After many trials and years of patient ethnography, I had my first archival breakthrough on January 30, 2016 (Grills, 2020).1 I had spent six years attempting to secure an interview with a descendant of the first pioneers of the Bahá’í community in Morocco and other parts of Northwest Africa when, sitting in my home in Westwood, Los Angeles, I accidently came across online, Zein, a potential lead with connections to Morocco, Arizona and the University of California, Los Angeles; all places to which I am closely associated because of education, work and family history.
Established by the prophet Bahá’ulláh, the Bahá’í Faith first developed in the 19th century in Iran before it spread to the rest of the Middle East and the world (Smith, 2008). The teachings of Bahá’ulláh represent the foundation of belief which revolves around the principles the unity of God, religion and humanity (Palmer and Tavangar, 2021). In the 1950s, Shoghi Effendi, the descendent and successor of Bahá’ulláh and his son ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, launched an international plan to expand the Bahá’í Faith by encouraging Bahá’í pioneers to new territories, translating Bahá’í texts into other languages and establishing new communities. In November 1957, Shoghi Effendi died and was succeeded by the nine-member chief governing body known as the Universal House of Justice since 1963.
Before coming to the United States, Zein’s parents were Bahá’í pioneers in northern Morocco during the Spanish Protectorate and early years of post-independence. According to Moojan Momen, pioneers, also known in Persian, as mohajer, is the term used by Bahá’ís to describe “unpaid missionaries” who leave their home to settle in another country or settlement with the intention to spread the Bahá’í Faith or support existing Bahá’í communities (Momen, 2013). I sent Zein a private Facebook message and I waited for his response. Bahá’ís, like many persecuted communities, have practiced “social secrecy” (Simmel, 1906) for fear of state retaliation and violence in many parts of the Middle East today. Community leadership tends to advise against talking to researchers whose work could expose members to state oppression. Because of my awareness of this issue, I avoided doing a traditional ethnography on this small community, seeking, instead, to build rapport with local Bahá’ís and engage the community members in privacy. Since ethnographic work is difficult or threatening, I decided to draw on archival sources and some oral histories and family narratives to write a short history of the Bahá’ís in Morocco. Contact with Zein would put an end to my waiting. His response the next day was encouraging, promising a flood of information, access to archives, as well as contact with members of the community, including descendants of the pioneers in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Americas.
Unlike my historical ethnographic work on Moroccan Jews (Boum, 2013), a research topic on the Bahá’ís of Northwest Africa, including Morocco, was different. I wanted to avoid sensational writings that has been anchored in the trials of a few Bahá’ís for apostacy in the city of Nador in 1962.2 On October 31, 1962, fourteen Bahá’ís were charged with rebellion and disorder, attacking public security and religious faith, as well as constituting an association of criminals, and were arraigned before the Regional Court of Nador (Bahá’í International Community, 1963). In his biography al-ibhar: mudakirat baha‘i hukima ‘alayhi bi al-‘dam (Kebdani, 2013), Mohammed Kebdani provides a detailed personal account of the legal case and his arrest, trial, indictment and imprisonment. Rather than framing my work through the trial, I propose a history of this historically-marginalized community based on a global network of race, religion and ethnicity that starts in the United States and expand to Africa. Instead of focusing on the international news around the Nador Case in the 1960s (Kebdani, 2013), which required the intervention of many international leaders including Martin Luther King and King Hassan II to end the crisis, I am writing a transnational history that examines the Bahá’í Faith in Northwest Africa at the intersection of race, nationalism, ethnicity and religion.
A Bahá’í Racial Argument
The Bahá’í early settlement in Northwest Africa during the 1950s and early 1960s was, in part, a consequence of an interwar period Bahá’í discourse in the United States on race that can be traced to the early 1920s starting with the Race Amity Campaign (Bramson, 2019). The Northwest African story is the sequel to years of debates within the Bahá’í Faith in the United States about the place of black Americans in their communities. It begins with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’’s speech at Howard University which triggers Bahá’í conversations about racial equality involving African American intellectuals; that leads to the Race Amity Campaign where discussion of race, prejudice and racism took place among members of the community throughout the 1920s. By the 1930s, the debate shifted from encouraging friendships with African Americans and supporting racial intermarriage to working for racial unity especially as racial violence dominated not only the Jim Crow era of the United States but also the rise Nazism and Fascism globally.
