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I was playing a game at summer school last year, in which we were asked this question and of course, I answered “no”.  Bahá’ís have to be positive, loving, forgiving, creating unity, building communities, don’t we?

How can we do that if we allow criticism to come in?

I was shocked that the answer I gave was wrong!  I set out to prove the speaker wrong (thereby criticizing them in my own mind!  O God, forgive me, please!).  I was surprised by what I found.  Have a look with me.

The answer is both yes (with conditions) and no, as we’ll see below.

We all have a right to set forth our views:

Let us also remember that at the very root of the Cause lies the principle of the undoubted right of the individual to self-expression, his freedom to declare his conscience and set forth his views. (Shoghi Effendi, Bahá’í Administration, p. 63)

The root cause of criticism is lack of faith in the system of Baha’u’llah:

Vicious criticism is indeed a calamity. But its root is lack of faith in the system of Bahá’u’lláh, i.e., the Administrative Order — and lack of obedience to Him — for He has forbidden it! If the Bahá’ís would follow the Bahá’í laws in voting, in electing, in serving and in abiding by Assembly decisions, all this waste of strength through criticizing others could be diverted into cooperation and achieving the Plan. (Shoghi Effendi, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)

We have been protected against the misuse of criticism through the Covenant and by an administration which draws out the constructive ideas of individuals and uses them for the benefit of the entire system:

If Bahá’í individuals deliberately ignore the principles imbedded in the Order which Bahá’u’lláh Himself has established to remedy divisiveness in the human family, the Cause for which so much has been sacrificed will surely be set back in its mission to rescue world society from complete disintegration. May not the existence of the Covenant be invoked again and again, so that such repetition may preserve the needed perspective? For, in this age, the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh has been protected against the baneful effects of the misuse of the process of criticism; this has been done by the institution of the Covenant and by the provision of a universal administrative system which incorporates within itself the mechanisms for drawing out the constructive ideas of individuals and using them for the benefit of the entire system. Admonishing the people to uphold the unifying purpose of the Cause, Bahá’u’lláh, in the Book of His Covenant, addresses these poignant words to them: “Let not the means of order be made the cause of confusion and the instrument of union an occasion for discord.” Such assertions emphasize a crucial point; it is this: In terms of the Covenant, dissidence is a moral and intellectual contradiction of the main objective animating the Bahá’í community, namely, the establishment of the unity of mankind. (Universal House of Justice, Individual Rights and Freedoms in the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 15-16)

Yes, with conditions

We are fully entitled to address criticisms but then we must whole-heartedly accept the advice or decision of the assembly:

The Bahá’ís are fully entitled to address criticisms to their assemblies; they can freely air their views about policies or individual members of elected bodies to the assembly, local or national, but then they must whole-heartedly accept the advice or decision of the assembly, according to the principles already laid down for such matters in Bahá’í administration. (Shoghi Effendi, Letters from the Guardian to Australia and New Zealand, p. 55)

It is our vital responsibility to offer fully and frankly, but with due respect and consideration to the authority of the Assembly, any suggestion, recommendation or criticism he conscientiously feels he should in order to improve and remedy certain existing conditions or trends in his local community:

You had asked whether the believers have the right to openly express their criticism of any Assembly action or policy; it is not only the right, but the vital responsibility of every loyal and intelligent member of the Community to offer fully and frankly, but with due respect and consideration to the authority of the Assembly, any suggestion, recommendation or criticism he conscientiously feels he should in order to improve and remedy certain existing conditions or trends in his local community, and it is the duty of the Assembly also to give careful consideration to any such views submitted to them by any one of the believers.  (Shoghi Effendi, Bahá’í Meetings/The Nineteen Day Feasts, pp. 27-28)

Criticism should be addressed to the institutions of the Faith and not aired in the community where it might foment division and misunderstandings:

It is clear then that criticism is allowed, but it should be addressed to the institutions of the Faith and not aired in the community where it might foment division and misunderstandings.  (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)

The best time to do it is at the Feast:

The best occasion chosen for this purpose is the Nineteen Day Feast which, besides its social and spiritual aspects, fulfills various administrative needs and requirements of the Community, chief among them being the need for open and constructive criticism and deliberation regarding the state of affairs within the local Bahá’í Community.  (Shoghi Effendi, Bahá’í Meetings/The Nineteen Day Feasts, pp. 27-28)

No

Criticism and discussions of a negative character which undermines the authority of the assembly should be strictly avoided:

It should be stressed that all criticism and discussions of a negative character which may result in undermining the authority of the assembly as a body should be strictly avoided. For otherwise the order of the Cause itself will be endangered, and confusion and discord will reign in the community. (Shoghi Effendi, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)

Criticism is often the harbinger of conflict and contention:

