This forum has taken up the subject of Islam — as in, it IS about Islam — several times since 9/11. No need to repeat the refrain. But recent events out of Iran, where security forces continue to battle thousands of student protestors, have prompted further reflection. The protests are picking up in frequency and ferocity. They are unabashedly political, pro-Western and pro-Democracy.
I was in Iran prior to 9/11, and now feel increasingly compelled to revisit the experience for perspective. And hope.
Ultimately we have more in common than conflict with most people, Muslims included. We have nothing in common with evil zealots, but we have enough in common with the rest. And that’s good, because one-fifth of the planet practices Islam.
Tehran is a noisy, nondescript, motorcycle-and-car clogged city of more than 10 million people — most of whom appear to be crossing the street at any given time. It’s also the capital of an official Islamic republic where an estimated half the population of 70 million is under 21. Two-thirds are under 25. They’re not particularly interested in repealing the 21st century — or revisiting “Great Satan” rhetoric.
The worst kept secret in this “axis of evil” theocracy is that there are double standards and privilege — just like in non-theocracies. The gated communities of North Tehran still stand in unegalitarian contrast to the impoverished communities of South Tehran. Foreign videos, stylish ensembles, chic coiffures and very open bars remain the cloistered rage behind certain stately, closed doors. American television is beamed in by satellite. “Baywatch” may be the most popular program in Iran.
Societal contrasts are as blatant — and ubiquitous — as Iran’s well-wrapped women, otherwise renowned for their beauty. Although most of their femininity is shrouded in public, their shopping habits aren’t: chadored speed bumps cruising through gold and diamond stores.
Along the streets of major cities such as Tehran, Shiraz and Isfahan, it’s common to see modern office buildings juxtaposed to magnificently tiled, minaretted mosques. Colorful billboards draw the eye to commercial messages for toothpaste, pasta, toilets and mobile phones, as well as ideological ones featuring Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, (his successor) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, (the wary reformist) President Mohammad Khatami and martyrs du jour .
Pragmatism is alive and well evidenced by tourism strategies that exploit remnants of the reviled reign of the late Shah. His well-maintained, palace-dotted estate in North Tehran, for example, is now open to visitors — notably Germans, Japanese and French — as are museums that feature the Crown Jewels and the Peacock Throne. And dour likenesses of Khomeini are everywhere available — and still selling like kabobs — on postcards, pins, paintings, posters and probably placemats.
The people I met along the way — and yes, there are mild mannered mullahs — were uniformly open, gracious and typically taken aback — seemingly flattered — by an American in their midst. Some NATO allies haven’t been so hospitable.
The reality is that for Iran, there are more threatening villains than the erstwhile “Great Satan.” Iraqis, after all, are the real — eight-years-worth-of-devastating-war — enemy. When Iranians just want to feel superior — beyond being non-Arab, Farsi-speaking Persians — there’s always the lowly Afghanis, who were even then straining resources as refugees from Taliban barbarities.
Now more than a dozen years removed from the death of ultimate zealot Khomeini, there’s a sense that so much that impacts Iranian lives today — U.S. trade sanctions notwithstanding — has increasingly little to do with America and nothing to do with Americans. It has much more to do with Osama bin Laden, oil prices, refugee problems, a population explosion, xenophobic attitudes, theocratic bullying and governmental meddling in the economy.
I’ll cite two, arguably representative, Iranians, whom I believe spoke for more than themselves:
*Akbar Heshani of Isfahan is well-traveled, educated, fluent in English and successful in the Persian carpet business. He makes frequent forays into the desert to buy carpets directly from nomadic tribes. But he has the world view of someone who has lived in the West.
“First of all, I think America is a great country, and I love Americans,” said Heshani. “I think a lot of Iranians would say the same thing.
“But there’s also a lot — at least to me — that doesn’t make good sense. You have more freedoms than we do, and I won’t kid you, a lot of average Iranians would like more access to the internet, better television and videos, wine to drink at a restaurant, and so forth.
“But we don’t think, quite honestly, that Americans handle their freedoms with responsibility,” stated Heshani. “Your ‘free press’ is also free to pander to the worst in human nature. In fact, your media helped make the hostage situation, which was shameful and regrettable, much worse by playing to the crowd, which was the same 500 ‘students’ night after night at the U.S. Embassy. Your entertainment media gets violent and pornographic, and it’s reflected in kids getting murdered in your schools. With a ban on alcohol, we don’t have Iranians killing each other on the highways.
“I know this seems so repressive to Americans, but we don’t want your excesses,” added Heshani. “But as for our young people, who weren’t around for the Revolution, I think they would like some excess. I guess all young people do.”
*Eighteen-year-old Sepideh Siroos was studying architecture at the University of Tehran. Articulate in English, she chose her words carefully, well aware that nearby school officials were monitoring conversations between Iranian students and American visitors, especially the one who was a writer.
“I do not like the veil, especially in the summer,” she said. “But older women don’t seem to mind it so much.”
On a touchier subject: “President Khatami is a good man, but a lot of students want more change, more freedom. There is too much, how do you say, regimentation. You can’t think for yourself. I’m sorry, that is the third time I have been warned to leave this subject. You speak, please