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Vignettes from Iran

By Richard Cizik


‘A small group of Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians walked into a mosque in Iran ...’  sounds more like the start of a bar-joke than reality. But it happened in early June. We met, among others, with university professors, students, and clerics, even a high ranking Grand Ayatollah, in travels to Isfahan, Qom, Kashan, and Tehran.

“So how’d that go?” a customs official inquired upon return. I replied “very well,” explaining that we were there as part of an interfaith group to build better relations. He seemed impressed, mentioning it was next to impossible for ordinary Americans to get into the country. It surely is, but maybe that will change.

The Role of Religious Engagement

The imperative for American religious leaders – and their Muslim counterparts in Iran – to engage with one another, is both timely and urgent. Neoconservative foreign-policy hawks in the United States warn of war with Iran (and seem to want it) if a nuclear deal isn’t achieved. Or even if it is achieved. President Hassan Rouhani of Iran – who wants better relations with the outside world – has his own right-wing to appease. A lot is at stake and religious engagement has a role that can make a difference.

That conclusion is also obvious from a two-year project of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs called “Engaging Religious Leaders Abroad: A New Imperative of U.S. Foreign Policy,” which I co-directed with M. Scott Appleby, a fundamentalism scholar at Notre Dame. Thirty scholars and practitioners recruited for the project concluded that a serious “God gap” exists in understanding among foreign policy professionals, State Department foreign service officers, and many in Congress.

The project report concluded that “the success of American diplomacy in the next decade will not simply be measured by government to government contacts but also by its ability to connect with hundreds of millions of people throughout the world whose identity is defined by religion.”

(A parenthetical note: this visit was completely independent from the U.S. Government, and we wanted it that way. It wasn’t an effort per se at “American diplomacy.” In fact, the State Department was not even apprised of our visit beforehand. Nor has it inquired of us afterwards. And at least one member of the delegation was not American or of dual nationality.) 

This reflection on our trip remarks on six broad “religion trends” outlined in the Chicago Council Report. Consider it a way to put what was observed into a context. Call them vignettes from Iran.  

Conclusion 1: The influence of religious groups – some with long-established and others with newly won voices – is growing in many parts of the world and affects virtually all sectors of society.

One place to start is with our own group. The Global Peace Initiative of Women (GPIW), founded by Dena Merriam, has a long track record of successfully bridging national and cultural divides for peacemaking and doing so with an impressive interfaith team of partners.

The team of religious leaders who visited Iran.Eight Americans were invited by the University of Religions and Denominations in Qom, for a conference: a Buddhist, Greg Snyder, two Hindus, Swami Atmarupananda and Swami Svatmavidyananda, a Christian Protestant seminary president, Serene Jones, a Benedictine Catholic nun, Sister Joan Chittister, and an Evangelical minister, Richard Cizik, joined by GPIW founder Dena Merriam and executive director Marianne Marstrand for a little over a week inside Iran.    

The team of religious leaders who visited Iran.Eight Americans were invited by the University of Religions and Denominations in Qom, for a conference: a Buddhist, Greg Snyder, two Hindus, Swami Atmarupananda and Swami Svatmavidyananda, a Christian Protestant seminary president, Serene Jones, a Benedictine Catholic nun, Sister Joan Chittister, and an Evangelical minister, Richard Cizik, joined by GPIW founder Dena Merriam and executive director Marianne Marstrand for a little over a week inside Iran.    

Our group, Americans, were most likely intentionally invited, as part of the Government of Iran’s effort to improve understanding between the two countries, which have had very bad relations since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

Given how the CIA toppled the democratically elected prime minister, Mosaddegh, in 1953 and installed a pliant dictator — the Shah of Iran — it isn’t difficult to understand the hard feelings. What amazed me and my colleagues is how the Iranian people so easily distinguish between the government of the United States and the people, whom they love, and the culture which they love.

This peacemaking role that religious leaders can play is needed on both sides. For most Americans, the takeover of the U.S. embassy in 1979, and subsequent hostage-taking, is all they know about Iran. Less understood is the complex religious life of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Shiite brand of Islam that dominates the country, or the cross pressures that exist within the nation over a nuclear deal. They may have read that the Supreme Leader recently referred to America as “evil” or protest demonstrators denouncing “the Great Satan” and conclude that Iranis hate Americans. Not so. Time and time again we had people on the street smile at us, inquire if we were Americans, and say “we love your country.” 