The responsibility resting on the individual to conduct himself in such a way as to ensure the stability of society takes on elemental importance in this context. For vital as it is to the progress of society, criticism is a two-edged sword: It is all too often the harbinger of conflict and contention. The balanced processes of the Administrative Order are meant to prevent this essential activity from degenerating to any form of dissent that breeds opposition and its dreadful schismatic consequences. How incalculable have been the negative results of ill-directed criticism: in the catastrophic divergences it has created in religion, in the equally contentious factions it has spawned in political systems, which have dignified conflict by institutionalizing such concepts as the “loyal opposition” which attach to one or another of the various categories of political opinion — conservative, liberal, progressive, reactionary, and so on.  (Universal House of Justice, Individual Rights and Freedoms in the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 15-16)

If we continually criticize their acts and challenge or belittle their decisions, we prevent any real progress and repel outsiders:

The Guardian believes that a great deal of the difficulties from which the believers . . . feel themselves to be suffering are caused by their neither correctly understanding or putting into practice the administration. They seem — many of them — to be prone to continually challenging and criticizing the decisions of their assemblies. If the Bahá’ís undermine the very leaders which are, however immaturely, seeking to coordinate Bahá’í activities and administer Bahá’í affairs, if they continually criticize their acts and challenge or belittle their decisions, they not only prevent any real rapid progress in the Faith’s development from taking place, but they repel outsiders who quite rightly may ask how we ever expect to unite the whole world when we are so disunited among ourselves!  (Shoghi Effendi, The National Spiritual Assembly compilation, p. 35-36)

It is again not permitted that any one of the honoured members object to or censure, whether in or out of the meeting, any decision arrived at previously, though that decision be not right, for such criticism would prevent any decision from being enforced. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 88)

In this Cause, consultation is of vital importance; but spiritual conference and not the mere voicing of personal views is intended. In France I was present at a session of the senate but the experience was not impressive. Parliamentary procedure should have for its object the attainment of the light of truth upon questions presented and not furnish a battleground for opposition and self-opinion. Antagonism and contradiction are unfortunate and always destructive to truth. In the parliamentary meeting mentioned, altercation and useless quibbling were frequent; the result mostly confusion and turmoil; even in one instance a physical encounter took place between two members. It was not consultation but comedy.   . . Therefore true consultation is spiritual conference in the attitude and atmosphere of love. Members must love each other in the spirit of fellowship in order that good results may be forthcoming. Love and fellowship are the foundation.  (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 72)

Contradiction and altercation will make it necessary for a judicial body to render decision upon the question:

Opposition and division are deplorable. It is better then to have the opinion of a wise, sagacious man; otherwise, contradiction and altercation, in which varied and divergent views are presented, will make it necessary for a judicial body to render decision upon the question.   (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 72)

Conclusion:

So from this we learn that criticism is a two-edged sword.  On the one hand:

  • We have a right to set forth our views
  • We are fully entitled to address criticisms to our assemblies
  • We can freely air our views about policies or individual members of elected bodies to the assembly
  • We must whole-heartedly accept the advice or decision of the assembly
  • It is our responsibility to offer suggestions, recommendations or criticism in order to improve and remedy conditions or trends in our local community
  • We do so fully and frankly, with due respect and consideration to the authority of the Assembly
  • It is the duty of the Assembly to give careful consideration to any such views
  • Criticism is allowed, but it should be addressed to the institutions of the Faith and not aired in the community
  • The best occasion chosen for this purpose is the Nineteen Day Feast which encourages open and constructive criticism and deliberation regarding the state of affairs within the local Bahá’í Community
  • We are protected against the effects of the misuse of the process of criticism through the institution of the Covenant
  • Our administrative system has the mechanisms for drawing out the constructive ideas of individuals and using them for the benefit of the entire system

And on the other hand:

  • Criticism which undermines the authority of the assembly should be strictly avoided
  • Criticism’s root is lack of faith in the system of Bahá’u’lláh
  • Criticism is a waste of strength that could be diverted into cooperation and achieving the Plan
  • Criticism is often the harbinger of conflict and contention
  • Criticism allows confusion and discord to reign
  • Criticism breeds opposition
  • Criticism leads to division and misunderstandings
  • Criticism has dreadful schismatic consequences
  • Criticism leads to negative results
  • Criticism has created catastrophic divergences in religion, in the equally
  • Criticism has spawned contentious factions in political systems
  • Criticism prevents any real rapid progress in the Faith’s development from taking place
  • Criticism furnishes a battleground for opposition and self-opinion
  • Criticism is destructive to truth
  • Criticism results in confusion and turmoil
  • Criticism can lead to physical violence
  • Criticism that creates dissidence prevents the establishment of the unity of mankind
  • Criticism repels outsiders who quite rightly may ask how we ever expect to unite the whole world when we are so disunited among ourselves

How has this helped you understand this issue better?  Post your comments below!