Friday, April 23, 2010

Rebels in Baha'i Internet Agency?

For six years, in an apparent rebellion, the Baha'i Internet Agency (BIA) has promoted free expression and the death of censorship in a series of widely disseminated position papers. Meanwhile, as recently as December, 2009, a SourceWatch article completely misses this milestone development. The Sherlock Holmes' method in Silver Blaze, a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, will be used to investigate the mystery of this disparity.

Road to the BIA
A number of apparently unsubstantiated allegations about the Baha'i Internet Agency include supposed sinister "agents" snooping around in various forums, and such. So when I clicked on the link above, I was mentally prepared to see a blank page with the centered words: "Baha'i Internet Agency Does Not Exist". The actual web page is about as no-frills as it gets -- a short paragraph and list of position papers. Forget about any detailed disclosure. The paragraph reads [emphasis mine]:
The Bahá'í Internet Agency assists the global Baha'i community in its use of the Internet, providing technical support to Baha'i institutions and supporting promising initiatives of individuals. Established in 2004 by the Universal House of Justice [UHJ], the Bahá’í Internet Agency operates under the guidance of the International Teaching Centre [ITC]. The Agency can be contacted at: info at bia.bahai.org
This sparse information leaves out BIA personnel, employees, budget and location (or does it consist entirely of field agents), among other things. Perhaps unintentionally, the BIA web page may evoke a "no trespassing beyond this point" feeling. A non-descript email address is given, where a first contact might be: "Hello, info. We are earthlings, who are you?" Overall, one gets a "Move along, folks, there is nothing to see here" message.

Curiously, the BIA does not have its own web server, not at the bia.bahai.org sub-domain in the email address for which the physical server is Everest Broadband Networks in Fort Lee, New Jersey, U.S.A. The BIA web page is simply a non-linked sub-page at www.bcca.org whose home page does not even hint that the BIA page exists on its server. This leaves an impression of secrecy: "If you don't know how to get here, then good, don't come" -- again, perhaps unintentionally.

On the other hand, the www.bcca.org server is located at Education and Research Consortium of the Western Carolinas, Asheville, North Carolina, U.S.A. We learn:
The Baha'i Computer and Communications Association (BCCA) is an international grassroots organization operating under the guidance of the Baha'i Internet Agency, an agency of the Baha'i International Teaching Center. Its mandate is to help individual Baha'is as well as local, regional, national and international Baha'i institutions effectively utilize communication and computer technology...
The various links on the BCCA home page reveal a very large number of communities and organizations which may have new or upgraded internet presence and/or skills. For any observer, this has to be very impressive, and favorably so.

For one thing, increased internet access in the global Baha'i community may explain, in part, increased awareness among NSA members of Baha'i-related material on the internet -- including the good, bad and ugly -- stimulating a noteworthy change in NSA member voting preferences contributing to the ongoing crash in fundamentalism in UHJ elections from 2000 to 2010, as described in my Fundamentalism Bubble Burst report.

In sum, we have a chain of command, guidance and assistance: UHJ -> ITC -> BIA -> BCCA -> individuals, communities and organizations. For some reason, it appears we are not to know who is actually doing things at the BIA and BCCA levels, as far as the BIA and BCCA web pages are concerned. Could these be the kernel of budding secret societies in the Baha'i community?

In any case, to the extent that we allow that the UHJ has initiated programs to increase internet access of NSA member voters in UHJ elections and that this has resulted in changed preferences for desirable UHJ member attributes, per my report cited above, then we might recognize that the UHJ has acted to address questions among commentators concerning previous elections where ITC members appointed by the UHJ itself, were favored. In short, one might surmise the UHJ itself decided that NSA voters should be better informed via the internet. After that, it is a no-brainer that persons with histories of contentious activity in the Baha'i community would obviously not be preferred by NSA voters, all else equal, compared to persons with no contentious or divisive history in the community.

Concerning the unknown persons in the BIA, the SourceWatch article lists as BIA "members" Matthew Weinberg - purported Program Director, and Thane Terrill - Director of Information Services at Baha'i International Community's [BIC] United Nations Office, which brings two more entities -- Information Services and BIC into play, perhaps making the picture even more murky.

But I found no official verification of this. Indeed, a search of the official Baha'i site for "Baha'i Internet Agency" reveals that this group is unknown. That is, the very existence of such an Agency, claiming to have been created by the UHJ, cannot yet be confirmed by this reporter.

Perhaps it is time for Baha'i authorities to name who works in any capacity for BIA and BCCA, from top to bottom, if the BIA is indeed a legitimate part of the Baha'i Administration. For now, it shall be assumed that the BIA is not a hoax.

Pre-Publication Review -- the dog that did not bark
Returning to the main theme, let the reader decide if the secretive BIA contains rebels, while we keep in mind the alleged supervisory capacity of the UHJ in the story. This reporter searched some of the main BIA position papers and pre-publication review was the dog that did not bark, as in the Holmes' Silver Blaze mystery.

