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Citizen diplomacy in Iran

Peace group finds a culture that belies many American presumptions


The crisis over the development of Iran’s nuclear capability is complex. Although the evidence suggests that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapons program, the Western media subtly imply that Iran’s intentions are aggressive -- and nuclear. In general, the news media in the United States seem to relish painting a negative picture of Iran, when the reality is more nuanced.

It was against this background of hostility between the United States and Iran that the Fellowship of Reconciliation sent an international, interfaith delegation of 18 to Iran last December. Because I speak Farsi and had lived in Iran in the 1960s and ’70s, before the Iranian Revolution, I was asked to be one of the co-leaders. I was also a co-leader of a second Fellowship of Reconciliation delegation of 23 this past May. The purpose of both delegations was to have direct dialogue with Iranians, to present a friendly and respectful American face, and to continue to learn, talk and write about Iran when we returned home. All of this reflects the mission of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. An international, interfaith peace and justice organization founded on the eve of World War I, the fellowship sponsored peace delegations to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, to Vietnam during the 1960s, and to Iraq before the present conflict. It’s hard to say how much of a difference such citizen delegations make, but they are designed to change the world one person at a time.

From one trip to the other, I noticed a difference in the interactions our delegations had with Iranians. In December, Iranians were quick to engage with us, but the talk was casual and curious. In May there was a heightened urgency to the conversations, and the Iranians we met asked what we thought the United States would do, whether the U.S. government might attack Iran, why shouldn’t Iran have nuclear energy, and why did we think Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons.

Our delegation in May arrived just days after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent his letter to President Bush requesting a meeting, and there was some misconception that our little citizen delegation was some sort of a response to that letter. We were quick to dispel this notion, and found it even a bit funny since our trips had been planned many months in advance and we were definitely not emissaries of the U.S. government. Nonetheless, our May delegation attracted a great deal of media attention within Iran, both positive and negative, and we had interviews with BBC, CNN, Reuters and The Associated Press, as well as a number of Iranian news agencies.

There were many surprises in store for the members of our delegations, and some misconceptions about Iran were corrected. For example:

·  Iranians hate Americans.

Without exception, the Iranians we met were extremely hospitable to us. Everywhere we went, we were told, “We love Americans. Please tell all your friends to come to Iran. Only -- we don’t like your government.” The last night that we were in Tehran, during the May delegation, we went to dinner in a large, traditional restaurant with live music. During the evening the announcer said in Farsi, “We welcome our friends from America who are here on a mission of peace.” When he said this, there was loud and sustained applause.

·  Iran is a Third-World country.

The members of our delegations were amazed at the evidence of a high level of development: sophisticated road systems, cell phones, safe drinking water from the taps, advanced medical care, comprehensive elementary education and a high level of literacy, higher education including doctoral studies and original scientific research, many high-rise buildings in Tehran, up-to-date and locally manufactured vehicles. After seeing all this, one delegate said right out, “This is not a Third-World country.” I noticed some significant changes from the 1960s and ’70s; perhaps the most noticeable was the high level of air pollution in Teheran.

·  Women are oppressed and forced to wear black covering.

Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, it’s true that women in Iran have been required, by law, to wear the hijab or modest covering in public. This means that women (including non-Muslim Iranians and foreigners) must cover arms and legs, wear modest, long tops, and also cover at least part of their hair. In most cities of Iran, however, women wear light scarves that cover some of their hair, but they also wear light or even bright colors and not only black, and some wear clothing that is quite tight-fitting. As one Iranian woman said, “We are very romantic,” and Iranian women find ways to make the veil alluring and lovely.

Many Iranian women would prefer to choose whether or not to wear the veil. I was helping one of our delegates with her scarf on the street one day, and some women passing by exclaimed, “Oh! You are fixing your hijab!” We chatted a while and I said, “We are not accustomed to wearing the hijab.” An Iranian woman answered quietly, “No, we aren’t either.”

When we were in the holy city of Qom, we were advised to cover all of our hair, and we wore borrowed chadors when we went to the courtyard of the Shrine of Hadrat-e Fatima Ma’sooma, the daughter of one of the twelve Imams of Shiism. The chador is a large semicircle of cloth, worn with the center on the crown of the head and held under the chin. Getting ourselves properly covered in these chadors drew a crowd of women to help us and caused considerable amusement.

Women are involved in education and public life, and make up approximately 60 percent of college students. This number is even more impressive than it sounds because entrance to a university is extremely competitive and only about 10 percent of the applicants are accepted.

·  Religious minorities are oppressed and persecuted.