In this national and global context, Shoghi Effendi launched the Seven-Year Divine Plan (1937-1944) to spread the Bahá’í Faith in the United States. The National Spiritual Assembly released a statement calling on American Bahá’ís to participate in the struggle for race unity, end of segregation and the promotion of the principle of the oneness of mankind to achieve national and international peace, unity and harmony. In 1943, the U.S. National Spiritual Assembly, a nine-member elected governing body of the Bahá’í Faith, focused its annual activities on race unity. The third phase was framed as an aspiration for global human unity; black Americans were central to this transnational Bahá’í mission especially in Africa.
Africa became a destination for the Bahá’í religious campaign for human oneness in 1950. On October 11, 1953, like other Egyptian, Iranian and American households and individuals, the Zayn family landed in the Spanish Protectorate of Morocco as the first Egyptian pioneer at the beginning of the Ten-Year World Crusade (Kamál, n.d.). Zein is the youngest son of Fawzi Zaynu’l-‘Ábidin (1911-1975). A graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles, where he played for the university soccer team during the early 1970s, Zein moved to the city of Tétouan in northern Morocco with his father Fawzi and mother Bahíyyih (Bahia), the daughter of a Lebanese Bahá’í immigrants and granddaughter of the first Egyptian Bahá’í. Despite early difficulties, Fawzi, a successful artist and architect, secured a job with the support of Moroccan as well as Spanish authorities as a member of the faculty of the Fine Arts School in Tétouan. A native Arabic speaker, Fawzi managed to build a network of social relations with local Moroccan population that extended beyond the Spanish Zone. For nine years, his home was a meeting place for new converts, especially as a slow stream of other early pioneers from the United States, Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, and other African countries settled in Morocco. As indigenous Amazigh (Berber) and Arab Moroccans accepted the new Faith, local spiritual assemblies were formed in Tétouan, Tangier, Larache, and other nearby cities before new believers moved to interior towns where they established more assemblies. In the International Zone of Tangier as well as rural villages and towns in the Rif and Middle Atlas regions, Bahá’í pioneers centered their attention primarily on Amazigh speakers as it was their policy to focus first on indigenous Africans and not White settlers throughout Africa. In Northwest Africa, Tangier was a zone of free movement and settlement and therefore allowed a flow of pioneers who represent a crucial source for the expansion and growth of the Bahá’í Faith in Africa. Many transnational studies on northern Morocco highlighted the presence of American musicians in northern Morocco especially after the Rif War, but very little has been written on the transnational aspects of the African American-Bahá’í story in Morocco and Northwest Africa.
American Bahá’í Racial Stories: Amity and Unity
As I noted earlier, the intersections of race, religion and ethnicity in the colonial and postcolonial period of Africa underpinned the racial amity that glued the different racial Bahá’í communities that settled in Northwest Africa together to each other and to the Indigenous communities as well. I argue that writing the history of Bahá’ís in Northwest Africa starts in the United States where Racial Amity was launched in the midst of prejudice and racism. In the early 1920s, and in the middle of the Harlem Renaissance, African Americans were faced with a competitive missionary religious and nationalist movements such as the Ahmadiyya Movement of Islam (AMI), the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science of America, the Bahá’í Faith, and Garveyism especially as black intellectuals casted doubt on Christianity as a road to black acceptance in the Jim Crow era. While the empowerment of black Americans gained speed, especially after the Great War and the return of black soldiers who called for civil rights and equality, these religious movement offered an alternative model of equality leading the new religious headquarters in Chicago, Detroit, New York and Philadelphia. The eruption of racial violence in Illinois, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Florida, Washington, DC and many other states in the early 20th century led to the destruction of African American businesses and homes and their expulsion from many communities pushing black people to migrate to safer states and towns during what became known as the Great Migration (Bramson, 2019).
