What Is Iran: Introduction

[Cover of What Is Iran]

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is the relief, development, and peace committee of the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches in Canada and the United States. It seeks to demonstrate God’s love by working among suffering people; striving for peace, justice, and the dignity of all people; and serving as a channel for interchange by building mutually transformative relationships.

In the early 1990s MCC partnered with the Iranian Red Crescent Society to provide relief to victims of a devastating earthquake in northern Iran. MCC involvement in the country later expanded to include a Christian-Muslim exchange program, and I studied in Iran as part of that program from 2003 to 2006. During that time I experienced first-hand the kind of mutually transformative relationships that MCC seeks to build. Such relationships depend on understanding, and this book has emerged from MCC’s commitment to cultivating understanding between Mennonite Christians and Shi‘a Muslims. What is Iran? follows in the footsteps of What is Palestine-Israel?, a book by Sonia K. Weaver that provides an overview of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict rooted in MCC experience in the region.

The first three chapters of this book are designed to provide readers with some of the information necessary for a basic understanding of contemporary Iran. Chapter 1 outlines the ethnic and religious makeup of Iranian society, with a focus on Shi‘a Islam. Chapters 2 and 3 give an overview of Iranian political history from the nineteenth century to the present, with emphasis on events leading to the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and a discussion of the changes in Iranian society since the Revolution. The fourth chapter of the book touches on key issues in present-day Iranian-Western political relations and seeks to answer questions Mennonites in North America have asked MCC service workers returning from Iran. The book’s fifth chapter deals with Anabaptist responses to Iran, including a summary of Anabaptist involvement in the country, suggestions on helpful ways of thinking about Iran, and ways in which we can work toward peaceful relations with Iran and Iranians.

A short book such as this can never provide readers with a complete description or understanding of an entire country, least of all a country with as long a history and complex a society as Iran’s. Because this book is written for people in Canada and the United States, it primarily discusses the aspects of Iranian history, politics, and society that tend to interest that audience. Western interest in Iran is greatly shaped by news media accounts, which in recent decades have dealt mainly with contentious political issues such as Iran’s nuclear program, human rights record, and its leaders’ statements about Israel. These topics and others addressed in the book are incredibly complex, and such a brief treatment necessarily involves simplification and generalization. In addition, while these issues are significant, it is important to remember that Iranian society, culture, and history extend far beyond them, and that many important events in Iranian history and aspects of Iranian society and culture have been left out.

While writing this book I happened upon an article in The New Yorker (August 20, 2007, pp. 2, 29) called “The Dark Side,” by David Owen. The article talks of how air and light pollution have greatly eroded our view of the heavens, with the result that a person standing atop the Empire State Building and looking skyward on a clear night will see only 1 percent of the wonders that were visible to Galileo’s naked eye some four centuries ago. With this in mind, a group called the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) is working to cut down the pollutions that obstruct our view of the stars. The members of the IDA, writes Owen, are scattered across the globe, with some living in Iraq and Iran, “where astronomy is a popular hobby, especially among girls and young women.” Owen goes on to say that “Authorities in Sa’adat-shahr, about four hundred miles south of Tehran, periodically cut off all electric power in the town in order to improve visibility at nighttime ‘star parties’ conducted by a local teacher.” I was delighted to find a reference to Iran in a mainstream publication that wasn’t accompanied by a mention of the nuclear issue or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s remarks on the Holocaust, and despite having met a number of people interested in astronomy while I was in Iran, I was surprised that an entire town was willing to go without electricity so that students could stargaze.

Iran still has the power to surprise us here in the West, even thirty years after the country’s 1979 revolution came as such a shock to so many. We may be taken aback by the enthusiasm of Sa’adat-shahr’s inhabitants for astronomy—an enthusiasm that sparked women to give their jewelry and civil servants give a portion of their salaries to help build the town’s impressive observatory. We might also be surprised that Iran produces world-class films, that women make up over 60 percent of its university students, and that the country has some of the best literacy and healthcare statistics in the region. Sadly, what might surprise many people the most is that life in Iran isn’t really surprising after all. Iranians get up every morning and go to school; work; and religious, social, and business gatherings. They find joy and sorrow in family relationships and friendships, hope to advance in their careers, worry about their children’s education and future, find themselves concerned by the current events that make the news, and turn to religious faith for meaning and guidance in life. In short, Iranians’ lives look a lot like our own.

This book is designed to provide answers to some of the common questions people in Canada and the United States have about Iran. I hope that it will also prompt readers to turn out the lights of the media and look beyond talked-about current events to learn about the many aspects of Iran that don’t make the news. The resources section at the end of the book is a starting point for those who wish to delve more deeply into topics related to Iran.

My interest in Islam and the peoples and cultures of the Muslim world predates my time in Iran. As an adolescent I moved with my family to Peshawar, Pakistan, where my father worked for a humanitarian aid organization. Later, after attending college in the United States, my husband and I worked and studied in Egypt and then Yemen before beginning the MCC student exchange in Iran. My experience in these countries has been formative, and the friends I have found in each place have shaped my perspective and my faith. It is my hope that this book offers not only information about Iran, but also a glimpse of the life-enriching possibility of friendships formed across political, religious, and cultural boundaries.

Laurie Blanton Pierce, Boston, Massachusetts

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