Remembering Iran

I  read a reference to James Baker today, that long-time American political operator who’s been well below my radar for years. (Admittedly, my American political radar runs on a Commodore 64.) Mr. Baker is in the news again because, along with Robert Gates, the replacement for Donald Rumsfeld as U.S. Defence Secretary, he is a member of the Senate’s “Iraq Study Group”, an apparently marginalized group which is suddenly relevant. What really piqued my interest was a suggestion that the Group might be leaning, in its efforts to advise the President on how to deal with the dreadful Iraq situation, toward rapprochement with Syria and Iran. Now there’s an idea which is shockingly logical: consult with the neighbours. I hope somebody listens.

But now hear this (the tragedy of speechwriting, exhibit A): many people can’t hear mention of Iran without the malignant mantra “axis of evil” echoing around in their skulls. (That the apparent author of the phrase, David Frum, is Canadian is not a cause for flag-waving chez nous.) That Iran is a troubled state with shaky governance is obvious. I am only too aware of some of the political and religious repression that goes on there, but I also appreciate Iran’s mighty contributions to world civilization. The Zoroastrian and Bahá’í Faiths were born there, and some of the fairest fruits of Islamic civilization grew in Persian soil (including the towering mind of Avicenna – Ibn-Sina – a “renaissance man” who pre-dated the Renaissance by hundreds of years). Cyrus and Darius, as we call them in Western histories – Suroosh and Daryoosh would be more nearly correct – are only the best-known kings of a Persian empire that was the greatest of its age. The poetry of Omar Khayyam and especially of Hafiz are landmarks of Iranian culture. In my small contemporary experience, I know some of the sweet expressions of Iranian cinema, music, cuisine and their perfection of the art of courtesy. I see beautiful faces, generosity and a deep pride in their rich and ancient culture. There is so much more to Iran than nukes and turbaned mullahs.

All of which is a long-winded introduction to a brief report. At the National Library and Archives this week, there was an intriguing chance to reflect on other aspects of Iran. (Thanks, once again, to the folks at the Ottawa Writers Festival.) Jean-Daniel Lafond – known in much of Canada mainly as the husband of our Governor General, Michaëlle Jean – is a prominent documentary film-maker, and he showed and spoke about his 2001 film Salám Iran: A Persian Letter. It follows the return of an Iranian Canadian, living in exile since the revolution, to his mother and his motherland after two decades away. Lafond collaborated in this film with the writer (Persian Postcards: Iran After Khomeini), translator and Iranophile Fred A. Reed, and in early 2004 the pair returned to Tehran. It was the eve of elections that would spell the end of the Khatami reform movement and instal the hardline conservative regime of President Ahmadinejad.

Lafond’s and Reed’s interactions with ordinary (and extraordinary) Iranians resulted in their newly published book Conversations in Tehran. I haven’t read it yet, but I was impressed by these two men. They are worldly, compassionate, scholarly and curious. I detected no particular axe to grind, although it was clear that they hope for more openness and less theocracy in Iran, greater understanding and appreciation of the country everywhere else. M. Lafond was slightly limited by the event taking place in English, but nevertheless spoke well. Mr. Reed, meanwhile, is an understated and moderate presenter but a marvellously articulate and, in his quiet way, an intensely passionate one. He loves Iran and Iranians with such intelligence and force as to silently rebuke anyone who would think of that as “consorting with the Enemy”.

And I know how he feels. I have much to be grateful to Iran for: some of my most deeply cherished friends and co-workers, for one thing, and for a Persian exile’s vision of peace and hope that keeps me sane, that helps me walk a faithful path with (fairly) intelligent feet. Salam, Iran, indeed. May it be so.

Another Shot at Understanding: Learning About Islam

One of the good Doctor’s opening salvos was this. Imagine if what others knew about Christianity began and ended with Hitler. He was nominally a Christian. His troops stormed into the Sudetenland with the words “God is with us” engraved on their belts…For this, Dr. Lawson argued, is precisely the skewed perspective of Islam that too many of us have swallowed with our supper-hour newscasts. Bombings = Islam. Islam = opposition to progress. Islam = two thirds of the Axis of Evil. (Oh, the curse of speechmaking!)

Lawson is a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Toronto, and our little family had run away on this weekend of thought and refreshment largely to hear him speak. He wanted us to think about revolution, one of the main casualties of which, no matter how praiseworthy are its aims and programs, is history. And among the histories we may think we know (but emphatically don’t) is that of Islam.

Dr. Lawson argues, for example, that “Europe was precisely defined  (geographically and otherwise) by its defensive and offensive resistance to Islam”. In large measure, this is why Europe was so dark in the Dark Ages, whereas northern Africa and western Asia shone with Muslim civilization. Islam predominated in Spain, for example, for 800 years, more than three times the duration of the United States of America. In addition to co-existing amicably with Jewish and Christian communities, Islamic cities like Cordoba (and, not incidentally, Baghdad) were centres of arts and architecture, medicine, science and commerce.

The European Renaissance can be traced to its eventual increased openness to the scholarly, artistic and other resources of the Islamic culture that surrounded it. Avicenna – the Latinized name of the Persian Ibn-Sina, a gifted astronomer, physician, poet, mathematician and philosopher – was an 11th-century Muslim that Lawson terms “one of the four or five greatest geniuses of world civilization”. We know Leonardo, but we are ignorant of those that preceded and made him possible.

Our tour guide of Islamic culture and contribution debunked the standard criticisms of Muslims: their treatment of women and of apostates, their so-called “conversion by the sword”, their relative cultural decline in recent centuries, the much-muttered but sorely misunderstood concept of jihád. Lawson also emphasized the deep-rooted garrison mentality of the European heritage, in which a more powerful and more advanced Islamic civilization was feared and demonized as the “barbarians at the gates”. Those bogeyman whispers can still be heard in our contemporary public discourse.

Lawson, while not himself a Muslim, argued passionately in defence of Islam. One of the silver linings of the West’s forced encounter with Islam is that understanding is slowly growing. Muslim and other educated voices are raising the image of the Faith of Muhammad around the world. Dr. Lawson pointed out a remarkable irony: members of the Bahá’í community, branded as heretics and victims of persecution in some Muslim countries, are called upon to understand and defend all that is noble and good in Islam.

There was much more, brilliant and fascinating. (And oddly reassuring. This stuff CAN be understood. Okay!) I’ll offer more snippets another day.