Unlike the conservative position of Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise,” which argued against political agitation and accepted segregation as long as Black people could engage in farming to better their communities, W.E.B. Du Bois had a contrary opinion and saw Washington’s position as a betrayal of the project of social equality and real economic uplifting of black Americans. Du Bois and Alain Locke were both supportive of the Bahá’í Faith because of the institution’s anti-racist advocacy in so far as the advocacy for the end of racism. Yet while Locke accepted the Bahá’í Faith, Du Bois was mostly an admirer of its leader ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’ whom he met in 1912 during his speech at Howard University and the Fourth Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP; Buck, 2019). Du Bois would feature ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s speech in The Crisis (the NAACP official publication) and acknowledge his work on racial amity. These early relations that began in the early 1920s played a key role in Du Bois’s philosophy of achieving racial justice through peaceful methods.
Unlike Booker T. Washington’s views of racial peace through segregation and Marcus Garvey’s black nationalist and Pan-African philosophy of separation, Du Bois and Alain Locke, father of the Harlem Renaissance, brought together members of Bahá’í Faith and NAACP to collaborate on fighting racism in America by arguing for a pluralistic vision for America a cultural pluralistic approach that recognizes the humanity of the “American Negro” (Du Bois, 1915). The Bahá’í principle of “unity in diversity” was at the center of the racial philosophy of Alain Locke, himself a Bahá’í. As Guy Emerson Mount argues, Locke’s ideas of the distinctive black voice and aesthetic during the Harlem Renaissance is partly articulated through the “Bahá’í notions of ‘unity through diversity,’ ‘world democracy,’ and a global citizenship that valued Black people as both uniquely gifted and fully equal members. Locke would also write extensively for Bahá’í publications, bringing a distinctively Black voice to an early worldwide Bahá’í audience” (Mount, 2021). Du Bois and African American Bahá’í intellectuals such as Louis Gregory, Robert Abbott, Wilma Ellis, Robert C. Henderson and others were encouraged by the international and interracial program of the Bahá’í Faith since the early 1920. The Bahá’í Faith principles of racial equality especially during the Jim Crow era which were popularized by the writings of Du Bois, Robert Abbott and Alain Locke helped many African American during the great migration from the rural to adjust to the challenges of race through the global Bahá’í principle of oneness of humanity.
In 1921, a landmark event known as the Convention for Amity Between the Colored and White Races based on the Bahá’í Heavenly Teachings signaled a clear position from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá towards the legacy of American slavery: American Bahá’ís have to take a stand against racial inequality and economic and social injustice. By the early 1920s, the Bahá’í Faith was a small emerging religion in America and separated itself from the Protestant and Catholic doctrines and other non-Christian religions, thus emerging as a significant player in race and ethnic relations. This early Bahá’í discourse of racial amity against Jim Crow racism was at the core of the global racial unity for which Shoghi Effendi advocated in his note, The Advent of Divine Justice, published in December 1938. This race-blind religious belief that aspired to limit the importance of race and ethnicity would later travel with American pioneers in Africa, sometimes through Egypt and Iran, and inform their teachings in multi-ethnic and religious contexts, like Northwest Africa. The international support of the Bahá’í community in what was known as the Nador Trial Case against local Moroccan Bahá’í converts made this transracial solidarity obvious. While the trial was unfolding, the Bahá’í community relied on its cosmopolitan linkages, connections to NGOs, and international organizations to seek the release of the prisoners and their pardon by King Hassan II. The global Bahá’í advocacy led by American scholars, such as Amin Banani, Leroy Ioas, and Firuz Kazemzadeh, focused on human unity instead of difference between Islam and other religions. This advocacy was part of American Bahá’í community’s influence on religious assemblies around world going back to the visit of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of Bahá’u‘lláh, the United states in the early decades of the twentieth century.
The Northwest African Bahá’í story I am about to tell in the following pages has its roots in the early twentieth-century encounter between ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and African Americans. On April 23, 1912, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (1892-1921) gave a public talk at Howard University stressing the importance of racial equality and the urgency of ending Jim Crow segregation laws against black Americans. The Baha’i message of racial equality resonated with African Americans disappointed by White Christian prejudices. Louis George Gregory (1874-1951) became one of the early faces of African American Bahá’ís in the American south, particularly in South Carolina (Venters, 2016). Influenced by W.E.B. Du Bois, Gregory received his undergraduate education at Fisk University in Tennessee before he earned a degree in law from Howard University in 1902. After he became a Bahá’í in 1909, he traveled to Egypt, where he met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá who introduced him to Louisa Matthew, a White English Bahá’í. Despite the fact that interracial marriage was a crime in many parts of the United States, Gregory and Matthew married in 1912 with encouragement from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Over time regular and prominent African Americans embraced the Baha’i Faith before and after ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit to the United States.
