|Elias is on the far right|
Report on a visit to Iran
by Elias Davidsson, 6 May 2012
Between 19 and 29 April 2012, I had the opportunity and pleasure to visit the Islamic Republic of Iran with a group of 15 German intellectuals. I will attempt to summarize my numerous impressions.
In 2011 I was invited by Dr. Yavuz Özuguz (the tall person with the gray beard) , who manages the Muslim website Islam-Market and leads a local Shi’a community in North Germany, to participate in a trip to Iran he intended to organize. For the first time, Dr Özuguz intended to organize a trip to Iran by a group of non-Muslims whom he knew to be committed to justice and peace. An Iranian NGO would host us but we had to pay our airfare.
At that time I was already aware that what Western mass-media reported about Iran was tendencious and partly untrue. I knew that Iran was a relatively modern state which emphasizes education and science; in which the majority of university students are female; where the largest Jewish community in the Middle-East (outside Israel) lives, and where excellent films are produced. I was also aware that Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (in the center of the photograph) was neither an antisemite, a Holocaust denier or a dangerous person, but - as I discovered by reading his addresses to the General Assembly of the United Nations - one of the most progressive statesmen in today’s world. I also was aware of the accusations leveled by Western governments and NGOs against Iran, particularly in the field of human rights. It was obvious to me that if I were to accept the invitation to Iran, Iran’s enemies would tar me after my return as a friend of an “antisemitic dictator” who endangers world peace. I decided nevertheless to accept this invitation.
Before we left, we were invited over refreshments and food to the home of Dr. Özuguz, who introduced us to Shi’a Islam and to the country and people of Iran. This meeting provided me with the opportunity to meet him and his lovely family as well as my travel companions, some of whom I had already known through email contacts. This coming-together was by itself an unforgettable event for me, due mainly to the warm personality and friendliness of our hosts.
On April 19, 2012 we all met at the Hamburg airport. After an unexpected customs check, in which German officials searched in our handbags for “secret technological documents” that might have violated Germany’s embargo against Iran, we embarked and enjoyed a trip with Iran Air.
After our arrival at Imam Khomeini airport outside Teheran in the late evening, a delegation of our hosts met us and invited us to refreshments before bringing us to a luxurious hotel. The personnel from the host organisation, Ebn Sina, accompanied us throughout the visit in Iran and tried to accommodate all our wishes as much as they could. Without their diligent organisation, we could not have managed to accomplish all we did within 9 days.
It is, evidently, impossible to get a thorough impression of a country such as Iran in 9 days. It would require more than one lifetime to do so, if at all. Our hosts were, of course, committed to show us only what they considered as valuable. To learn about the down side of Iran there was no need to travel. It would have sufficed to read Western newspapers, which systematically vilify and demonize the Islamic Republic and its leaders.
On the way from the airport to the hotel we experienced our first impressions. All of us were surprised by the modern infrastructure we perceived along the way and the cleanliness of the streets. Although past midnight, traffic was heavy. These sights unwittingly called forth in my memory the first trip I made to the USA in 1960. Arriving to New York, I was so shocked by the shabbiness and dirt that I saw from the bus bringing us to Manhattan that I wanted to return immediately to Europe. The contrast to Tehran 2012 could not be greater.
I find it difficult to summarize my Iran impressions in the requisite compactness. A mere listing of our meetings, visits and lectures would not communicate the depth of these impressions. A couple of my co-travelers wrote an essay about their impression they entitled “The land of love”. That designation was prompted by the fact that the word “love” was repeatedly pronounced by those whom we met. They did not use that word in the commercial sense as abused by Western business nor in the hypocritical sense used by numerous christian preachers, but in relation to Iran’s policies. Who would dream that Western politicians would talk of God’s grace and the love of God to justify their worldly policies? Everywere we went, we encountered friendliness, hospitality and thoughtfulness. Iranians are indeed known for their high regards for politeness and thoughtfulness.
