Interview with Tara Abhasakun on the Baha’i Faith

Tara Abhasakun is a journalist based in the USA and occasional Blogger.  Tara talks about her community, the Baha’i faith and feminism.

Image Credit: Tara Abhasakun.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: As noted in correspondence, you are not a Baha’i scholar. You are a recent undergraduate graduate and a woman Baha’i member. What is your background in Baha’i?

Both of my parents are Baha’is. I was raised in the Baha’i Faith. Although, I do not personally identify as a Baha’i. The Baha’i teachings that I was raised with are still very important to me. I think the teachings play a role in my life in a secular way. I believe in the promise of world peace in the coming century, and the goal of uniting all of mankind, though I don’t believe in a god who can hear people’s prayers. I believe in the
social reforms that the prophet Baha’u’llah advocated for, but I don’t believe that god is necessary for them to occur. Most of the time when people ask me about my religion, I say that I was “raised as a Baha’i.”

Does Baha’i have articles of faith that might best be deemed progressive?

I believe that the vast majority of Baha’i principles are progressive. Baha’is believe in the alleviation of poverty, and the elimination of extremes in wealth and poverty. We believe that men and women are equal, and that racism must be overcome.

What is the ultimate aim of the Baha’i faith insofar as you understand it?

As I understand it, the Baha’i Faith’s ultimate goal is to bring about world peace and reconcile human conflicts and differences. It is to create an ever-advancing society free of borderlines between countries and nations.

Are there general ethical precepts and political stances within the doctrines or derivatives of the doctrines of the faith?

Baha’is don’t believe in partisan politics, and don’t align with particular political parties. We are, however, allowed to vote for individuals who we see as fit to lead. Most Baha’is tend to support liberal candidates, though.

What is the perspective of the faith on women’s equality? How are women equal in the faith?

Baha’is are taught that men and women are two wings of one bird, and without one wing, the bird cannot fly. In fact, Baha’is are taught that the education of women is more important than that of men. This is because, as Baha’is believe, women are more likely to teach their children what they learn in school than men are.

We do, however, have an issue with not allowing women to serve on our world leadership. Women are allowed to serve on local and national leaderships, but not our world leadership (known as the Universal House of Justice).

Abdul’baha, our Prophet’s son, who was assigned leadership of the Baha’i faith after the Prophet died, said that the reason for excluding women from the UHJ was a mystery that would one day become known. So, nobody knows exactly why he said this.

Are there those that, like those experiencing bigotry and prejudice for being atheist, Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, experience prejudice, bias, bigotry, and bullying because they happen to follow the Baha’i faith but are decent, honourable members of the global community?

Baha’is have been persecuted in Iran ever since the fatih’s inception there in 1844. This is because according to mainstream Islamic belief, any religion that comes after Mohammad is considered apostasy. Baha’is have been killed since 1844.

Today, violent hate crimes still occur, though much less frequently. There was one hate crime in 2014 when a Baha’i woman was poisoned to death. These hate crimes occur much less frequently now. However, there is still government persecution. Baha’is in Iran are banned from attending all public and private universities in Iran, and are frequently arrested on false charges such as “spying” for the West.

All seven members of the Baha’i leadership in Iran have been imprisoned for the past eight years for such charges. Last month, a Baha’i was stabbed to death in what was likely a hate crime, and Iranian police deny that religion could have played any role in the killer’s motivation.

Can you recount any personal or family experiences of this?

My grandfather is a Baha’i from Iran. When he was seven years old, he was called into his principal’s office. The principal asked if his family were Baha’is. My grandfather responded, telling them that his mother was a Baha’i, and his father was a Muslim who had become a Baha’i.

The principal then pointed to a drinking fountain and said, “You are not allowed to drink that water because you are a Baha’i, and are therefore dirty.” This was in a desert area, so in the desert heat, my grandfather was not allowed to drink water at school. In addition, people in the town would sometimes throw stones at and insult my grandfather when he walked home from school.

Things began to get worse. In the town that they lived in, Kashan, people had to fetch water from wells, and carry them in large, heavy barrels. One time, when my grandfather was carrying a barrel back, someone from town took a handful of dirt off the side of the road and put it in the water. So, my grandfather had to walk all the way back and get another barrel of water.

Instances such as these forced my grandfather’s family to move to another city a year later, when he was eight.

Extremists come in different stripes and levels of severity. What are some unfortunate examples of extremism coming out of self-identified Baha’i members? How is the Baha’i community, and those outside it, attenuating that extremist behaviour?

As far as I know, Baha’is have never committed violent extremism. They do, however, have some beliefs that are now considered intolerant in the 21st century. Despite being very forward and progressive in most areas, Baha’is still don’t allow same-sex marriages within their faith.

Many, though certainly not all Baha’is, believe that homosexuality is a “spiritual affliction.” Though there is scriptural reasoning behind this, I believe that there are other scriptures to counter this belief. Shogi Effendi, the guardian of the Baha’i Faith, said that homosexuality was a spiritual affliction. On the other hand, Effendi himself said that he was not infallible in matters of science.

One Baha’i principle is that if science ever proves a religious belief wrong, then that belief becomes superstition. Today, science is further proving that people are born with their sexual orientation. Some Baha’is argue, however, that even if homosexuality is natural, then it’s still wrong.

Shogi Effendi also said that homosexual people should consult a doctor. Advice that doctors give on homosexuality varies between countries, though. While a doctor in the US or Europe would likely say that homosexuals should accept themselves, a doctor in Iran certainly would not.

Clearly, this is an area where there is not technically a right answer. I believe that Baha’is should follow a statement made by Abdul’Baha, “No man should follow blindly his ancestors or forefathers.” He did not say, “Don’t blindly follow your forefathers, except for your Baha’i forefathers.”

He simply said don’t blindly follow your forefathers. Abdul’Baha argued that humans should investigate reality for themselves, and use reason. Therefore, I think that it’s in line with Baha’i values for Baha’is to admit that certain statements made by early Baha’i leaders don’t have a place in universal human rights in the 21st century.

I believe that this statement can also apply to the statement about women not serving on the Universal House of Justice. While there may have been a reason for it in the early 20th century, this is no longer an appropriate ideal.

The current state of LGBT rights, as well as the issue of women not being allowed to serve on the Baha’i world leadership, must be resolved if Baha’is truly want to achieve their goal of building a unified world.

About Scott Jacobsen

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Scott is the founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing

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