At the University of Religions and Denominations, in Qom, President Dr. Hudjatal Islam Navaab, speaking to the delegation stated the following: “We too strive for human unity and solidarity and spirituality and peace in the world.” The University’s press release elaborated as follows: “Iranians and the American people have no problems, and that the issue exists on the political level, between the politicians.” Dena Merriam responded, saying “It’s time to begin a new chapter in the relations between the U.S. and Iran. More engagement is needed, more people-to-people exchanges, especially among the religious communities. We found the Iranians eager to extend a hand of friendship, and we need to respond in a similar manner.”

We certainly felt the love coming toward us and returned it in kind. A middle-aged man approached me in Isfahan saying “American?” I replied, “Yes, and we love Iranians.” He responded quickly, “That’s not the image.” Clearly a lot more work needs doing. 

What explains this situation?  Greg Snyder, a leader in Zen Buddhism, explains it this way:  “The antagonistic, geopolitical posturing of government leaders too often narrows our respective views of one another as whole peoples.  Each of us risks continually and mistakenly projecting those views, further polarizing our planet around conflict.  The open hearted welcoming of our presence as Americans and the wide range of views held by the Iranian people once again exposed the limitations of our communications and revealed that a mind of openness and curiosity is the only appropriate response to our world and each other as human beings.”  I couldn’t agree more.  

Conclusion 2: Changing patterns of religious identification in the world are having significant political implications.

Over all, the world is becoming more religious. The world’s four largest traditions – Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism – rose from 67 percent in 1900 to 73 percent in 1973 and may reach 80 percent by 2050. 

Iran has doubled from 40 million to 80 million in a brief span, with 50 percent of its population under the age of 25 years. These young people have very mixed opinions about faith (Islam) and its dominance. I recall one person whispering to me, “I hate the mullahs.” Another said she was an atheist, and so were her friends. A tiny fraction of the population attends Friday prayers in the mosques, said to be about 1.2 percent.

Public religious observance was surely more apparent in Qom, for example, than elsewhere. Appearances can be deceiving. Stopping to attend to “namaz,” as the salat or daily prayer is called in Farsi, doesn’t necessarily speak to one’s spirituality. (Consider church attendance in America.) I did notice that in hotel rooms there is an arrow in the ceiling pointing to Mecca, but that doesn’t guarantee anything. 

On our final day in Tehran, we went into the mountains where the Revolutionary Guard plotted against the Shah, and discovered it to be a place where a few women could remove their hajib (scarf) entirely, not just on the back of the head as is the case in downtown Tehran. It seems that the stifling theocracy has its effects, turning many, especially the young, into critics. Reminds me of America with its growth of the “nones,” or unaffiliated. They’re “spiritual but not religious.”

Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, observed that “In the midst of my amazement over the beauty and mystery of Iran, I was surprised to find how much we share.  Nowhere is this more clear than in the similarities between millennials in Iran and millennials in the United States.  They share the same culture, same questions about authority, and same desire for the dawn of a new day of global political leadership.  You can hardly distinguish one from the other – walking down the streets of Tehran, walking down the streets of New York.” 

Conclusion 3: Religion has benefitted from and been transformed by globalization but it also became a primary means of organizing opposition to it.

There are the so-called “religious police” in Iran, who guard against social liberalization. One can judge the relative liberality of a city in Iran by how the women wear their head covering. It is law in Iran that women must cover their hair, and if they don’t, the police will stop them. This rule applies to female visitors, but Sister Joan and Reverend Serene Jones, and others did so out of respect, not on account of any law. Both were keen to explore the social impacts of these pressures, and met with women leaders at the University of Qom.

Sister Joan had this appraisal:  “In religion lie all the issues of the planet – creation, gender relationships, animal liberation, ecology, work, community, equality, whatever. Religion is what causes us to look again at the way we live out our basic human values and principles. Where women are concerned, religion has both defined and denied the fullness of their humanity, all science and good sense aside. In Iran, for instance, seeing women required to cover themselves from head to foot –made, in fact, invisible – we have to ask both what’s wrong with men that women have to live this way. My own conversations with young Iranian women signals that those young women are beginning to ask the same thing. The future will be interesting.”