The number of African American Bahá’ís grew over time with major concentration in the Northeastern parts of the country even as racism continued to limit opportunities of black Americans across the country participation in American society. In 1920, Agnes Parsons one of the wealthiest white Bahá’ís of Washington, DC visited ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Haifa. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá tasked Parsons to organize a convention to promote harmony among white and black Americans and instructed her “to arrange in Washington a convention for unity between the white and colored people” (Gregory, 1928). Aware of the challenge of race in America even among Bahá’ís, Parsons reached out to political, intellectual and cultural leaders in Washington. Her support networks included some of the key African American intellectuals at the time, namely W.E.B. Du Bois, Alan LeRoy Locke and Louis Gregory. On May 19-21, 1921, the first Race Amity Conference was held at the First Congregation Church. The latter had ties to Howard University, which was known for its open opposition to racism. From the early 1920s and the middle of the 1930s, a series of conferences and conventions on Race Amity would be organized in Springfield, Massachusetts; New York, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Dayton, Ohio; Boston, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois; Urbana, Illinois; Atlantic City, New Jersey; Detroit, Michigan; and Los Angeles, California. These conferences featured Bahá’ís and non-Bahá’í speakers, such as Alain Locke, James Weldon Johnson, Franz Boas, Gayle Morrison, W.E.B Du Bois, Jane Addams, Roy Wilkins, John Hope, and Rabbi Stephen Wise. During these meetings many African American women were introduced to the Faith, some of whom became leading pioneers in the Bahá’í African Crusade in the 1950s (Etter-Lewis, 2019). After years of racial Amity and Unity, Shoghi Effendi called on American Bahá’ís, white and black, in 1950 to move to Africa and serve as pioneers of the Faith on the continent by establishing local and national spiritual assemblies. The racial consciousness came at moment of post-World War II and the Nazi genocide as well as state restriction and discrimination against minorities.
William Foster, a founding member of the National Spiritual Assembly of Northwest African Bahá’ís, was the first African American to relocate to Liberia in 1952 before he moved to Morocco, where he settled in Casablanca in 1954. Dr. Elsie Austin travelled to Tangier in 1953 as the first African American woman pioneer on the Continent (Hatcher, 2019). These African Americans joined forces with small groups of early Iranian, Iraqi, and Egyptian pioneers in many African countries. In his seminal work on the Bahá’í Faith in Africa, Anthony Lee traces the early foundations of the Bahá’í movement and its expansion in West and Central Africa with a focus on its institutional development during the Ten-Year World Crusade (Lee, 2011). Lee focused largely on British and American pioneers who settled in English-speaking colonies during the early year of the Ten-Year Plan. Despite the central role of American pioneers in the early stages of the Bahá’í Faith in Africa, Lee contends that African Americans, despite their limited numbers, were central to the movement and the establishment of the early Spiritual Assemblies during the early stages of Bahá’í dissemination throughout Northwest Africa.
The Fawzi family story is an example of many Bahá’í histories and pioneers’ accounts of the transnational networks inspired by the calls of Shoghi Effendi. During the Ten-Year Plan which targeted “virgin territories” where there were no Bahá’ís, Momen notes:
Shoghi Effendi gave each of the twelve National Bahá’í Assemblies then in existence a plan that included many goals for which they had to cooperate with each other. This plan called for pioneers to move to 131 countries, territories, and islands where there were no Bahais. Iran was made responsible for 7 territories in Asia and 6 territories in Africa, as well as consolidating the Bahai communities in a further 12 territories in Asia and 2 in Africa. For the first year from April 1953 to May 1954, any Bahá’í that migrated to one of the 131 territories was designated a knight (fāres) of Bahāʾ-Allāh. After that date, only the first to arrive at one of these places was thus designated. Of the 252 people that were named knights, 24 were Iranians with another 20 people of Iranian origin from India and Egypt (Bahaism xiii, 2013).
