Opinion

Op-Ed

Americans Glimpse the 'Real' Iran

If Americans and Iranians cannot reach agreement on ideological and faith issues, they should at least aim for mutual understanding and acceptance.

In October 2007, we were part of a Muslim American delegation of peace and conflict resolution experts who went on a one-week trip to Iran to discuss ways in which various Iranian groups approach conflict prevention, resolution, and dialogue. Our delegation met with peace-practitioners, lawyers, human rights experts, N.G.O.'s, scholars, religious leaders, and students.

There is a tremendous amount of internal debate among these groups in Iran. The Western image of a closed society of mullahs dictating every Iranian's thoughts and movements is far from the reality. We learned through discussions with the ayatollahs that there is vibrant expression of self-criticism and debate surrounding current issues, including voices opposing some of Iran's foreign policies.

In the holy city of Qom, we met with three Grand Ayatollahs who had been selected by Ayatollah Khomeini to govern the Council of the Judiciary, the main supreme judiciary in Iran. They expressed their commitment to peace, improved relations with all nations, and the urgency of a dialogue among civilizations—especially immediate dialogue to diffuse the current tensions between the United States and Iran. These Grand Ayatollahs made it explicit that they considered religious violence and terrorism reprehensible and antithetical to Islamic values.

Over the course of our stay, the Iranians we met showed great curiosity about our work in conflict resolution and how it was for us—as Muslims—to live in the United States. Human rights scholars and lawyers were eager to learn about the current debate in the United States over civil rights, capital punishment, gender rights, ethnic profiling, and cultural assimilation. The majority of our conversations focused on the best ways to promote pluralism and democratic values in an Islamic context. Many believed that the Iranian experience can offer valuable lessons to other Muslim countries, while others insisted on greater measures that separate state affairs from religious doctrine.

Our delegation met with members of the Islamic Commission on Human Rights in Tehran, who taught us about the ongoing activities in Iran that protect the rights of the country's citizens, especially those of children, women, and laborers. Although since the 1979 revolution the public space open to human rights experts in Iran has shrunk, we nevertheless learned that organizations like the Commission for Human Rights, for instance, exist despite Iran's negative human rights record and serve as an important instrument to monitor, document, and disseminate information on human rights abuses.

There is an exceptional amount of debate on and off campuses on finding practical ways to reform the political culture. The majority of the scholars and students we met expressed eagerness to engage and share their views and work with American counterparts. It was common to hear Iranian professors speak authoritatively on modern French, English, and German scholarship, much of which had been translated into Farsi. Iranian students may not have had much opportunity to meet Americans in Iran over the past 28 years, but this did not prevent them from reading and analyzing American political philosophy and society.

In a meeting with 13 of the most recognized intellectuals in Tehran hosted by the Academy of Science, the premier intellectual professional society in Tehran, scholars agreed that if Americans and Iranians cannot reach agreement on ideological and faith issues, they should at least aim for mutual understanding and acceptance.

At another event, hosted by the University and Bar Association of Isfahan, 400 students and community members attended our public lecture on "Islamic Dialogues on Peace" and many expressed their desire to know more about American culture, Muslims in America, and ways to diffuse the current crisis between the two nations.

Having spent time in Tehran, Qom, and Isfahan, we can testify to the need to reduce the mutual Iranian-American ignorance of each other's cultures, societies, and needs. Aside from witnessing the beauty of Iran itself, the trip exposed us to the diverse voices of Iranians.

In the mind of many Americans, Iran is a stagnant society, closed off to progress and modernity. This trip forced us to question our basic views of each other and specific means to improve American-Iranian relations. Only in the past ten years has the portrayal of Iran begun to include images of reformers as important actors paving the road to progress. Iranian society is far more complex than even this image suggests. With a literacy rate of 92 percent, Iran has a vibrant civil society and intellectual life.

Unfortunately, the delegation returned to the United States only to find the debate over military strategies for ending Iran's nuclear enrichment program still continuing. Even since the Dec. 3 release of the National Intelligence Estimate, a combined report by 16 intelligence agencies, stating that Iran's nuclear program ceased in 2003, we still find a continued push toward confrontation by some. This adversarial approach is not only dangerous, but it is also indicative of the degree to which American policymakers can be removed from the reality in Iran. Not only does this talk of war overshadow opportunities for improving bilateral relations, but it also underestimates the complexities of a society that has its own rich, internal dialogue.

On several occasions in Iran, we were reminded of a saying by the revered Imam Ali: "Ignorance is the enemy of human wisdom."

Let us learn from these exchanges so that we might prevent ignorance. And let us open the channels of communication between these two nations so that we might become wiser.

Dr. Qamar-ul Huda, Dr. Mohamed Abu-Nimer, and Dr. Ayse Kadayifci were part of an American Muslim conflict resolution delegation that went to Iran. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service.

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