Iran is 95 percent Shia Islam. In Qom, the home of this branch of Islam, they are very strict, and no hair is visible. Men in turbans were commonplace. Inm Isfahan, a conservative city, the simple scarf is worn, and few bother to ensure that no hair is showing. Inliberal Tehran, the scarf is often worn halfway back on the head, revealing a lot of hair. And we were told that in Shiraz they are even more carefree about it. fullness of their humanity, all science and good sense aside.  

In Qom, the home of Shia Islam, they are very strict, and no hair is visible. Men in turbans were commonplace. In Isfahan, a conservative city, the simple scarf is worn, and few bother to ensure that no hair is showing. In liberal Tehran, the scarf is worn halfway back on the head, revealing a lot of hair. And apparently in Shiraz they are even more careless – or carefree – about it. 

Conclusion 4: Religion is playing an important role where governments lack capacity or legitimacy in periods of economic or political stress.

Iran is not a country where the government lacks capacity.  It’s the second largest country in the Middle East, the eighteenth largest country in the world, and an “upper-middle income country,”according to the World Bank. But it is a country experiencing economic and some political stress, with unemployment above ten percent.  While there is stability in Iran, compared to the chaos all around it in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, it has an inflation rate of about fifty percent, and the economic sanctions from the West have produced a "black market" that benefits some and penalizes mostly everyone else.   You don’t see most western products due in part to sanctions.  (One of my favorite pictures is a handsome mullah-in-turban crossing the street in front of an Apple store.  Want a cup of coffee? It takes 100,000 Irani rials in some places.  

What holds everything in place – at least from the influence of western liberalization – is a theocratic religious structure. Part of this “structure” are restrictions on information, such as independent news and social media, but how much is debatable. Facebook is officially prohibited but everyone, including religious leaders, have accounts. We could access The Washington Post but not Huffington Post.

Swami Atmarupananda offered up this tidbit of analysis: ”While in our hotels in Iran, I several times watched “PressTV News,” an Iranian news program in English. It was actually very good news coverage in general, giving excellent, balanced coverage of the world. But I discovered through the coverage of the Middle East that the belief in Iran – of clerics and of many people – is that America’s main aim in the Middle East is to destabilize Islam and to make Muslims fight each other.

“I even heard educated clerics, living in the West, say on TV that Americans are always talking about Shias and Sunnis because they want to make the two hate each other, to make each of the two think that there are other Muslims that are dangerous and that the other group has to be destroyed in order to stay safe; and therefore all the tensions between different groups of Muslims is because of deliberate U.S. instigation. I’m as critical of U.S. foreign policy as anyone, but that’s absurd. The U.S. may even be pleased that Muslims are fighting each other in some places, but the Shia-Sunni divide and the fundamentalist-liberal Muslim divide and the Sufi-literalist divide and their resulting tensions were not initiated by the U.S..”

Conclusion 5: Religion is often used by extremists as a catalyst for conflict, and a means of escalating tensions with other religious communities.

Grand Ayatollah Alavi Boroujerdi

Grand Ayatollah Alavi Boroujerdi

The foremost example of this trend is ISIS. We met with Grand Ayatollah Alavi Boroujerdi, most important of the six grand ayatollahs in Qom, after Ayatollah Khamenei. His grandfather was the teacher of Ayatollah Khomeini of the Revolution. We had about an hour with him, and heard a lot about the “wrong policy of the empires,” meaning the U.S., “whose policies create violence” and Saudia Arabia, the “origin of fundamentalism and extremism.” His points seemed two-fold: the “empires” manipulate religion for their purposes, and engage in “double-dealing” to achieve overall goals. 

Ayatollah Bououjerdi asked for a response. I stated that I agreed with him “if he meant the second War in Iraq,” which I opposed. The Ayatollah lamented the role of the Saudi Arabia in ISIS, and suggested its part in 9/11 was becoming more apparent. None of us was there to justify American foreign policy, and said so in our respective ways. I wanted him to know of our love for his country and people, and that we would each take back a message of friendship from his country. Since it is my passion, I also urged the Grand Ayatollah to consider how “the threat of climate change offers us the opportunity as people of faith to take action for the Planet and to save lives impacted by it.”