These early encounters between American, Iranian, Tunisian, Egyptian, Cameroonian, Ugandan and other nationalities in Dakar, Tunis, Tangier, Nador, Tétouan and West African cities produced a multi-racial community around the Bahá’í Faith that did not exist in Northwest Africa before the 1940s. This inter-racialization and trans-nationalization of the Bahá’í Faith bracketed off differences based on nationality, ethnicity, and race on the path toward achieving the Bahá’í principle of harmony and world peace, which were informed by a rich three decades of racial debates in the United States, including with African Americans who were fighting against discrimination and Jim Crew legacies at the time.
The predominance of Americans, both black and white, in the early stages of the African crusade movement cannot be disentangled from the lessons of the 1920s-1930s American Bahá’í programs of racial amity and racial unity. This interracial program was succeeded by the American Seven Year Plan (1937-1944) which expanded the Bahá’í Faith in the United States and Canada by drawing more black people into the community. Between 1950-1953, the African Campaign was launched and coordinated by Shoghi Effendi himself to promote the Bahá’í Faith in Africa with the coordination of the Bahá’í communities of the United States, Iran, Egypt, Sudan and India. African Americans and black Africans were key to this plan of Shoghi Effendi. It served as the groundwork for the Bahá’í teaching projects of the Ten-Year Crusade mostly in Africa.
The Maghreb, and the African American Bahá’ís among its people, were absent from Lee’s work, and this essay attends to this absence by revealing how African Americans pioneer networks were part of a transnational web of relations, associations and circulation. While Lee references a few examples of Bahá’ís in the region, he stopped short of explicitly discussing the origin and development of the Bahá’í institutions and communities in French and Spanish North Africa through the post-independence period. An examination of Bahá’í individual networks in Northwest Africa with a focus on Tunisia, Mauritania, Morocco and Senegal shows the centrality of Bahá’í movement in Northwest Africa to understanding their larger networks of movement in the Middle East and Africa. Archival material covering the period between 1950 and 1990 underlines how Bahá’ís provide an important historical moment to debate the relationships between ethnicity and religious identity in the new post-independence Northwest African context of Arab and Islamic nationalism.
Northwest African Bahá’í Sequels: Pioneers and Networks
In the following section, I propose a new methodological approach to account for this less known global story of Bahá’ís in Northwest Africa. I suggest that in the absence of ethnographic accounts about the topic and the silence of the archives, we could thread a historical narrative by following the steps and activities of pioneers of the Faith. I argue that their traces provide a methodological model on how to write a story of a minority where taboos and restrictions surround the topic. By using available data from the Bahá’í online resources and following the steps of this web of pioneers in the Northwest Africa networks I argue that we can write this transnational story. At the center of this story, there are racial and ethnic subtexts where black and white Americans, Persians, North African Arabs and Amazigh people and black Africans of different ethnicities intersect in social webs around the Faith.
I propose here to focus on a few names that served as the main local and international nodes of the broader network. Between April 3rd and May 1st, 1956, the National Spiritual Assembly of Northwest Africa (NSANWA) was organized in Tunis. NSANWA elected its first Assembly Board which included Americans, Tunisians, and Iranians, among others. It also elected its first steering board which included William Foster, Valerie Wilson, Enoch Olinga, Mustapha Bouchoucha, Helen Elsie Austin, Shoghi-Riaz Rouhani, ‘Abdul’l-Hamid El Khimiri, Rowshan Mustapha, and Shoghi Ghadimi Jagar. These leaders became central nodes in the larger African Bahá’í networks between 1950 and 1980.
In Morocco, like Fawzi, Husayn Ardikání emerged as a key African Bahá’í member, connecting communities between North and West Africa. Ardikání and his wife, Nosrat, arrived in Tangier in November 1953 (Ndiaye, n.d.). Following Shoghi Effendi’s encouragement, Ardikání settled in Tangier and introduced local Amazigh people to the Faith. Ardikání was involved in establishing the local spiritual assemblies of Tangier in 1954, and Tenerife in 1955 before he moved to Larache, and then Meknes where he helped launched what later became one of the centers of Bahá’í Faith in Northwest Africa in 1959. In the aftermath of the Bahá’í trials in Morocco in 1962, he moved to Senegal, where he helped set up the early foundations of the Faith in Dakar and other communities throughout Senegal. On June 24, 1968, Ardikání was nominated along with William Maxwell and Mohammed Kebdani to the Continental Board of Counsellors of Northwestern Africa. Kebdani was one of the early Moroccan Bahá’í converts. Sentenced to death in the infamous 1962 Nador Case, Kebdani was pardoned by King Hassan II and released from prison in Kenitra in 1963.
