“For a society which values intellect and education more than any other society I know, I cannot fathom why in Iran freedom of speech and tolerance of opposing views have been such rare commodities.”– Prof. Richard N. Fry; Harvard University.
Norouz has always been a time of reflection and contemplation for me ever since I left Iran some 35 years ago. It is a time when I look back pensively over the past year and years past, trying to understand and compose a rendering of who I was and who I have become, to which society or social group I belong, and with which one I identify myself.
Social and anthropological studies are filled with all kinds of analyses on identity challenges of immigrant communities. In the past 20 years, one of main focus of such studies has been on Iranian Diaspora. These days there are many organizations that purport to represent us, in one way or another. But often such organizations are clannish, as we are yet to develop the necessary community skills and behavior to form truly democratic institutions which would represent us adequately and properly, in all arena of life.
We, Iranians in Diaspora, are socially-divided not because of class or other differences, as most other societies are; but rather because of political/partisan views. Culturally, our tendency toward social “politeness,” often drives us away from any dialogue where we fear others’ views may not coincide with us. While in western culture, among which we have worked and lived for decades now, we certainly have witnessed other people with divergently different views, who yet discuss them and even debate passionately, and still remain friends and part of the same community.
This aspect of us, in avoiding any topic or participating in any activity that may not coincide with the views of our friends and acquaintances has led to our social inactiveness. That has provided opportunity for those who purport to represent Iranians whether at local, state, federal or even global levels, to avoid key critical issues which have to be addressed if we wish a social advancement that would translate to a better life for all of us, our children and generations to come.
Such organizations, which often carry the name of “Iran” or “Persia” in their titles, regularly fail to represent us as a whole and often use the excuse of limiting their activities to cultural events as a disguise for such failures. Our culture is not separate from our identity; it is not separate from our values. One cannot address Iranian culture without addressing Iran as a whole, as an ancient and constantly evolving society. Iranian culture, like any other, is directly related to all the sociopolitical changes of the people to which it belongs. Our Norouz, Sizdah be-dar, Farvardegan, Tirgan, Mehrgan, Espandegan, Sadeh, Chahar Shanbeh Souri,…all have roots in all the sociopolitical events of our past and present. One only has to read Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh to realize this.
One cannot claim to care for or wish to preserve Iranian culture in Diaspora and simultaneously show no concern for what occurs daily in Iran or what has been occurring in Iran for the past many decades.
Would you believe or can you accept if I were to tell you that Iranian culture and its promotion here in North America is of value and importance to me but I do not care what occurs in Iran and to Iranians? This would be a rather schizophrenic statement to make.
All sociologists, such as Maslow, hold than man is a political animal. All human organizations are also political. Here a clarification is needed. The word ‘political’ has a different meaning than ‘partisan.’ We often though confuse and mix the two in usage. People and organizations can be non-partisan but cannot be apolitical. It is in recognition of this fact that Internal Revenue Code’s section 501 (c) forbids non-profit organizations from promoting partisan activities but does not deny them “political” activism. Organizations from League of Women Voters, to nearly all civic organizations, churches, …..political think tank organizations, ….NIAC, PAAIA, Iran-American Council,….all enjoy section 501 (c) status while they engage in various forms of political and social activism. The non-partisan requirement is only meant that all non-profit organizations enjoying tax-exempt status should represent more than one party point of view in their activities and cannot act in partisan manner.
Now, I am not proposing that you should join any of these organizations. You do not need to join them in order to let them know what you think of them or to let them know that they do not represent you. You have every right to let any and all organizations and institutions that purport to represent you know what your opinion of them and their programs and activities are. You do not need to be a Democrat to let the Democratic Party know where you disagree with them. A Republican Congressman or Senator must also hear what you think of the bills and programs they sponsor and where they stand on the issues even if you are registered Democrat. And again, every organization that carries the name of Iran, Iranian, Persia or Persian should hear your opinion of them. The lifeline of democracy is the participation of people in all social, economic, and political arena.
We all express vociferously that we wish to see a democratic Iran in our life time, which would enjoy a pluralistic, transparent, and progressive government. But I contend that democracy is not just a form a government, it is a way of life. A democratic government cannot be formed or exist without a society believing in democratic values and practicing democracy. As you know, tolerance of opposing views and rights of individual, as outlined for example, in U.S. Bill of Rights, are such strong components of these democratic values that without them a democratic society cannot exist. More importantly, democracy cannot exist without the participatory role of citizens. If we do not actively participate in setting the direction, goals, and structure of organizations which purport to represent us, then we cannot claim that we understand what democracy is, what it requires of us, and that we truly wish it. In other words, democracy starts with each of us, with the active social and political participation of each of us, in our local, professional, communal, cultural, and social organizations. We cannot hope for a future democratic Iran if we first do not value and uphold democratic values, practice it in our daily life and interaction with others, and institute it in our local organizations and groups.
Again, I’d like to reiterate that I do not advocate any partisan (representing a particular point of view) activism but rather wish and hope to see a participatory form of activism where all issues and views relating to Iran are allowed to be aired, debated and challenged in an environment free of finger-pointing, accusations, innuendos, and any form of hostility against individuals. In the words of Christ, it is the sin which should be condemned and shunned not the sinner.
I close this note with the hope and expectation of hearing, and in the process learning, from each one of you. So today, spend 5 to 10 minutes to email those who purport to represent you, at any level, and let them know where you agree and where you disagree with them….and if you feel they do not represent you, let them know.