Our hosts of the Foundation Ebn Sina emphasized repeatedly the Islamic character of Iran. As most of us were secular people, such emphasis was rather obnoxious. But it would be unfair to blame our hosts for their insistence because it impossible to understand today’s Iran without considering its religious basis and knowing something about Shi’a Islam. We also found out that numerous Iranians found the constant barrage of religious messages, as well as the quasi obligatory hijab that all women in Iran carry, highly irritating. I am certain that if the authorities would lift the rule on the hijab, the majority of women would stop wearing it. Nevertheless, a substantial portion of the Iranian people is deeply religious and would probably not accept the secularization of the regime in the near future. Religion plays a major role in the daily lives of millions of Iranians and will probably do so for the foreseeable future. Shi’ite Islam, as practiced in Iran, combines piety with the promotion of scientific knowledge, as reflected in the high standards of education. Many of those we met and who have not lived in the West could not fathom that most of us were non-believers.
Our hosts attempted to acquaint us with Shi’ite Islam, partly by emphasizing its links to Christianiany. Thus, an Islamic scholar, Ayatollah al-Shirazi, emphasized in a lecture he made the role of Mary, Jesus’ mother, who is revered as much as Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Mohamed. Equally were Jewish prophets presented as part of Muslim heritage and deserving respect. Our hosts appear to have believed that we needed to be reminded, again and again, that Islam was not an enemy of Judaism and Christianity.
One lecturer explained to us the principle of Imamat, namely the attributes a person must possess in order to be eligible to become an imam. Some of these attributes were specifically Islamic while 8-10 of these attributes did not relate to religious beliefs and were thus applicable to any person. Among such attributes were superior knowledge of statescraft, wisdom, steadfastness, modesty, honesty, courage and the love of human beings. Indeed, the highest office holder in Iran, Imam Khameini, is legally required to lead an austere life. How would politics look in the West if office holders were required to demonstrate such qualities?
After the death of Imam Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution, an expert commission of 85 Islamic scholars (elected by the population) elected his successor, Imam Syyed Ali Khameini, who is currently the supreme spiritual leader in Iran. This commission’s mandate is also to monitor the Supreme Leader and ensure that he abides by Islamic law. In parallel, the population elects the parliament and the president in direct, secret, elections.
Unique to Iran are the prerogatives of the Supreme Spiritual Leader. According to the Constitution, he is not only the spiritual leader of the nation and thus represents, as it were, the spirit of the Prophet (Mohammad) but represents the supreme commander of the Iranian armed forces. Thus, his statements on war and peace possess greater weight than even those of the President. His position on nuclear weapons is unequivocal. He repeatedly stated that Iran will not and cannot acquire nuclear weapons because these are inhuman and incompatible with the principles of Islam. He in parallel called for the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle-East, an appeal rejected mainly by the State of Israel and its western backers. Finally, he urged the states of the world to work for the total abolition of weapons of mass-destruction, a call rejected by NATO member states. Western media do not relish to report these facts, preferring to promote distrust and hate against the Iranian leadership. Enemies of Iran have a hard time to believe that Imam Khameini is honest and bound by religious and ethical norms because they themselves do not consider ethical and religious norms as binding.
We visited also the grandiose Iranian parliament (Majlees), where we attended a noisy debate about the status of teachers and met a few members of parliament for a short exchange. Among them were MPs representing the Jewish, Christian, Sunnite and Zoroastrian communities. According to the Iranian constitution, each of these minorities is entitled to at least one member in parliament.
One of the highlights in Iran was for me the visit to the National Library. Apart from the exquisite architecture of the building, its spaciousness and friendly athmosphere, I was highly impressed by the modern facilities offered to the users, including for the blind, facilities seldom found even in European university libraries. The library houses over 1.5 million books, a huge collection of old manuscripts, mostly in Farsi (Persian) and innumerable scientific journals published in Farsi. Glancing over the English titles of articles published in these journals, I found that the level of inquiry in Iranian social and physical sciences was as high as anywhere in the West.
Our hosts surprised us by organizing an audience with Iran’s President, Dr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. After making what amounted to a philosophical lecture (unfortunately badly translated), he spent a few minutes talking to our group. His demeanor confirmed his known modesty and moderation. Even when he mentioned in his lecture the threats and attacks leveled by the United States and Israel against his country, he never demonstrated any hatred or anger towards those countries or their peoples.
I did not manage to inquire sufficiently about social and economic policies nor about the situation of human rights. We had, however, an opportunity to meet the President’s advisor for women’s affairs. She informed us about family and inheritance rights, and dispelled some wrong ideas that we had about Islamic family law. According to her, there exist in Iran approximately 8,000 women’s associations (NGOs), organized into several national federations. These networks consult the President’s advisor with regard to families’, women’s and children issues. It became apparent to me that Iranian women do not need the motherly assistance of their “emancipated” Western sisters to defend their rights. Their self-confidence convinced me that they are capable to defend their rights, thank you very much.
