discredit so-called apostates may be accurate as far as it goes, but below the surface, could there have been a deeper motive?

On the other hand, if the quality of Momen's previous academic works were to be deemed to be in the average to lack-luster range, this would lend support to the conventional blunder theory, that the "Marginality..." paper would not be a noteworthy outlier in the collection of his publications. However, if Momen's previous works are seen by peer scholars in the good to excellent range, then this paper would tend to stand out as unusual.

Conspiracy Theory Maybe Momen had a mission to be a catalyst for change within the Baha'i community and more specifically, the Baha'i Administration. Maybe Momen undertook this mission on behalf of so-called liberal Baha'is, perhaps even at the highest levels, who knew that something dramatic was required to reduce the influence of a so-called conservative faction perceived to be fostering a "theocratic", "fundamentalist", "authoritarian" or a generally anti-freedom atmosphere in the Baha'i community, thereby inhibiting much-needed growth.

Consider the context. The Baha'i community had garnered impressive victories in many areas by the turn of the century (e.g., please see News at Baha'i Faith), and seemed poised for even greater advances. Baha'is could point to many important developments and encouraging activities reported both in Baha'i and secular media as a true source of inspiration.

However, reliable sources to this reporter estimate that thousands of Baha'is were leaving the Baha'i community and that it was almost guaranteed that any new Baha'i with academic training would soon leave the Baha'i community once the influence of the authoritarian faction was felt. The evident trend might have been seen as a new branding as the "for-uneducated-only religion". The blood on the floor from these losses of so many talented, educated Baha'is was clearly seen as a significant impediment to further growth.

Meanwhile, discussion of Baha'i questions on the internet was exploding and no doubt, there was fear that the Baha'i Faith, previously known as a "liberating religion" might be re-branded as an "anti-freedom cult", resulting in damage to it that could last for decades to come. In sum, the cost of protecting the community from perceived dissidents may have hugely exceeded the threat level. At least in some cases, people playing with fire-crackers may have been treated as if they had atomic bombs. The "universal religion" was being bogged down by the repulsive emergence of labels like liberal, dissident, conservative and fundamentalist, required to conduct discussion of these matters [such as in this essay and for that, I apologize to readers]. Certainly there was plenty of room for deep reflection in the highest circles of Baha'is concerning who and what exactly is responsible for this messy situation.

Clearly, something had to be done to stop the bleeding. In money terms alone, not to mention loss of precious Baha'i membership, an accounting of the cost of sending people all over the world (plane tickets are not cheap) to address often bloated, the-mouse-that-roared threats would be a very sad exercise indeed, compared to other needs for Baha'i funds.

Perhaps most compelling of all was the trade off among potentially competing requirements in the Baha'i writings: the acknowledged need to protect a somewhat fragile, young religion versus the abundant liberal teachings promoted by the Baha'is. Where is the balance? Where is moderation needed? These are admittedly difficult questions. And when things seem to be going down hill, it is a strong incentive for deep reflection. It is plausible that many of the most prominent Baha'is could simply not allow the Baha'i Faith to take further losses; they could simply not allow the "practical religion" to be turned into a soap opera side-show on the world stage.

In this context, we come to the tricky part. What could be done to weaken the forces of theocracy and strengthen the freedom proponents? Substantive social change, especially in this instance, seldom occurs by merely wishing it or talking about it. Rather, impressive and disturbing events (unexpected or planned) are required to reach threshold to activate or catalyze forces of change.

Let us try to put the pieces in place.

1. It was known that any critique of academics by a perceived Baha'i conservative would immediately elicit a huge and prolonged outpouring of strong and emotional discussion on the internet. That is, plenty of opportunity for massive free publicity.

2. But publicity for what? The present thesis demands that the answer be publicity to discredit the conservatives, and thereby weaken their influence.

3. A sort of double-agent was needed for this sort of psych-op and Moojan Momen fit the bill perfectly. We do not know how or exactly if or why he agreed, as hypothesized, to sacrifice himself to help restore the vitality of freedom in the Baha'i community, but if the present scenario is true, he seems destined to be regarded as a hero in the Baha'i movement.

4. Let us suppose that the basic rationale for the operation was to cast an overwhelming, bright light on a glaringly corrupt and immoral effort by a perceived conservative to discredit and even libel so-called apostates, who were for the most part, simply Baha'i academics who were regarded, by many, as guilty of not much of anything, or at worst, some idea that was considered to be intolerable. This publicity was reasonably expected to be extremely ugly, the cause of considerable chaos and therefore backfire to the disadvantage of the conservatives. So the proposed plan was designed to show, on a highly public stage and as clearly as possible, that the claim of many liberals regarding certain instances of unfair persecution by conservatives had some merit after all.

