Understanding Iranians? Not a bad idea
Michael C. Walker
February 26, 1998
Recently, I have noticed many articles and letters in The Iranian and other Iranian publications of the Persian diaspora concerning the renewed and re-invigorated relations between Iran and the United States. Having read the comments of a diverse multitude of politicians, analysts, economists, and others explaining where the road to better relations between these two nations may lead from here, the future indeed seems bright enough if cooperation and understanding remain principle tenements of U.S.-Iranian diplomacy.
Certainly, the implications for those of Iranian descent living in the United States cannot be underestimated; better political and commercial relations can only lead to better social relations for Persians within the borders of both countries. Yet there is one crucial area I have not seen seriously addressed in all the speculation of where Iranian-American equanimity may lead and that is the perception of Iran and its people by the American public. This aspect -- though not directly correlated to the political maneuverings at hand -- seems central to the longevity of favorable U.S.-Iranian relations.
For a variety of reasons that are probably all too familiar to those reading this piece, the United States government has long portrayed Iran as a bastion of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, at least up until Iraq emerged as a more eminent threat to American interests in the Middle East. The image of Iran as some vast land of terrorists plotting to inflict harm upon America and her allies has trickled down from politicians to the general public, causing Iran to become synonymous with terrorism and all the aspects of the Middle East that many Americans fear and do not understand.
The United States -- as much as I hate to admit it as a citizen of this nation -- has a long and pronounced history of using xenophobia and ungrounded fears to motivate its populace towards following the views of political, religious, and cultural leaders. Sure, other nations can be just as readily charged with such misdeeds, but few other nations claim to embrace all peoples of the world as the United States does; few others stake such pride in their socio-cultural diversity while simultaneously denouncing those cultures they cannot understand.
The bottom line is that whenever xenophobia or cultural discrimination reigns in the United States, it has a direct and horrible effect: it causes prejudice and hatred, often from the minds of Americans towards their fellow American, all because of differences, often simple misunderstandings.
The Persian diasapora in the United States as well as expatriates from every Middle Eastern nation have felt this prejudice and have borne witness to the pain fear can breed. I have lived in the American south-east, a region known to the point of stereotype for its biases and deeply-rooted xenophobia. During the Gulf War, I watched as otherwise caring and good Americans spoke of distrust and contempt for their neighbors, co-workers, and acquaintances of Middle Eastern descent. Often, no differentiation is made in prejudice and anyone with a foreign name, anyone of a darker skin color or a Middle Eastern background seemed suspect for terrorist sympathies, no matter their nationality, no matter how ridiculous their possible involvement in acts against the American government or people might be.
At the time -- as I was still in high school -- I marveled at this blatant bias, wondering where it came from and what it indicated. After a few more years experience in the world I think I can find one outstanding root of all such hatred, and that would be a lack of understanding based upon a lack of education. Americans, especially the high school and college-aged Americans of my generation have a strange view towards education: they seem to want its material benefits without allowing for the possibility of it enhancing their knowledge beyond the cultural beliefs instilled by their parents and others around them. Simply stated, I see few of my peers interested in understanding other cultures and other nations, fearing that such understanding may only come with the sacrifice of their own views, fearing that they may witness their preconceptions overruled by greater reason and truth.
Yes, it is difficult to change a person who is already well set in their ways and their beliefs, and such a person may not be in his or her later years, but indeed in his or her late teens. Prejudice is formed early and is one of the most stubborn demons to exorcise from the human mind. Prejudices become ingrained in a person's greater assemblage of morality until like a cancerous lesion they become merged with benign beliefs and concepts. Education starting at the earliest opportunities is the only viable means of preventing the growth of such prejudice. It is true that young children do not harbor biases as their elders do, but it is also true that children learn quickly and gravitate towards those views that will allow them to "fit in" with their peers and society around them.
For this reason, we must proactivly teach anti-discrimination in our schools and our communities at every given opportunity. Such education cannot be limited to a simple explanation that prejudice is "bad" and that all people are equal; it must instead explore the world's diverse cultures, religions, and ethnicities. Such education should especially concentrate on nations like Iran where America's hatred and misunderstanding is prismed and clearly focused.
Education should not be manifest in a single week alone of multi-cultural appreciation in the school year but must revolve around constant lessons in geography, culture, and current events so the student will understand that most actions in the Middle East which seem incomprehensible to Americans (i.e., terrorist attacks) have a long history of reasons for their existence. Without understanding the complexity of Middle Eastern politics to some degree, young Americans will never go beyond the stereotypes presented to them by their mass media. They will never see any reason to do so.
I will never forget the day the Federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed. I was coaching a youth soccer team and we had our practice on that day, in the late afternoon. My team of adolescent soccer players had heard news fragments regarding the horrible bombing, although no one had all of the facts of the situation. Yet my team was unequivocally sure that "Middle Eastern terrorists" were responsible for this act. My assistant soccer coach (who thankfully, was not present) was of Arabic background and trained in nuclear engineering, leading the kids to speculate about his direct role in the bombing, never mind that he had always treated them with care, attention, and professionalism, never mind that it was not even a nuclear device which had exploded. This good man was being held guilty in the minds of these adolescents for one simple reason: he was from the Middle East and he was a follower of Islam.
For this group of well-educated children who attended the area's best schools, whose parents were of the community's academic and commercial leadership, a person's ethnicity was enough to convict them of treachery. Of course, the bombing was not the work of Middle Eastern terrorists at all but an action of American terrorists; the harvest of homegrown hatred. At this moment, I realized the obstacles we face in ending anti-Arabic, anti-Persian, and anti-Islamic prejudice in American society. I realized the need for education and I saw where it must start. It has to begin with young children and it had to be inclusive of a comprehensive (at least as close to "comprehensive" as possible) understanding of cultural differences, and more importantly, of cultural similarities.
Our public schools in the United States are institutions of such sloth and complexity that we cannot expect profound change in their curricula overnight, nor can we expect them to do this job of eliminating bias alone. Education must exist both formally and informally, it must be an action within our everyday lives as well as a political byword. If you are an Iranian-American you can bring something invaluable to all American children with whom you have contact, whether as their teacher, their doctor or dentist, a neighbor, or because they are your own children's friends.
You can allow them to know that you come from a land of rich history and proud accomplishments, a place with its share of problems but also with much to offer this American nation we recognize as a "cultural melting pot". Show these kids what you are worth, and why it is worth their time to understand Iran, to understand other cultures and countries. As political relations head towards a better future for Iran and for the United States, why allow social relations between Iranian-Americans and other citizens of the U.S. to lag so far behind?
Michael C. Walker is a twenty-three year-old writer, researcher, artist, and student living in San Francisco. He has published extensively on the reformation of the nation of Mongolia and issues concerning health care in developing, re-developing, and war-torn nations.