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Habits that divide us
Let's not perpetuate them

Rostam Pourzal
November 7, 2004

The following was intended as a letter to the editor of The Washington Post to comment on "Iranian Americans Join to Promote Political Activism" dated 10-31-2004.

The emergence of Iranian American civil right groups is encouraging, and I offer two additional points. First, contrary to what my fellow activists told your reporter, a few million among Iranians are ethnic Arabs. To deny that (or to refer to Kurds, Baluchis, Turks as "Persians", as is commonly done) is to sidestep a hot debate about discrimination within our country of origin and our immigrant community. It also unintentionally concedes ground to Aryan Nation extremists among Persian Iranians.

For enlightened organizations that struggle to mobilize us for equal rights in America, it should be unacceptable to perpetuate inequalities we grew up with in Iran. Other enlightenedd Americans reject such superficial slogans as "There is no such thing as White America and Black America; our only colors are red, white and blue!" Why shouldn't we?

With Persian pride, the groups named in your story do not, to their detriment, work with their larger and more experienced Arab American counterparts. Nor are they inspired by the historic record of Jewish American rights advocates (considered a model by every immigrant group) in defense of all who are left behind in America.

Your description of my fellow expatriates as prosperous wearers of "silk ties" and "fashionable heels" reminded me of an experience I had this year. It involved one of the Washington lobby groups that you featured, which sponsors meetings with lawmakers.

When I and a dozen other members met with the group president and our senator, George Allen [R-Va.], half of our allotted meeting time was taken by physicians pleading for a cap on liability suits (medical malpractice awards). In the urgent debate on health care reform in America, this remedy is not the one advocated by public interest groups, the bright lights of the fight for equal rights.

The two issues which I had submitted beforehand (as requested) for possible inclusion in the meeting agenda -- Washington, DC's lack of Congressional representation and Northern Virginia's shortage of affordable housing -- were dropped. (Members had been instructed earlier to choose domestic issues and, if I remember correctly, timely snow removal was mentioned as an example.) My attempt after the meeting to draw the attention of my lobby group's president to that day's unexplained selectivity was not addressed.

I was reminded then of reported civil right training after 9/11 of Iranian professional groups in California by Chicano activists. The former had suddenly felt vulnerable after dozens of our fellow immigrants were mistreated while reporting for visa status registration. One engineer commented to the Pacific News Service correspondent, "[until now], we thought we were Whiter than White!"

As you reported, Iranian Americans are largely eager modernists. Reacting to "moral" restrictions on women, the press, and alcohol consumption in Iran, a great majority of us are social liberals. This aligns us largely with the political party in the U.S. that is identified with secularism and civil liberties.

To distance ourselves from the populist battle cry of Iran's revolutionaries, we have unhinged our campaign against discrimination from issues of economic security (the corporatization of health care, for example) and wedded ourselves instead to "culture wars."

The Democratic establishment has done the same in recent decades, and we just witnessed the sad results. The more the Democratic elite have alienated their common-man base and relied, as do the Republicans, on wealthy donors, the more American liberals have had to depend on their image as abortion-tolerant, pro-gay marriage modernizers to get votes.

I support those liberal lifestyle positions. But if liberals are perceived to be no better than conservatives on bread-and-butter issues, their unity, and their ability to advance an equal rights agenda, is forever hampered by wedge issues like abortion and gay rights.

Electoral defeats this year in both Iran and the U.S. clearly show that anti-discrimination forces are no match for social conservatives when they allow the contest to be defined in terms of "moral values."

I have no problem with affluence per se, as I am a successful businessman. But when opportunities for our citizens to raise their concerns before their lawmakers are scheduled on workdays and cost $40 (not to mention the annual membership dues), naturally the constituents who need the most help are the ones who cannot attend.

If I am not allowed to, and no other participant is interested in, raising their concerns in a lobby session, who will speak for the economically struggling Iranian Americans? Clearly not any of the existing Iranian American rights groups, who have not even bothered to schedule a meeting with DC's nonvoting delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton.

I believe a lobby group should not misrepresent itself as a campaign for equal rights if it tolerates discrimination against some populations, promotes one-sided solutions, or does not give equal right of expression to its own members.

Rostam Pourzal is based in Washington and writes on the politics of human rights for Iranian opposition journals in diaspora.

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