10 Bounded Religious Communities’ Management of the Challenge of New Media: Baha’í Negotiation with the Internet (2/4) – Social Media and Religious Change

4.1 History and tradition
The negotiation of new forms of media by religious groups is a dynamic and
complex process that begins with reflection on the religious history, tradition
and beliefs of the group. In the case of the Baháí faith, it is important to consid-
er how this history has directly affected the negotiation process that practicing
Baháís in America have with the Internet. The Bábí movement began in 1844
in the city of Shiraz, located in south-western Iran. In this year, Sayyid Ali Mu-
hammad declared having had some sort of extraordinary relationship with the
Hidden Imam (Cole 1990: 3). The Hidden Imam, or Mahdi, is believed to be the
redeemer or messiah by Shia Muslims and is believed to help restore order and
peace to the world. Sayyid Ali Muhammad, als o known as the Báb, was seen as
a divine messenger (similar to Moses, Muhammad, Jesus, etc.) by his followers
and remains the central figure of the Baháí faith. According to Cole, members
of the Bábí movement believed the Báb was the return of the Imam Mahdi him-
self, and he asserted that divine inspiration led him to reveal a new holy book
abrogating the Quran (1990: 3). The belief that the Báb was the manifestation
of the Hidden Imam to return and their abrogation of the Quran were problem-
atic to many practising Muslims and led to the persecution of the individuals as-
sociated with the Bábí movement in the nineteenth century. According Adam
Berry (2004: 1), the Bábí movement was met with much resistance, as shown
by the execution of the Báb in 1850. Further proof of persecution can be seen
by the number of followers killed between 1849 and the mid-1850s. Around
5,000 followers were killed during that period, in which the adherents to the
movement numbered 100,000 (Cole 1990: 3). After the death of the Báb, Mirza
Husayn Ali, the successor of the Báb, adopted the Baháí name in an attempt
to unify the members and survive persecution in Iran. Not only would this his-
tory of persecution affect the way Baháís view media, it would also help shape
the faiths core beliefs and where these beliefs would be practised.
In an attempt to escape the persecution prevalent in Iran, many Baháís
moved to new areas in an attempt to practise their religion peacefully. With
the idea of the Baháí faith symbolising threatening aspects of modernity in
Iran, Baháís looked to the western world for new opportunities (Cole 1990: 7).
From the 1970s to the mid-1980s, around 12,000 Iranian Baháís emigrated to
the US to escape persecution, taking advantage of the religious freedom in Amer-
ica. With this migration of Iranian B aháís, the US Baháí community grew from
10,000 to about 48,000 individuals with confirmed addresses, or sure members
(Cole 1998: 238). According to Juan Cole, this growth can be explained by the
impact of the civil rights movements, the Vietnam War, the youth counterculture
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(Cole 1998: 236). Currently, there are around 60,000 practising Baháís in the US,
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and many rely on the Internet to stay connected to the faith. This idea will be ex-
plored in depth in the media use negotiation section.
It is also important to note that, as the Bahai faith emerged out of Shia
Islam in Iran, these roots and connections in some respects have informed the
faith. Scholars have noted a connection between the Bahai and the Shiite move-
ments, in that both draw from esoteric and charismatic roots, have a defined hi-
erarchical structure of gatekeepers and represent conservative traditions with a
certain degree of secrecy in relation to religious knowledge (Warburg 1999).
These tendencies can also be seen in their dealings with the spread of informa-
tion, both inside and outside the community, and their position toward media,
as discussed in the following sections. Before moving on to how members of
the Baháí faith currently negotiate their relationship with the media, it is vital
to address the core beliefs and the religions relationship to authority. According
to the official Baháí Website of the United States, the purpose of life is to wor-
ship God, to acquire virtues, and to promote the oneness of humankind (2010).