The daughter of an African American couple who taught and worked with Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Helen Elsie Austin was the most recognized female African American member of the African Bahá’í movement starting in 1953. Encouraged by her father George to learn about Bahá’í Faith in the early 1930s at a moment when she was disillusioned about the role of religion in fighting racial prejudice, Elsie was introduced to the Faith by her mentors Louis G. Gregory and Dorothy Baker at the height of the Racial Unity before she joined the Bahá’í community in 1934. In 1946, Elsie was elected as the first African American to serve in the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States. On October 24th, 1953, she arrived to Tangier as Knight of Bahà’u`llàh in Morocco where she was introduced by the Iranian pioneer Muhammad-‘Alí Jalalí to Husayn Ardikání. As a lawyer, Elsie tried to practice in Tangier but she found out that her inability to speak Arabic disqualified her. She taught at the American School of Tangier and stayed in Morocco until 1957.
On November 20, 1953, Manúchihr Hizárí (1922-2010) travelled from Iran with his nephew Zindih before he was joined by his parents, daughter and wife. Elsie, Hizárí and Ardekani would form the first local Spiritual Assembly of Tangier in 1954. Hizárí joined the Voice of America where he worked until he retired in 1982 and relocated to Austin, Texas where he died in 2010. In February 1957, Mrs. Morassa Yazdi Rawhani moved from Alexandria, Egypt where she was elected the first woman of the local Spiritual Assembly to Rabat as a pioneer. She helped establish the local assemblies of Rabat and Salé and stayed in Morocco until she passed away in 1971.
As these individual cases highlight, the pioneers focused on major cities in the early phase of their movement. In the late 1950s, Muhammad-‘Alí Jalalí moved to the Middle Atlas Amazigh community of Azrou and joined the College of Azrou as a teacher. In 1956, Jalalí met El Housein Nachti, an Amazigh man from Zaouit Cheikh. In 1957, the family of Nachti converted to the Bahá’í Faith, and in 1960 they formed the first Amazigh Spiritual Assembly in Morocco made of indigenous Amazigh people. In 1959, Zaynab Nachti (El Housein’s sister) and her husband Mohammed Saidi were founding members of the first the Spiritual Assembly of Meknes with Husayn Ardikání. The Assembly of Zaouit Cheikh was active locally and key to the establishment of the first Spiritual Assemblies of Beni Mellal and Kasbat Tadla. It was also active in the translation of many Bahá’í texts into Tamazight in the Middle Atlas region.
During this period of racial and ethnic encounters around the Bahá’í Faith, and a few miles from Azrou, a group of Benedictine monks led by Dom Denis Martin established the Monastery of Toumliline in 1952, just a year before the Ten-Year Crusade. Unlike their other Catholic colleagues in the nearby city of Sefrou, the twenty monks of Toumliline avoided proselytizing. After independence, Toumliline became a site of international summer courses and interfaith seminars between 1956-1959. These meetings were attended by members of the Royal Family and many nationalists including Mehdi Ben Barka and Jilali Gharbaoui. On August 29, 1956, and during a reception by King Mohammed V of the participants in the First Congress of Toumliline in Rabat, King Mohammed V noted that, “The new Morocco has no intention of isolating and locking itself in. We have a strong desire to turn this country into an open community that cultivates relations with all countries on the basis of cooperation and mutual exchange.” Jews, Muslims and Christians from Africa, the United States and Europe attended the summer education institute. However, no known Bahá’ís were featured in the program and the summer interfaith discussions.
Like the early development of American Bahá’í Faith, Shoghi Effendi approved and encouraged mixing among different races throughout Africa, mirroring the interracial Race Unity Committee in the United States. In the context of World War II and the Nazi genocide of Jews and other groups, Shoghi reminded American Bahá’ís of their own mistreatment of Japanese-Americans and black people calling on his followers to “counteract it by showing publicly the Bahá’í example of loving tolerance and brotherly association” and making sure that local assemblies are racially and ethnically diverse and national spiritual bodies talk to each other. An internal Bahá’í education program on race in the United States known as the Race Unity Committee launched a series of publications on the topic. The education committee that spearheaded these publications included Dorothy Baker and Louis Gregory, who encouraged these teachings through the special southern college project program in which Bahá’í speakers lectured in universities and colleges in the southern states on prejudice (Khan, 2009).
