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“We Are All Fundamentalists”

March 12, 2010
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When I was told that two Iranian women would like to stop by and talk to us at FCNL, I was very excited. I had never met someone who currently lives in Iran, though I frequently meet people who have left Iran and now live in the United States. These women, Sousan and Shida, were very cordial and offered some fascinating insights into the experiences of Iranians, and how U.S. policies and rhetoric affect them.

Meeting with Sousan and Shida

Sousan made a very striking comment towards the end of our meeting (their English was outstanding and they also spoke German and Arabic in addition to their native Farsi.) Expressing the frustration that many of her fellow Iranians feel at being labeled ‘fundamentalists,’ Sousan quipped, “If ‘fundamentalists’ means we are insistent about our beliefs, we are all fundamentalists!”

The subject of the U.S.-Iran relationship is one that arouses deep emotions, and often unyielding perspectives. Despite the fact that most Iranians and Americans have never experienced the other country or culture first hand, most have developed a paradigm of distrust and even enmity towards the other.  Actually, in the few years I have been working in Middle Eastern issues, I have noticed a great deal of ‘fundamentalist’ thinking–by that I mean, people seem to have firm, fervently held opinions on the topic regardless of their leaning, and I have met with greater or lesser degrees of respect for my own beliefs.

Before meeting Sousan and Shida, I spent the entire morning at a session held by the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) a group representing the Iranian expatriate community that FCNL has worked with for some time.  There could not have been a more marked contrast of political perspectives between those who have left Iran for various reasons over the last thirty years, and the women still in Iran. The NIAC forum focused heavily on human rights abuses by the Iranian government and was strongly favorable towards the opposition movement–compared to the women from Iran who were critical of expatriates and of the opposition ‘Green’ protests.  Yet, both of these groups, whether in agreement with the policies of Iran or not, emphasized strongly the need for people to people dialogue and respect for differences of opinion and cultural understandings. FCNL believes this is a fundamental necessity, and in the foreign policy arena, we couldn’t have a stronger conviction–so perhaps we are fundamentalists, in a good way?

I could delve into what set the Iranian perspective apart from the Iranian American position, but what was so compelling was that in both settings, the calls for civility and for greater education and mobilization were identical! Time and again, from members of Congress, from the media, from scholars, and from ordinary Iranians, the refrain was clear: we must promote more contact, build up trust and teach people about Iran and the U.S., and then create pressure on the governments to work on diplomacy and meaningful political engagement instead of harmful rhetoric, sanctions, and posturing that gets nowhere.  Sousan and Shida, as well as the NIAC panelists, were bothered by the ‘Iranian exceptionalism’ that has become a corner of U.S. policy, wherein  Iran’s “pariah” status is elevated despite the fact that the U.S. has ambassadors in Syria, in China, and in many places they do not agree with political policies and other countries, like China, are not called out for their human rights abuses in the same manner.

Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (CA) urged those in the audience at the NIAC forum to help “educate” Congress “about the many failures of sanctions” and Congressman Keith Ellison (MN) insisted that we must talk to our representatives and show President Obama that many Americans still support a policy of engagement and a dialogue on a variety of subjects, not just the nuclear issue. This was a great encouragement for me at FCNL since we are doing this every day. Sousan and Shida say we are “sisters and brothers” and want to build bridges between their womens’ peace groups in Iran and peace organizations in the U.S.  Hopefully grass-roots mobilization will grow to support lobbyists like FCNL in this endeavor!

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