Grand Ayatollah inquired what we might do to change political thinking in America.  Swami Atmarupananda replied that as religious leaders we really have but three options:  “trying through our spiritual traditions and paths – none of them endorsing hate or violence – to change ourselves; trying to change our respective communities and countries; and lastly, speaking truth to power.”  I wondered what this influential Ayatollah thought of his answer.  

Swami Svatmavidyananda responded that in the realm of human affairs, there is such a thing called “victim psychology,” which manifests individually and collectively. It has its place in healing emotions, but carried beyond that, it is an identity that is rather compromised by being too focused externally on what was done to oneself or one’s group. Healing from distress, whether individual or collective, requires gentle introspection, without self-judgment or guilt. Without such introspection, one keeps rehearsing the distress, rather than reversing it.

If nothing else, she concluded: ”I hope that we were able to show the people we met in the course of our visit that we are sincere and loving.”

Conclusion 6: The growing salience of religion today is deepening the political significance of religious freedom as a universal human right, and a source of social and political stability.

I wish that Iran’s leaders could see it this way. Interfaith dialogue and discussions can not escape the reality of life on the ground. Iran has been on the “Country of Particular Concern” list of the U.S. International Religious Freedom Commission for its human rights record for years. Persecution of Baha’i’s in Iran has gone on for years. Same goes for Evangelical Protestants and others. In 2013, an appeals court in Tehran rejected an appeal by Iranian-American Pastor Saeed Abedini, 33, who has been sentenced to eight years imprisonment on charges linked to his Christian faith. There’s also the case of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, already in prison for over a year, charged unjustly with espionage. These imprisonments make it hard for Americans to trust Iran when it promises adherence to a nuclear deal. 

Also, sadly, in the last few years a campaign to suppress Sufism has begun. Leaders have disappeared and presumably are dead. This religion was always highly developed in Iran, and is still popular among some. Simply put, the State is afraid of any movement that gains popularity.

It’s a truism that governments that limit the freedoms of their own people have shown little or no historical inclination to act peacefully toward other people. On the other hand, democracies that respect the rights of their people rarely go to war with each other.

This was the underlying foundation for Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in 1983. (I initiated a letter to the President requesting a speech on the U.S.S.R. and human rights and met with the speechwriters twice.) G.W. Bush then used Reagan’s famous address to do his own “Axis of Evil” speech naming Iran, along with others, as worthy of condemnation. There is a place for such public diplomacy. We hope that our “track two” style of engagement, that is, an alternative to public diplomacy dubbed private (religious) diplomacy, did some good. Only time will tell, if at all.

I found Iran to be a country in transition, far more relaxed and vibrant than expected.  It is beautiful in so many ways, not just its arid terrain, which reminded me of my birthplace in eastern Washington State, but it's people, who are friendly and spiritually minded.   Marianne Marstrand saw it this way:  “What struck me were all the families I saw with their children, picnics and outings where three generations spent time together.  Even in the evenings at restaurants, children were included.  I saw it often. I also saw a joy in the eyes of the young people, they were just really present.” 

The group met with the wife of Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif. From the left, Greg Snyder, Dena Merriam, Maryam Zarif, and Richard Cizik.

The group met with the wife of Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif. From the left, Greg Snyder, Dena Merriam, Maryam Zarif, and Richard Cizik.

We are truly “One” when we encounter each other as fellow human beings and children of the Living God who desires we live in peace with one another. It’s my conviction that faith can be a healer, as a much as a divider, if we allow it. That depends on our attitude, in part, and that of the governments we elect. My prayer is that the political leaders of Iran will move in the direction of openness, religious freedom, and the right to dissent.

One more reason for hope – our meeting with Maryam Zarif, wife of Iran’s Foreign Minister, who is the head negotiator in nuclear talks.  She is a woman of great intellect, strength of conviction, courage to speak her mind when needed, and dignity. I shared with her my personal aphorism – if you’ve never changed your mind about something, pinch yourself, you may be dead – which prompted sharing of anecdotes (and laughs) about the stereotypes and misinformation shared by citizens of our respective countries. We ended our trip with a sense that better relations between our countries are in the offing.  Insha’allah.  (God willing).  Or as Christians put it: “If the Lord will...”