The minority consciousness (Morrison, 1995), which Shoghi advocated in 1938 and expanded by African-American and other Bahá’ís in the United States by the 1940s, reached Africa in 1950 and clashed with many post-independence Northwestern African nationalist projects around ethnicity, religion and minority. In December 1961, al-‘Alam, the official newspaper of the Istiqlal Party and one the most influential newspapers of post-colonial Morocco published an article where it describes the threats that face Islam in Morocco:
When we look into the factors which led to this [the decline of Islam], we discover the preaching missionaries are the outstanding factor: There are the Christian missionaries with their various means. Then the Jewish schools which accept Moslem students and convert them into devoted Jews and send them to Israel. These are the movements which have schools and institutions, but there is another community which was driven out of the Islamic East and came to Morocco with its destructive ideas. These are the Bahá’ís (Al-Alam, 1961).
Unlike the Toumliline project, which was embraced by King Mohammed V and other nationalists, Moroccan traditionalists saw the presence of non-Muslims as a danger to the purity of the state. For Allal Al Fassi, one of the leaders of the Moroccan national movement, Bahá’ís were the embodiment of the religiously deviant group that Pan-Arab and Pan Islamic voices saw as unhealthy and disloyal at a time of postcolonial national rebuilding. However, other Moroccans espoused a different and contradicting vision of these state officials led by Al Fassi. On January 4th, 1963, Al Moukafih published an opinion by Abdelaziz Belal, a communist intellectual, supporting the religious rights of Bahá’í converts and critiquing the heresy basis of the Nador case as anti-constitutional and against the foundation of the new civil society and human rights of Moroccans of all creeds.
The fear within the leadership of the Istiqlal Party and other nationalist groups in Mauritania, Egypt and Senegal of these communities of the Bahá’í Faith was part of the anxiety of religious and nationalist conservatism that characterized the discourse of the post-colonial nationalist leaders toward Jews, Bahá’ís, Marxists, Haratine, Copts and Amazigh people. This preoccupation stems from ideologies of national purity that conservative or traditionalist nationalists constructed. The religious and political anxiety is also about national purity and its relationship to postcolonial national identity. For Allal Al Fassi and his conservative religious supporters, these groups undermine the organic Arab and Islamic identity of Northwest Africa. As Minister of State for Islamic Affairs, Al Fassi brought a legal case against Moroccan Bahá’í converts in 1962 on the basis that they represented a danger to national security and Arab-Islamic unity of the new independent nation state. The International Bahá’í Council based in Haifa called on Nathan Rutstein (1930-2006) and other American Bahá’ís to lead a campaign to “help free five Bahá’ís who had been sentenced to death for practicing their Faith.” The team included Borrah Kavelin and Mildred Mottahedeh (two members of the Bahá’í Council), Firuz Kazemzadeh (a professor of history at Yale University and a member of the National Spiritual Assembly the Bahá’ís of the United States and Amin Banani, a Professor of History and the founder of Iranian Studies at University of California, Los Angeles.
A co-founder of the Institute for the Healing of Racism in the United States in the late 1980s, Rutstein pushed against the legal arguments of Al Fassi in American media. American Bahá’ís were able to gain the support of Roger Nash Baldwin the founder of the American Civil Liberties Union and publicly “denounce Morocco’s assault of the Bahá’is.” Global newspapers such as Le Monde and The Times reprinted copies of Baldwin’s letter along with front page editorials condemning the Moroccan government’s position led by the head of the Istiqlal Party, Allal Al-Fassi. This media campaign succeeded in enlisting the support of Senator Kenneth Keating, an influential member of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, threatening to cut off American aid to the new and fragile independent state if it did not stop Bahá’i persecution. In 1962, Rutstein attended a gathering in Newark, New Jersey by Martin Luther King, Jr. At the end of Dr. King’s speech, Rutstein petitioned for the support of Dr. King. Rutstein noted that Dr. King “promised to write to Morocco’s prime minister” (Rutstein, 2008). Months after this encounter with Dr. King, King Hassan II arrived to the United States for an official visit to enlist America’s diplomatic, economic and political support. After months of diplomatic efforts and advocacy, King Hassan II pardoned the convicted Bahá'‘is despite declaring that the Bahá’i Faith was against good order and morals.