In "Blogging and the Baha'i Faith," 2006, the word "review" appears once regarding promoting a blog to friends. In "Baha'i Participation on the Internet: Some Reflections," 2006, the word "review" was not found in the document, which contains:
...this new ethos is that the collaborative efforts of a group of ordinary individuals can lead to perspectives and outcomes not possible for an individual, even a recognized expert. Cooperative content generation and knowledge generation are among the most noteworthy manifestations of the participatory trend.

...a startling change for many, the Baha'i teachings have anticipated this collective awakening and empowerment of peoples...

Baha'is need to learn as much as possible about these new modes of interaction and determine how the principles of the Faith apply to their use.
We observe that "collaborative efforts", etc, are favored, rather than a cause for suspicion by Baha'i authorities that a subversive group is in the offing. And "content generation and knowledge generation", which naturally is what academics and intellectuals, for the most part, do, is now OK, as opposed to being cause for suspicion, shunning, disenrollment or worst, as in the past.

Clearly, the SourceWatch article has missed, for five full years, this glaring headline: "startling change" for "empowerment of peoples". Further, instead of Baha'is exercising free speech on the internet being assumed to be enemies until proven otherwise, the Baha'i Administration has lightened up to point out the obvious, that Baha'is will have to figure out by themselves how to "apply" "principles" on the internet.

While the SourceWatch article, as a proxy for many similar postings on the internet, appears to have missed the boat, this sea-change in sentiment at the highest levels (UHJ) of the Baha'i Administration, in the first decade of this century, has been clearly understood by fundamentalist players who are packing their bags and going home, as seen both in various "voluntary retirements" and in the results of UHJ elections since peak fundamentalism (1993-1999), or if not, who might well be very careful to avoid future divisive activity among Baha'is, such as the 1996 episode quoted at the end of the SourceWatch article concerning Dr. Juan Cole and Mr. Stephen Birkland.

In "Individual Initiative on the Internet," 2007, the word "review" was not found in the document. In "Guidelines for Internet Communication," the word "review" was not found in the document, but we do find [emphasis mine]:
Remember all Web publishing is international publishing.
This last statement hammers the point home. We have the most potent publishing media yet devised -- the internet. And pre-publication review is a dog that no longer barks, no where to be seen, not even worth an honorable mention. We have BIA statements under the aegis of the UHJ. Who could not connect the dots here? In short, we humbly submit this Silver Blaze dialogue, from the Wikipedia article cited above:
Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
Gregory: "The dog did nothing in the night-time."
Holmes: "That was the curious incident."
I found one shot across the bow, as far back as 1996, where perceived conservative Baha'i scholar Susan Stiles Maneck, in Wisdom and dissimulation: The use and meaning of Hikmat in the Baha'i writings and history, wrote:
Shoghi Effendi, while affirming "that at the very root of the Cause lies the principle of the undoubted right of the individual to self-expression," found it necessary to insist that Baha'is temporarily submit their work for review by Baha'i institutions before publication as a provisional measure "designed to guard and protect the Cause in its present state of infancy and growth until the day when this tender and precious plant shall have sufficiently grown to be able to withstand the unwisdom of its friends and the attacks of its enemies."
Now can you connect the dots? Who could question that the global Baha'i community has not "sufficiently grown" by the year 2000? The UHJ had been humming along for almost four decades.

Or is the reader waiting for a headline on www.news.bahai.org:
UHJ MAKES PRE-PUBLICATION REVIEW VOLUNTARY
as forecast in Baha'is: Forecasts I. Dear friends, is it not evident that such a headline is not necessary. The free speech floodgates have already been open for years. By the way, many authors will want pre-publication review services from the Baha'i Administration. Why not? It is free fact-checking and editorial services. Enjoy it while it is still free. A more likely future official Baha'i news headline might be "Authors to pay fee for pre-publication review".

Some explosions are better than others
If any doubt remains regarding a milestone change, the BIA papers seem to rub it in our faces, shouting "Wake up; take note" where several passages encourage Baha'i youth to participate on the internet. Talk about playing with fire. Add Baha'i youth. Mix in the radical ideas in the Baha'i teachings. Set them loose in the world of international publishing without administrative review. Fasten your seat-belts.

In retrospect, it all makes sense. I can visualize it. Baha'i leaders in Haifa, perhaps some UHJ members chatting among themselves:
For more than a decade, prominent internet content is our guys (Baha'is) fighting with our guys (Baha'is).

Yeah, and our Board Members and Counselors are no match for our intellectuals who can take them on with one half of their brain tied behind their back.

Right, whenever we send them into battle with fellow Baha'is, it's like a suicide mission.

What do you expect? Our academics and scholars know their way around the internet like rats in their little tunnels.

Well, if we want our guys to fight our guys, the side wearing the Counselor jerseys needs to learn some internet stuff, too. It's only fair.

Here's a novel idea. Why don't we have our guys stop fighting among themselves and send them all out together to take on the cold, cruel world? And we'll move in the youth, too, to really get a bang for the buck.

You're kidding. That would be more explosive than our guys fighting among themselves.

I'd rather see that on the internet than what we have now.
And the rest is history, albeit still little noticed among so-called liberal Baha'i bloggers although this is five-year-old news.
© 2010 James J Keene