We visited the Vank Armenian Cathedral in Esfahan, a Jewish synagogue in Tehran, and a Zoroastrian temple in Esfahan. We learned that these religious minorities have complete freedom of worship, and religious schools for Armenian and Jewish children are paid for by the Iranian government. The Jewish representative to the Majlis (Parliament), Mr. Morris Motamed, told us that there is, by law, no discrimination in employment. Religious minorities serve in the armed forces, and each has representation in the Majlis.

There are some difficulties for religious minorities, but we did see thriving communities and active places of worship. To the amazement of the Jews in our delegations, we saw Jewish Iranian men walking down the street in Tehran wearing yarmulkes. We saw the houses of worship clearly marked from the street as church, synagogue or temple. One of the Armenian clergy told us that during the Iranian Revolution there had been a riot in Esfahan, but when the mob came to the doors of the cathedral, someone said, “No, this is the Armenian church,” and they passed by without touching anything.

There is freedom of worship, but conversion from Islam to any other religion is prohibited, and the indigenous religious minorities do not proselytize Muslims. The Baha’is are considered apostates because Baha’ism was an offshoot from Islam and Baha’is accept another prophet who came after the Prophet Muhammad.

·  Iranians are all highly religious.

The members of our delegations were amazed to learn that Iran is a highly secular society, with relatively low attendance at Friday prayer services. A low percentage of Iranians follow Muslim practices such as the daily ritual prayers, fasting during Ramadan, going on the haj to Mecca. The young people in Iran are generally even less observant than their elders.

·  The United States can promote reform by providing assistance to dissidents.

Many Iranians do want a loosening of social and political restraints. Approximately 70 percent of Iran’s population of 70 million are under the age of 30, and many of them desire political and social reform. Some social restrictions are gradually lifting: We saw young couples walking and talking together, dating, holding hands.

However, all the Iranians we met said that they want reform to come about from within: “We do want reform, but we don’t need U.S. help. We want to do it ourselves.” Iranians still have a deep resentment against the United States for the CIA-led coup in 1953, in which Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh was removed from office and the shah was returned to power. External efforts to support dissidents will be counterproductive, increase distrust, and will be certain to result in increased repression within Iran. One Iranian asked me directly whether the Fellowship of Reconciliation had received any funding from the U.S. government.

Iranians are quick to point out that Iran has not been a military aggressor in modern times and that Ayatollah Khomeini had declared nuclear weapons un-Islamic. In a sense, this is a stronger prohibition on developing, owning or using nuclear weapons than signing any international treaty.

Iranians do not have animosity toward Jewish people, but rather toward aggressive Zionism and injustice to the Palestinian people. It seems to me that some of the political rhetoric against Israel and in support of the Palestinians is a reaction against the friendship with Israel of the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and also against the U.S. support of Israel at the expense of support for the Palestinians. The president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has not actually said the famous words, “wipe Israel off the map.” What he did say was that as the Soviet Union fell from power and as Saddam Hussein fell from power, so some day the present government of Israel may also fall from power. (See box to the right.)

Problems in Iran

I think that the Fellowship of Reconciliation-Iran delegates are not naďve about the problems that exist in Iran today: There is some discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, especially Baha’is; social and political oppression does exist; there are restrictions on women; there is drug abuse, unemployment and poverty. Iran does want to conduct nuclear research, at least for peaceful purposes, as the government consistently declares, and this would give Iran the start-up technology to develop nuclear weapons. There is concern about Iran’s support of Hezbollah and about the potential for future violence between Israel and neighboring countries.

But military intervention is not a viable or acceptable answer, and even sanctions may be ineffective or counterproductive. As talks between Iran and the Western powers continue, I pray that every avenue for a peaceful resolution will be pursued with patience and mutual respect. I feel this particularly strongly because I have family in Iran, whom I was blessed to visit on these two trips. Though my Iranian husband and I divorced in the late 1970s, his family and I had been close and it was wonderful to have the opportunity to see them again after so many years.

On both trips to Iran, we visited Esfahan and the village of Natanz, both of which are close to nuclear facilities. In the beautiful, historic city of Esfahan, we realized that we were at what could someday be another “Ground Zero.” The families we saw walking together, the laughing children, the historic sites and breathtaking mosques would all be destroyed if the United States attacked Iran’s nuclear plants. I was reminded of a photo of a demonstration in California, in which an Iranian-American child held up a sign saying, “Don’t bomb my grandma.”

The Fellowship of Reconciliation delegations also traveled to Shiraz. There we visited the tomb of the Persian poet Saadi, whose words grace the entrance to the United Nations:

Human beings are all members of one body.
They are created from the same essence.
When one member is in pain,The others cannot rest.
If you do not care about the pain  of others,
You do not deserve to be called a  human being.

The Rev. Dr. Ellen Francis Poisson is a priest and a nun in the Episcopal church. She lives in a convent of the Order of St. Helena in New York City. She can be reached at

National Catholic Reporter, September 22, 2006


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