These beliefs directly influence the Baháís relationship with other religions
which strive for religious universalism. Furthermore, Baháís advocate for service
to humanity while maintaining a peaceful and pacifist nature. In relation to so-
cial principles, Baháís desire the equality of men and women, universal educa-
tion and the abandonment of all forms of prejudice. The final factor that directs
how the media is treated by practising Baháís is seen in the administrative order
of the Baháís community. The formation of an individual order of adherence to a
hierarchy occurred in 1921 after the death of Abbás Effendi, who was the son of
the first successor to the Báb (Cole 1990: 3). Examples of how these structure the
hierarchy of the Baháís community and inform their view of media are explored
in greater detail in the next section.
4.2 Media values and policies
Along with the history and tradition of the Baháí faith, the core values directly
lead to more unified policies towards the uses of media. In order to achieve such
beliefs as religious universalism and universal education, Baháís thought it
would be important to make the transition from an individual order to an admin-
According to the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS 2004), there were an esti-
mated 84,000 adult Baháí members. The difference between these figures may be accounted for
in the word practising as opposed to membership.
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istrative order. An example of an administrative body in the Baháí faith is the
Universal House of Justice. Established in 1963, the Universal House of Justice
has guided and directed the activities of the global B aháí community for over
40 years. By educating followers on how to practise and live their faith, the Uni-
versal House of Justice determines which activities are permitted based on the
laws of Mirza Husayn Ali (the first successor of the Báb and founder of the
Baháí faith).
Even though the core values, beliefs and admiration of the Baháí faith are
related to the creation of the Universal House of Justice, the preceding history
and tradition of the Baháí faith have contributed to a strict media trajectory.
As mentioned above, many practicing Baháís in Iran experienced heavy perse-
cution for their beliefs. Many viewed the western world as an oppor tunity to
practice their religion in peace and to educate others about the Baháí faith.
However, along with more rights and freedoms has come criticism of Baháí pol-
icies by Baháí followers in the western world. To counter these criticisms, the
Universal House of Justice has increased restrictions of certain types of media
usage. For example, through the use of National Spiritual Assemblies, which
are located throughout the Baháí world, the Universal House of Justice has cen-
sored or restricted material published by Baháís. Cole states that the National
Spiritual Assembly claims the prerogative of telling private Baháí publishers
what Baháí-related books they may or may not publish. This shows the impor-
tance of the core Baháí belief of having conformity of views and behavior and
how it has been directly challenged by the freedoms shared in the western world
(Cole 1998: 244).
In relation to this, the Universal House of Justice has not only produced strict
policies on media content but also on individuals who produce media content
that challenges existing Baháí policies. One of the mechanisms used by the Uni-
versal House of Justice to achieve unification and conformity is the threat of la-
belling someone a covenant-breaker. Basically, a person accused of covenant-
breaking has committed a form of heresy and is shunned by the practising com-
munity. One who even associates with a covenant-breaker can possibly be shun-
ned and not recognised by the community. This has led to Baháís informing the
House of Justice of individuals who undermine its policies. The House of Justice
encourages Baháís who hear something they think out of the ordinary to chal-
lenge the speaker to justify his or her statement with regard to the covenant
(cited in Cole 1998: 244). This directly affects what kind of content can be pro-
duced and expressed through the media because of the fear of being labelled
a covenan t-breaker.
The actions and policies created by the House of Justice reveal how the
Baháí faith negotiates and teaches the Baháí how to use media. Due to the
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availability of freedoms in the western world, the House of Justice took strong
stances against criticizing opinions expressed in the media. One mechanism ad-
dressed above was the use of labelling someone a covenant-breaker and how
this has led to an informing culture by practicing Baháís. Although Bahaullah
(or Mirza Husayn Ali) himself attempted to abolish the practices of shunning,
the House of Justice enforces these policies to achieve the core belief of unifica-
tion (Cole 1998: 243). The work of the House of Justice also sets standards for
media engagement, which guide Baháís views about and uses of the Internet.
This media negotiation is explored in more detail in the third area of investiga-
tion.