5. In short, the outward target of the operation was the so-called dissidents, but the real target was the conservatives, to once and for all discredit them in a most complete and humiliating manner. As the apparent "lone gunman", Momen would take the blows, but clearly, with Momen seen as a proxy for conservatives, at least some conservative forces would stand down, back off, be muted, be disregarded, "get out of Dodge" or otherwise tip the balance of influence in favor of liberals.

6. With this plan in hand, a "fall guy" or "co-conspirator" was needed. To understand why Momen was a perfect candidate, consider that only he or somebody like him could succeed in slipping such a horrible piece of writing into a peer-reviewed academic journal. For one thing, his curriculum vitae of previous and seemingly impressive publications would tend to lower the guard of the peer reviewers. Also, Momen had the skills to cite references in an apparently scholarly way, and to construct the reference list and notes per academic and journal standards. So superficially, the paper would look like something that is publishable. And perhaps most important, few reviewers, beyond those attacked in the paper itself, would know much if anything about Baha'i issues, and given the foregoing points, would therefore tend to assume that all was in order concerning its content.

7. It is probably a safe bet that the Momen paper was reviewed before submission to the journal by the supposed liberal conspirators. Not only are they very intelligent people, but it would be imperative that the manuscript be very carefully and subtlely crafted so that its worthless value would not be readily apparent to casual journal reviewers. Further, this strategy would better yield a continuing publicity event known as "a story that keeps on giving" as more and more of the planned defects in the paper are explored and exposed.

8. In this theory, the planners of this psych-op would be quite aware that public humiliation of the conservatives could be severe. The plan may have included effort to craft the Momen article to be deemed to be a fraud from the beginning, sort of defrauding the journal itself. This would add gas to the fire of the planned publicity event, that conservatives could be seen as causing shame to the community outside the community in the secular academic world. It was further known that the apparent targets, the "apostates" and many others would leave no stone unturned in analysis of each and every defect. And it was reasonable to expect that rage and malaise would spread widely within the Baha'i community, putting intense pressure on the conservatives to "get out of town", so to speak.

And the rest is history, as they say. If this theory is true, it would seem that the plan has worked to some extent. Although many months have past since the Momen earthquake, many conservative heads might well still be spinning at their almost over-night and undeniable loss of credibility and hence, influence.

In addition, there are a number of reports of indications of softening of the authoritarian influence, but this is beyond the scope of this essay. But of the many reports, however, one might be mentioned -- recent "voluntary" resignations. Concerning the Baha'i Universal House of Justice (UHJ), Baquia wrote:
This trend to retire (while still alive) is rather new. When the UHJ was first instituted there was no such policy and 4 members actually passed away while still serving. Finally the UHJ relented and allowed its members to withdraw voluntarily and enjoy retirement.
Could it be that some of these retirements are, to some degree, "honor resignations", meaning an implicit acknowledgment along the lines of "policies I strongly supported have been discredited so I'm out of here as a matter of personal honor"? In some cases, this might be plausible and a credit to those retirees, where applicable, widely regarded as "theocracy" proponents.

Whatever the case, optimism may well be justified, per further future retirements on all levels of the Baha'i Administration, to the extent that purging and new blood is needed. Indeed, the logical extension of this concept might be that Baha'i authorities decide that certain local spiritual assemblies are actually counter-productive, and that those Baha'is are better off with a Baha'i group status, spending time serving and teaching the public rather than taking minutes in formal assembly meetings.

The Momen Moment is Forever Just when everybody thinks one way, that a trend is "written in stone" and there is no hope of change, that often marks that a trend reversal is due. This happens in financial markets, which, of course, are a subset of overall patterns of human behavior. We often see prices trending up or down for a prolonged period, often in an apparently irrational manner, causing great losses to those taking contrary positions trying to call a top or bottom respectively. But as they say, a trend works to make money until it doesn't. Such a trend reversal is often widely recognized only in retrospect. The Momen Moment may be one of these turning points.

In sum, Momen's paper may have caused sufficient commotion to reach a tipping point where a "kinder, gentler" approach to certain policy making and implementation might become increasingly evident in the Baha'i community regarding its administration. So Momen's contribution might become fondly known as the Momen Moment, marking a cyclical peak of the market for conservative influence in the Baha'i community and its administration.

