When I go visit friends and family in America, they ask me if I am out of my mind to live here in Iran. Sometimes Iranians ask me the same question, but for reasons that may or may not surprise my family and friends. Iranians ask me because they think I am crazy to live somewhere where my freedoms are not respected. Americans ask me because I am an American and because I am not a Muslim.
I have many observant Islamic friends now. Not one of them would dream of enforcing his or her brand of Islam on me or anyone else. "I have never forced my daughter to pray or wear hijab or practice any part of Islam," one of our friends tells me. "She has come to the practice herself, by her own choice." This view is the prevalent one among our friends and family.
This attitude does not seem to be limited to our friends and family. Taxi drivers express similar sentiments without any prompting. Total strangers do the same. A group of young people approached me to practice their English and said something similar to me. I am not a pollster, but I presume that this view is prevalent among Iranians. We'll have to find out.
That said, I get the sense that they would all be thrilled if I converted. That sentiment is not confined to Muslims by any stretch of the imagination. When you practice a minority religion, you notice how often people of a variety of faiths try to convert you.
We were in Isfahan on a recent Friday and could not help hearing the Friday prayers. They are broadcast all over the place. The mullah's Friday sermon contained the obligatory anti-American, anti-European sentiment. This time, the mullah said that Americans and Europeans were actively trying to change Iranian culture through clothing and music. "If Americans were influencing the clothing of Iranian youth," I told our friends, "they would be wearing loose jeans and sweatshirts." Our friends laughed.
I asked Iranians we met if they felt Americans were unfairly influencing their culture. The Iranians laughed and said, "Bring it on!" or "Not enough."
"But Iranians are so materialistic," a European friend commented. "They are so brand conscious – don't you think that is our fault?"
"I heard it was even worse in the time of the Shah," I responded. "I think Iranians come by this naturally."
Iran has a strong culture and a strong sense of history. Somehow they seem to assimilate assaults on their culture. Fast food places here seem, somehow, Iranian. Pop music seems Iranian. Dire Straits sound Iranian when their music is played here. So does Metallica. So does Sheena Easton. I don't know how to describe it. They just seem to be part of Iranian culture instead of an attack on it. Maybe that is because they do not displace Shajarian or Mansour. Even satellite television does not displace the homegrown Iranian serial/soap opera.
We Americans have done such a bad job of communicating with this region of the world. Why then, do you ask, is the view Iranians have of Americans so different from the view their neighbors have? Partly, I think it is because of the sheer number of Iranian expatriates living all over the world. These emigrants are great PR people. Everywhere I go, I meet people with relatives living outside of Iran. This is as true of the wealthy as the poor. I have even met a Nomadic family with a brother living in Germany. We need to learn from the way they represent our world to their families and friends.
When I read about terrorist acts all over the world, I do not see them as attacks against America. I don't even see them as attacks against what America represents. The facts just do not support this view. Synagogues, Mosques, Temples, and Churches have all been attacked. Cinemas, dancehalls, restaurants, and buses have been attacked. People all over the world have been the victims of terrorism. The majority of those victims have not been Americans. These attacks are attacks against diversity, pluralism, tolerance, faith, and modernism. I do not see them as calls for help or acts of desperation, but as acts of intolerance and blinding fear. Our language of fear is contributing to this. When we respond with fear, we use the same language as the people who would seek to terrorize us. When we respond with absolutes, we let them set the tone of the debate. Suffice to say, I think that we are fucking up.
BTW, I read William Safire's article about the vote in Afghanistan. It is really optimistic, but it jibes with what we unofficially hear in Iran. Iranians are extremely optimistic about Afghanistan. (They are also optimistic about Iraq. So you decide how much weight you want to put on their optimism) Iran is crawling with ballot workers who worked collecting the votes of Afghans living here. Here is what one friend told me: "People lined up for hours. They were so thrilled to be able to vote. I could not help but be thrilled for them. There were men and women in their 70s and 80s who had never voted and who could barely contain their excitement. It was so moving for me."
We don't have to be cynical about everything, do we?