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Happy medium
Listen up boys and girls: We are now at a day and age when religion is more or less a personal choice

March 8, 2005

Recently, I came across two diverse articles in the Iranian, one by Pesar Gol ["Hossein hocus pocus"] and the other a response by Sanaz ["Your loss"]. I can only imagine how emotional, and perhaps young, they both must be. Their heated discussions reminded me of decades ago and similar arguments in my family. The problem is, in a society that is in desperate need of unity, too many debates seem to be going on. I want to reach both these authors as well as many others who feel the same and hope to offer a semblance of peace to an angry generation.

Having seen it all gives me the advantage to appreciate both sides. I can justify one’s frustration over demonstrations that mean little to him and the other’s anger over self bashing and what seems to humiliate a culture--or rather what has been imposed on it. But the truth lies somewhere between the two points of view and if there’s one good thing about aging, it is the ability to tolerate both.

Pesare Gol belongs to a generation that was raised with a Westernized culture. That was neither his choice and nor his fault. Considering the Pahlavi’s infatuation with the European trends, most of us -- including Sanaz -- fall into a similar category and need to come to terms with it. We were sent to boarding schools abroad, learned a second language, followed the fashion and grew up with music, dance and arts that were imported from the West.

If we are to discard the satellite TV because it is not Persian, and if we want to go back to being pure Persians, then we also need to sit on the ground, eat with our hands, and sleep in bedrolls. So while we take the good and discard the bad, let us not try so hard to separate the East from West, but rather find a happy median where we can keep up with our times, yet remain who we are.

Sanaz is moved by a religious demonstration she has witnessed, but reading the insulting comments, her national pride is bruised. In fact, her frustration is shared by many Muslims who grew up in a country where religion meant “Islam and other minorities.”

The drastic change that followed is hard to adapt to. Today, not only are Muslims often considered a minority -- regardless of the fact that they are over eight hundred million in number--but against the backdrop of a negative propaganda, it is hard to be proud of being one.

The sad part is that while the two young writers debate on opposite sides, ironically they belong to the one and the same group! In fact I could bet neither one of them understands the meaning of the words Ashura or Tassoua because these are Arabic words we all grew up to respect without understanding their meaning. And, these are only two words out of volumes.

Sanaz is right to point out that in every religion there is some fanaticism. But Muslims seem to be too radical and often too loud in their demonstrations; and that may be what the world sees as odd, if not hard to understand. Perhaps if thousands of Christians went around each year and crucified themselves it would seem ridiculous, but a few isolated cases fail to get the same attention as the millions who mourn Ashura in a most dramatic fashion.

While other religions seem to have evolved over time, Islam has maintained its ancient traditions. Take Christianity for example. Except for the Vatican and a few other places, Christian women are no longer obliged to cover their heads to enter a church.

Also, Christians no longer punish adultery by stoning -- as they used to. Many nuns do not wear the habit and there are now many women priests. These are only examples of the many changes in one religion but the list goes on and on and the same is true for most others. What is hard for people like Pesare Gol to understand and tolerate, is the absence of such changes in Islam.

Another frustrating aspect is our lack of knowledge and the mere fact that most of us were born to Muslim families, but we received little training for it. While grandmother prayed for the outcome of our final exams, we were exempt from religious schools, prayers or going to religious ceremonies and received limited Qoran studies at school.

On the other hand, through books, magazines and watching films, we became familiar with the most glamorous church ceremonies, the suffering of the Jews and the purity in Buddhism. When we left home and needed our faith the most, we witnessed all sorts of atrocities in the name of Islam and the world simply labeled us all as terrorists.

Frustrated, many abandoned their religion and did not feel strong enough to join any other sect either. What we didn’t like, we blamed on the Arabs and what we liked, we shamefully kept a secret. I yet have to hear a Christian say, “We are Arians and have nothing to do with Israel. They imposed Christianity on us!” But such a feeling toward Arabs is second nature to many Iranians. True as it may be that Christianity spread through peaceful missions, they also endured massive wars that are hard to ignore.

I hope that both Sanaz, and Pesare gol (and many other pesar and dokhtare gol) hear me out because the future is in their hands and unity and peace is what our dispersed nation needs the most. We are now at a day and age when religion is more or less a personal choice. True as it may be that there is much politics involved and that there will always be those who in their struggle for power, will take advantage of religion, but on a personal level, it is all about peace.

In order to reach inner peace, one needs to believe in something. I am at a point where I only see one God and find it fascinating how man has managed to divide Him into pieces and each group believes they have the better piece! While I have equal respect for the good in all religions, I also feel equally sorry for the fanatics. Let us not forget that sorry and angry are entirely different emotions and while one tolerates and understands, the other suffers and is outraged.

These debates are timeless and I doubt if they will ever resolve. While Pesare Gol may be bashing on religious people and how they choose to demonstrate, Sanaz’s comments are equally insulting toward young people who are frustrated over what they fail to understand are unable to relate to. As someone whose age gives her the advantage to understand, I see them on the same side. They both belong to a generation who has lost much but is given the tremendous responsibility to build something better.

Despite the hardships they have endured, young Iranians around the world are doing a great job of getting on with their lives and it gives me immense pleasure to follow their success stories. But the fact remains that if Iranians--as a nation--are to survive, we need to maintain unity. Like the small particles of a mosaic, our beauty can only emerge from such harmony. Only then is there hope for our Persian culture to survive.

Zohreh Khazai Ghahremani is a retired dentist and a freelance writer. She lives in San Diego, California. Her latest book is "Sharik-e Gham" (see excerpt).

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Iranian Nationality and the Persian Language
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