Challenging 

US Stereotypes About Iran

Gabriel Angelone

 

The Peace Newsletter is fortunate to have had two local activists write on their recent experiences in Iran. Ed Kinane reported on his March trip in the May, 2007 issue; Gabriel is now sharing some of his observations.

I recently (July 6 – July 20) had the opportunity to visit Iran – or Persia as it was once called – with a “Citizen Diplomacy” delegation organized by Global Exchange (www.globalexchange.org). While two weeks does not allow one to become an expert on a nation and its people, I can attest to the general pulse of the nation and its people and dispel many myths that cloud this magnificent country in a grossly misunderstood region of the world.

Having spent more than two years living in various countries of the Arab Middle East, I was not surprised by the warm welcome afforded our majority US American delegation by Iranians and their quick distinction between us and our governments. I visited Iran knowing Iranians could not easily be compared to their Arab neighbors. Contrary to what many US Americans believe, Iranians speak Persian or Farsi, a language similar only in alphabet and limited vocabulary to Arabic, the dominant language of the Middle East. My quick journey confirmed this thought – Iran has a culture and people completely distinct from any other in the world.


The Evil, Conservative Forces of Islam?
Unfortunately, the war propaganda coming from many Western nations has resulted in Islam being misinterpreted and labeled the religion of “terror.” The Islamic Republic of Iran hides nothing about the centrality of religion to its societal structure. However, while visiting Iran it was apparent that although religion is a part of everyone’s life, it is not the dominant force in most people’s lives. I heard the call to prayer less often than in other majority Muslim countries; I did not see as many people going to mosques at prayer time; I saw no Iranian women completely veiled, and most women exposed their hairline as far as the cultural and legal limits allow. This observation is not meant to discredit Iranians or judge Islam as having edicts that must be altered or ignored; it is meant to counter a false stereotype of Iran as a country of people suffocated by the conservative forces of Islam.

I found it easy to talk to people on the streets. People were culturally less conservative than their Middle Eastern neighbors. In fact, in all my experiences in the region, I found the Iranians to be most similar in personality and culture to Americans. I believe that given the opportunity, good relations between Americans and Iranians would be the easiest to foster among any other people in the Middle East.

An Iranian family stopping to speak with several members of the Global Exchange delegation at the tomb of Sa’di, one of the greatest Persian poets, in Shiraz, Iran, Sa’di’s birth place. Many families such as this one visit this tomb along with Hafez’s tomb, another famous Persian poet also from Shiraz, as a source of spiritual inspiration. Its beautiful gardens and architecture make it a great place to relax. Photo: Gabriel Angelone

The Lessons of History
Coupled with this softer, approachable interior – epitomized by the Iranian people – harsh, external rhetoric – put forth by the Iranian government – is alive and well. Murals of “Death to America” and “Down with Israel and the US” still exist on plenty of walls in Tehran, the capital of Iran. The “Den of Spies” (the former US Embassy that was occupied in 1979 by Iranian university students during the Islamic Revolution) still exists with all its anti-American propaganda painted on the outside walls. Such propaganda is not blind hatred or jealousy. It is an uncomfortable fact that Iranians do have legitimate reasons for hating the US and its foreign policies.

For example, it was the CIA that helped orchestrate the overthrow of the democratically-elected prime minister of Iran in 1953 and assert Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s dominance, assuring the US of a “friend” in oil-rich Iran (similar to the insertion of puppet prime ministers in Iraq after the ousting of Saddam Hussein).

Iranians supported the Islamic Revolution of 1979 because they were tired of the Shah – heavily influenced by Western powers, especially the US – wasting away Iran’s revenues and resources. People were also tired of the Shah’s incredible opulence while many lived with next to nothing. Ayatollah Khomeini (the spiritual leader of the Revolution) promised equality for all, as prescribed by Islam. It is not surprising that Khomeini’s ideas were embraced and hatred of the colonial US power flourished. The idea of an Islamic democracy was subsequently corrupted by those given power, which is not an unfamiliar situation among the governments around the world.

The Power of the People, the Iranian People
The current government of Iran does impose restrictions upon its people. Almost all of our scheduled meetings (with NGOs, students, government and religious leaders) were cancelled due to a recent tightening of restrictions on people’s freedom of speech and fear of what consequences might follow an organized, open interaction with Americans, even if the Iranian groups were more politically and socially conservative. As mentioned previously – and in contrast to this last observation – spontaneous meetings with individuals on the streets were very quick and easy to materialize.

However, any US criticism of Iran for its human rights abuses is highly hypocritical. The US softly criticizes Saudi Arabia even though internal Saudi opposition to the monarchy is strongly curtailed and women cannot vote, occupy government positions or even drive. Women are afforded these rights in Iran and make up about 50% of the student body in Iran’s universities. But Saudi Arabia is a great economic friend of the US and helps fight the “war on terror.”

Throughout history, restrictions imposed by leaders on their people have proven to only lead to struggle and revolt. This may also be true in Iran, but this type of change will take time. With approximately 75% of the Iranian population under the age of 30, it is only a matter of time before another revolution erupts. Students have recently been protesting against what they see as an ineffectual and corrupt government, and they have been met with violence. It is easy to look at these young protesters and assume that they yearn for a lifestyle similar to that of students in the US, or the West in general. Thinking like this, however, can only be viewed as ethnocentric or naïve and is the major fault of the current Bush administration.

To paraphrase the words of one of my guides in Iran, Iranians have three identities: a Persian (pre-Islamic) identity, an Islamic identity and a Western/modern identity. Which one is displayed is different from one citizen to the next. To use the words of another Iranian I met: “They [Iranians] do not want a Western lifestyle. They don’t know what changes they want or what lifestyle they want.” They will have to figure it out for themselves.

Two clerics from the Khan Theological School in Shiraz, Iran speaking with the Global Exchange delegation. The School, with a current enrollment of 160 students, offers instruction on the religion of Islam to people interested in entering the clergy and those simply wanting a better understanding of Islam to complement their lives. Photo: Gabriel Angelone

Beyond the Washington Rhetoric
Talk of invading Iran or using a pre-emptive strike to knock out its nuclear program is still resonating in Washington. General David Petraeus recently brought up Iran during his recent report on the “surge” in Iraq. He “warned” us that Iran is fomenting terror inside Iraq and attempting to create a fighting force similar to Hamas in Palestine or Hezbollah in Lebanon.

I heard no Iranian say he or she disagreed with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, even if intended for weapons. To Iranians, the demands of the US and Israel, commanding some of the largest nuclear stockpiles in the world, are nothing but hypocritical.

Knowing some Arabic, I was able to have conversations with about twenty Iraqis I saw in Iran, taking a break from their lives in Iraq. Amazingly enough, they expressed no hatred toward Americans and also understood that we, at least some of us, did not want the war. At the end of our conversations, I asked each of them what they would like to see happen in Iraq. They all said the same thing: “We want your country to leave.” We should keep this in mind when contemplating military involvement in Iran, and we should avoid such an intervention at all costs. I left Iran thinking we need to look toward humanizing rather than demonizing its people and tap into the huge potential for “citizen diplomacy.”



Gabriel is a member of the Peace Newsletter editorial committee. Beginning in 2003, he spent one year volunteering with the International Solidarity Movement throughout the West Bank of Palestine, actively supporting Palestinian nonviolent struggle against the Israeli Occupation, and he was also a student and teacher for one year in Damascus, Syria. He can be reached at jibreel@riseup.net