The Islam of Our Misunderstanding

If I learned one socio-political and religious lesson in Iran last month, it’s this:  Americans misunderstand Iran.  Maybe it’s the country Americans misunderstand the most. Americans often tell me that Iran is a bad and dangerous place, a place dominated by a monolithic and menacing Islam.  Neither belief is correct enough to stand on its own.  Neither is true enough to rise above stereotype.  It’s true that the Iranian government limits freedom.  But there is something else going on, which I want to emphasize. Ordinary people you meet in Iran distinguish between their own values, faith, and practices and the actions of a government many of them do not support. They figure we have the same issue in the US, and they worry it will get worse for us—and hence for them—now. They worry about Turkey for similar reasons.

Iranians also see difference and multiplicity in Islam, and they wish Americans would comprehend that diversity. Politics and Islam do often intersect of course.  But they also diverge. People I met demonstrated by their actions that desire for democracy is alive and well in Iran, and so is secularism.  At the same time respect for Islam is palpable and varied in the way people express it.  Many people showed us by their warmth and welcome, including their behavior when we visited mosques and sites like Khomeini’s tomb, that they see Islam as pluralistic and tolerant.  I learned that the tolerance goes back millennia. (Our guide tells us every story in Iran starts in 5,000 BCE.) Zoroastrianism is tolerant, and it has influenced society, politics, and religion.  True, most people are Shiite. Sunnis also live in Iran, as well as Christians, Zoroastrians, Jews, Iranians of African descent, Arabs, Turks, and Kurds, semi-nomadic tribes who’ve kept their own cultures, people from across Eurasia, many of whom look Asian. It’s a kaleidoscope of faith, culture, social practice. Yes, the mullahs who govern are Shiite. As for secularism and faith in the general population, you see the array you encounter among Christians and Jews in the US. To me, Shia Islam looks in social practice to be similar to mainstream Protestantism.

Ordinary people are proud of diversity and eager to meet newcomers. Some women dress in ways that signal deep faith, but that may be merely social practice, distinguishing between what one wears in one’s house and what one wears outside. You cover outside; you don’t cover in. Men and women may dress stylishly and yet be secular or devout to one degree or another. You can’t tell unfailingly by the way people dress.

Spend two weeks in Iran and you are baffled by the ignorance behind assertions that Islam is a monolithic thing.  It isn’t.  We misunderstand that fact to a terrible and tragic degree.

Above all, Iranians want peace.  On signposts or murals on nearly every block of every town or city, you find pictures of martyrs of the Iran-Iraq War. 360,000 dead. They aren’t forgetting that sacrifice.  They do not intend to be drawn into conflict like that again. As the Sunni Arab world spirals out of control, ordinary Iranians hold firmly to hopes that most peace-loving Americans would have no trouble recognizing.


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