4.3 Media use negotiation
In order to understand how the history, tradition and core beliefs affect the
media use negotiation by the Baháí faith, it is important to focus in on a specific
community and media. Examining the Baháí faith community in America re-
veals how this specific branch of the Bahai community negotiates its Internet
usage and how this has been informed by the Universal House of Justice. In
order to fully understand how the American Community of Baháís use the Inter-
net, it is imperative to examine the Baháí Internet Agency. This agency was es-
tablished in 2004 by the Universal House of Justice, the legislative institution
and the highest governing body of the Baháí faith, and is under the auspices
of its International Teaching Centre. The Baháí Internet Agency (BIA) seeks to
advise and direct members of the Baháí faith on how to properly use the Internet
as well as offer assistance to the global community through technical support for
Baháí institutions and to support community-related online initiatives. The BIA
has also written a number of documents that provide members with specific
guidance about appropriate Internet use, such as blogging, podcasting and so-
cial networking (see BIA n.d.).
Baháís in the United States currently have official pages on Facebook, Twit-
ter, Beliefnet and PeaceNext where they post Baháí news as well as links to
blogs from various bloggers who discuss Baháí themes. The US Baháí Office
of Communications advocates the use of the Internet, yet this use is encouraged
or framed within certain constraints. One key emphasis of this office is to encour-
age community members to engage with the Internet in ways that affirm the be-
liefs and structures of the movement. They strongly advocate that members seek
information from web sites which are published and maintained by the official
organization and engage in dialogue in these contexts:
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Bahais are encouraged to participate in a wide range of Internet initiatives carried out in
light of Baháí principles such as moderation, courtesy, probity, fairness, dignity, accuracy
and wisdom. Promoting mutual understanding, fellowship and a spirit of cooperation
among diverse individuals and groups is an essential characteristic of all Baháí activity.
(US Baháí Office of Communications 2010)
A further examination of this agency reveals the restrictions Baháí faith mem-
bers in the US face while using the Internet. The Internet is an essential part of
any organisation in America due to the high number of users in this country. As
of December 2011, according to the Internet World Statistics (2011), the United
States has over 245,000,000 users (with a population penetr ation of 78.6 %), nu-
merically second only to China (penetration of 38.4 %), with over half-a-billion
users.
In order to understand how the Baháí Internet Agency has reconfigured the
usage of the Internet, it is important to examine which aspects of the Internet are
beneficial and which are problematic. One activity that seems to be deemed both
beneficial and problematic by the Baháí community in the US is the use of blog-
ging. According to the Baháí Internet Agencys white paper on Blogging and the
Baháí faith: suggestions and possible approaches (2006), blogging offers op-
portunities to explore Baháí teachings and opens new avenues for sharing
the message of the Baháí faith. Furthermore, the Agency advocates that indi-
vidual blogging allows for a community of interest to the Revelation and to
Baháí community activity.
However, there are some aspects that the American Baháís must reject with
regard to blogging, as outlined by the Baháí Internet Agency. One of the aspects
discouraged for practising Baháís is the use of confrontational and negative dis-
cussion threads on the Internet. This includes any blog post that is seen to un-
dermine or challenge Baháí policies or beliefs, which is to be ignored/deleted. If
the blogger who makes negative claims happens to be a practising Baháí, he/she
can be labelled as a covenant-breaker and shunned by the community. Cole ex-
plains that threats to use shun ning have increased with the rise of cyberspace
(1998: 243). The Internet allows some members to post confidentially so other
practising Baháís will not know who they are. In response to this, the Universal
House of Justice has encouraged Baháís to inform them of members partaking
in these restricted actions. Such moves show how the Universal House of Justice
has reconfigured the Internet and encouraged certain actions to achieve the core
belief of unification and adherence to the given structure.
Another problematic aspect for followers of the Baháí faith that has
emerged on the Internet is the use of social networking sites in the US. Although
many social networking sites, such as Facebook, attempt to connect people from
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