Without proof, the liberal mole conspiracy theory assumes that Momen did not act alone. A weakness of this theory is that Momen would have to cultivate a reputation as a fundamentalist for an extended period prior to the operation. On the other hand, liberals may have recruited him rather close to the operation date. Alternatively, Momen may have been a "fall guy" used by liberal conspirators rather than a central planner of the operation -- the patsy variation of the lone gunman theory.

Also, there remains the possibility that Momen pulled off this rather sophisticated operation all by himself -- the true lone gunman theory. Unfortunately, one cannot expect that Momen himself might confirm or deny any of the speculations herein in the near future. It takes some time for a ship to reverse course. Momen cannot step forward now as such would tend to limit the benefits for increased freedom of the psych-op.

Finally, the currently popular blunder theory may, after all, be where the truth lies. That the Momen Moment was no more than an accident waiting to happen, an unanticipated gift from God.

Whatever theory you prefer, the Momen Moment may have achieved permanent marker status.

The Good News We may have a win-win situation for the Baha'i Faith and its members. First, everybody loves a good conspiracy theory. Second, regardless of where the truth lies -- conspiracy with liberal double-agent, true lone gunman or mega-blunder, the Momen Moment remains, which may mark a cycle peak for excessive conservative (read anti-productive) influence in the Baha'i community.
© 2010 James J Keene

7 comments:

  1. This post had me on the edge of my seat! I had never looked at this situation in that light before, but there may be something to it!

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  2. I'm one of the 12 "apostates" mentioned in Momen's article. I was never contacted by Momen before he published his article. I think it is highly unlikely that Momen is a closet liberal who wrote his article to promote the cause of liberal Bahai reform.

    More than anything else, the effect of Momen's article has simply been to make it even more clear than it already was before that the Haifa-based Baha'i Faith organization is dominated by a pervasive culture of fundamentalism. It is not changing. If anything, there are signs that it may be getting worse, such as the recent election of Stephen Birkland to the Universal House of Justice. Birkland was the Bahai leader who was directly responsible for pushing liberal scholars such as Juan Cole out of the Baha'i Faith organization.

    Large numbers of people are still leaving this organization, due to its anti-scholarly, anti-gay, anti-individual-freedom, pro-conformity, doctrinaire attitudes. The emerging trend of recent years is for people to consider themselves Bahai outside the confines of the Haifan "administrative order." Expect this trend to grow.

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  3. Personally, I'd like to think the reviewers for Momen's paper were from another religion and thought it was great controversy - after all, don't we all like airing other religions dirty laundry for all to see?

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  4. Hello. Re "the recent election of Stephen Birkland to the Universal House of Justice" (UHJ), with all due respect, forecasters might generally consider this as old news, since he became a Counseler in 1993 and ITC member in 2008, making it probable, according to some analysts, that he would be elected. As such, "old news" is already "baked in the cake" re forecasting future changes in policy trends. Also, I have not seen any attempt to evaluate whether or not there has been any net impact in the recent turnover of 4 UHJ members. For example, even if it is assumed that Mr. Birkland has not changed at all compared to your citation of what happened some two decades ago, his replacement of another perceived conservative might be a non-event in the bigger picture, not a sign of policy change in any direction.

    Per core Baha'i writings, the UHJ is mandated, in part, to respond to changing conditions, matters not in the book and so forth, so the UHJ is just part of the big picture for forecasters. In other words, for the "smart money", who is elected in a UHJ election may not be given much weight when it comes to putting "real money on the line", re future trends. The jaded, "show me" posture of a forecaster is not at all inconsistent with core Baha'i writings.

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  5. Dr. Keene, I hope you're right that things will move in a more liberal direction within the mainstream Baha'i Faith organization, but I just haven't seen any evidence to suggest this. The only way it will happen is if at least 5 out of 9 of the members of the UHJ want to change course and agree that a liberal course is the way to go. I would be interested to read an analysis of all 9 of the members individually, in terms of what we know about their backgrounds, their past actions in Bahai leadership positions, things they have written about Bahai issues, and other relevant factors that could show whether they each lean in a more liberal or more conservative direction.

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  6. OK, I shall take up the evidence I have seen in a forthcoming post. To readers here, please send your evidence to keenej_at_cwdom.dm, with preference for public or anonymous credit, if your findings are used.

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