Persian clubs uniquely placed for American-Iranian dialogue

by Shirin Saeidi
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Fairfax, Virginia - The current U.S. focus on Iran prompted the Persian Club at George Mason University in Virginia to hold a series of discussions on U.S.-Iranian relations this fall, the first of which was led by Dr. Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, founder of the Persian Studies Department at the University of Maryland.

Dr. Hakkak focused on the political role of Iranians living in the United States and, like many Iranians, avoided analysing the political history or current reality of U.S.-Iranian relations. Instead, he advanced a perspective that many Iranian-Americans have adopted: that the 1979 revolution was one imposed upon Iranians, rather than a popular uprising with a complex history which today remains an important part of the Iranian identity. After his presentation, I pointed out to Dr. Hakkak the over-simplifications of his argument.

So imagine my surprise when a few weeks later, students from the Persian Club invited me to dinner. I thought to myself, “they must recall my remarks at the meeting”, – and the Persian Club at Mason is notorious for being “non-religious” and “non-political” ad nauseam – so I assumed my response to Dr. Hakkak was not taken lightly.

Persian clubs in the West tend to claim neutrality. However, I am unsure how one can separate politics and religion from any nation or people. And why should the Iranian-American community avoid talking about issues that engulf their country and fascinate the entire world? Discouraging debate does not eliminate the problems or provide solutions, and it certainly does not make one more American.

In post-9/11 society, many Iranians have decided to not only distance themselves from their Islamic heritage but also to deny that such a heritage exists. Hence, discussions circumvent the underlying causes of the revolution as well as its actual occurrence, only picking up the discussion at its most contemporary juncture of current social ramifications.

But these discussions merely promote a labyrinthine approach to examining politics. As long as this intellectual delusion continues, Americans, and most importantly American policymakers, will join Iranian-Americans in neglecting constructive dialogue, as national leaders often receive their cues from local organisations and think-tanks, many of which house Iranian-American activists and experts. Unlike communist thought, which ebbed with the death of its leaders, the 1979 revolution did not end with the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, and its lessons of anti-imperialism, self-determination and sovereignty are the basis not only of Iranian foreign policy but also of the Iranian psyche.

With all this in mind, I proceeded to the dinner with caution. I noticed a young woman sitting with us who was quiet at first. I had seen her on campus during the last few years, but only on occasion. Shortly after the Hakkak discussion, this young woman had told me in passing that she appreciated my comment. At dinner, it was clear that she was as curious about me as I was about her. I found out that her father was a professor in Iran, a supporter of the Islamic Revolution, and a die-hard nationalist. Like me, she grew up in Iran – I until the age of seven, she until she was fourteen.

The conversation was complex, well informed, murky, and in the end we had arrived at little resolution regarding our role as Iranians living in the US. What made this conversation memorable, however, was that for the first time in a long time I discussed Iran with a group of Iranians who raised intellectual dialogue above self-righteousness. Historical themes were panned out with honesty, and broken bridges within our community were mended through dialogue.

Consciously or subconsciously, we respected the plurality of our positions while holding onto, mending, revising, rethinking, defending and, at times, rejecting our own dispositions. I could not help but think, “What if Iranian groups that traditionally maintain a ‘non-religious’ and ‘non-political’ stance encouraged debates on college campuses across the United States such as the one we held at dinner?

By initiating discussions which address a variety of issues, we would not only advance our member’s understanding of Iranian culture and history, but our platform would also stimulate further debate within academia and, subsequently, international politics. Our eclectic membership, with some members brought up mostly in Iran, while others knowing only the West as home, serves as a tremendous asset which could facilitate fruitful international dialogue. Our efforts could initiate scholarly interaction between Iranian and American professors and activists; there certainly is no shortage of intellectuals in either country. As Iranian nationals we have the right and responsibility to engender such discussions, regardless of where we rest our head at night.

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* Shirin Saeidi recently began her doctoral degree in International Studies at the University of Cambridge, UK. This article is part of a series on diaspora communities and Muslim-Western relations distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews), and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 30 January 2007, www.commongroundnews.org
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