We were told that the working week in Iran is 30 hours and that women and men receive equal salaries for equal work. If this is really the case (something we had no time to have confirmed), Iran would be in advance over Western countries in this matter.
An interesting insight into Islamic criminal law emerged as a result of my question regarding the death penalty. As an opponent of the death penalty I expressed my concern regarding the number of death sentences in Iran. What I did not know is that most death sentences in Iran are not carried out because the families of the victims (or the victims themselves in cases such as rape or assault) can and do “forgive” the attacker. According to Islamic law, judges are bound to suggest to the victims or their representatives to “forgive” the defendant, rather to demand a revenge (punishment). Victims or their representatives are not, however, obliged to forgive and can insist that the sentence, whichever it is, be carried out according to the principle “eye-for-eye”. By that mechanism, victims or their families, take upon themselves the psychological burden of deciding the fate of the defendant. This system may explain why many prefer forgiveness to revenge.
When the Security Council of the United Nations imposed in August 1990 economic sanctions against Iraq, it caused almost immediately food shortages in the country. The reason was that Iraq at the time imported 70 percent of its food needs, a great deal from the United States. The Islamic Republic of Iran avoided such vulnerability: Iran produces most of its own foodstuffs and most medicines. It also encourages industrial production to reduce imports, domestic scientific research and technological innovation. Today Iran not only produces a substantial portion of its own motor vehicles but develops space technology, biotechnology and nanotechnology.
Does a scientifically developed Iran represents a threat to world peace? Enemies of Iran, including the Zionists, do not tire to demonize the Islamic Republic, accusing it of evil intentions. It is difficult to know whether such accusations are based on lack of knowledge or on malice. One fact is undisputed. Contrary to the United States and Israel, whose history of aggressive wars is well documented, Iran has not attacked any country for centuries. There is no basis for imputing to Iran aggressive intentions. Iran’s leaders are led by a religion of peace and by the wish to share their faith with others.
The political system of the Islamic Republic of Iran is in some respects unique in this world. It can be regarded - with some reservations - as an experiment following the theology of liberation that was so opposed by the Vatican. The Islamic revolution is celebrated by many Muslims in a similar way as communists celebrate the October 1917 revolution, namely as an act of liberation from oppression. The Iranian revolution is, however, only 33 years of age and can either mature or disintegrate. The Iranian leadership are still groping with internal and external challenges and are, as any human beings, fallible. They attempt to maintain the revolutionary zeal, prevent corrupting influences from the imperialist countries, fend off foreign attempts at destabilisation, and ensure the well-being of the population. It is easy for Westerners to criticize the Islamic Republic for some of its oppressive policies. It must be remembered that Western democracies have evolved over centuries to what they are today and still cannot be regarded as democratic or socially just. Iran must be left in peace to find its own way. The people of Iran are well educated and can be relied to ensure their own future without the help of foreign invaders. Western countries, whose history comprises the enslavement of African people, the extermination of the North American natives, and two world wars, should learn some humility before lecturing Iran.
I ask myself what are the deep reasons for the West’s alleged fear from Iran. Is it because Iran attempts to free itself from the grip of global capital or represents a thriving alternative to wild capitalism, an alternative that might appear attractive to more nations and endanger the imperialist system? I should at this point add that no one we talked to in Iran believed that his or her country will be attacked by Israel or the United States. We found no fear, panic or concern among Iranians. They are all busy with their lives. Construction can be observed everywhere. Real estate prices have increased dramatically in recent years because of high demand. Tourists are most welcome and can look forward to excellent accommodations and an extremely hospitable population. Photographing is allowed virtually everywhere - with the evident exception of military and security installations. Those who claim Iran is a totalitarian state should visit that country and find out by themselves whether such a designation is appropriate.
For a humanist such as myself, Iran was a real discovery. I would gladly visit the country again, for a longer time, visit musicians (I am a composer), enjoy the exquisite sights and air of Isfahan (one of the most beautiful cities I ever visited), and stroll among the friendly crowds. I pray and hope that Western governments will recognize the futility of coercing, threatening or attacking Iran, lift the ineffectual and self-defeating embargo on that country and build up a fruitful cultural and economic cooperation with the Iranian people.