As pioneers continued to settle in Northwest Africa, despite states’ restrictions against the Faith, linkages strengthened between the Bahá'í movement in East, Central and Northwest Africa. By October 1954 the number of African Bahá'ís had reached 700, including 380 in 1953. By April 1955 there were 1,300 African Bahá'ís, over 100 Local Assemblies. In his Ridván 1956 message, marking Baha’u’llah as a manifestation of God, the Guardian reported that 2,500 of Africa's 3,000 Bahá'ís were blacks, and that there were 58 territories opened, over 400 localities, and over 120 Local Spiritual Assemblies in Senegal, Mali, Tunisia and Morocco. In the early 1960s, Ardikání and his associates led a number of trips to Mauritania to teach the Faith. During Olinga’s visit, he was received by more than sixty men and nine women (“Mauritian Grows,” 1974, p. 3). In 1974, Enoch Olinga, the most celebrated black African Bahá'í native, visited the Mauritanian village of Rosso where he met with local members of the Bahá'í community. Four Spiritual Assemblies were already functioning in Mauritania by then. In May 1978, the National Spiritual Assembly of Mauritania was founded in Nouakchott and attended by ‘Ali Muhammad Varqá who represented the Universal House of Justice. Yet by the early 1980s, and after the Iranian Islamic Revolution, Iranian Bahá'ís in Northwest Africa were erroneously suspected of being sympathizers of Ayatullah Khomeini leading to their expulsion and denial of legal stay. Spiritual assemblies in Mauritania were closed and local Bahá'ís had to travel to other neighboring countries such as Gambia for regional events. Nevertheless, and despite some state restrictions, the Bahá'í Faith continues to thrive and in Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal and Tunisia. Despite a few legal cases against some individuals during the 1980s and 1990s, Northwest African states have adopted a tolerance policy toward Bahá'í religious activities and social visibility in public and online sites. The transnational networks are replaced today by local indigenous membership made of descendants of the early converts.
The transnational Northwest African Bahá’í networks highlight a number of issues especially in the aftermath of the African movements of independence. For Bahá’ís, at least in theory, the primary objective is to achieve unity, harmony and equality. Therefore, religion here stresses the importance of bracketing off ethnic and racial categories and taxonomies and focuses instead on human unity. This served Bahá’ís well in the context of the United States where African Americans were fighting for racial justice. This is the reason why many African American intellectuals, such as Cornell West, today speak positively about the Bahá’í Faith and its role in the fight against racism even before the Civil Rights Movement. In Northwest Africa where the racial dynamics were perceived and experienced differently, the Bahá’í Faith was seen by some as being outside the nation; and therefore, its converts were criminalized for their heresy and disturbing Islamic norms. The colonial heritage of ethnic categories and privileging of one minority over another rendered the early Bahá’í history in Northwest Africa a daunting mission. Today, while many Northwest Africans have embraced the Bahá’í Faith and despite the intermittent arrests and legal challenges that Bahá’ís face in the region, the community has generally been tolerated by state authorities. Bahá’ís continue to reject participation in internal national divisive politics. This leaves Bahá’ís in Northwest Africa and other Middle Eastern countries vulnerable to rumor as agents of foreign states. The scapegoating is also linked to misinterpretations of the international nature of Bahá’í governance which many Bahá’í and non- Bahá’í African Americans considered a key partner for racial justice and antiracism in America and the world since the early 1910s.
Aomar Boum is Professor and Maurice Amado Chair in Sephardic Studies in the Department of Anthropology, Department of History and Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. A historical anthropologist, Boum is interested in the place of religious and ethnic minorities such as Jews, Bahá’ís, Shias and Christian in post-independence Middle Eastern and North African nation states. He is the author of Memories of Absence: How Muslims Remember Jews in Morocco (Stanford University Press, 2013), co-editor of Wartime North Africa: A Documentary history, 1934-1950 (Stanford University Press, 2022) and author of the graphic novel: Undesirables: A Holocaust Journey to North Africa (Stanford University Press, 2023).