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Right, wrong & religion
Being religious has nothing to do with being a good person


January 16, 2006

I read Alireza M.’s article "Where are our good girls?", which tried to persuade readers that a lack of religion among Iranian diaspora youth has lead to a decline in morals and overall character as well as almost every Iranian parent’s worst nightmare: interracial dating.  As I read, I gradually began to feel annoyed, then offended, then finally, confused.  I disliked his prescriptive tone, his blanket judgments and generalizations about non-religious and ‘spiritual’ people. 

Luckily, amusement kicked in towards the end of the piece at his ‘but I date a non-Iranian so it’s ok in certain circumstances to date non-Iranians’ qualifier, which made me take him considerably less seriously.  However, although the last part was funny, the rest is not; some of the assumptions Alireza carries in his piece which feed into his questionable conjectures are more lamentable than they are laughable. 

While I do feel that he makes some legitimate observations about certain general tendencies in the Iranian-American community (particularly among youth), I also think that his conclusions are immature, lacking an in-depth analysis of the real issues underlying tendencies such as Islam-bashing among older Iranian expatriates and this so-called ‘Persian pride’ phenomenon. 

In fact, some of Alireza’s deductions are alarmingly ignorant; however, when one begins to understand the frame of mind he’s writing from, his conclusions become predictable. 

He draws from his own experiences with a particular group of people within the larger Iranian-American community (who subscribe to certain polarizing ideas about ethnicity and religion) and then, whether consciously or unconsciously, attempts to portray his encounters as representative of the experiences of the Iranian diaspora collectively.  

That is the reason why he sounds so sure of himself in the hopelessly contradictory diatribe he has written against dating outside our “own kind” and losing our religion (like R.E.M.).  As well as answering him with my own opinion and addressing some of the issues he raises in his article, notably religious individualism, instilling values in our diaspora youth today, and interracial dating.

So what is in fact wrong with what Alireza is saying?  First, he does not know Iranians (or human beings, for that matter) as well as he thinks he does.  I know I am speaking for many Iranians within and outside of Iran when I say that one does not need to be religious to be a morally upright person, much less one who is proud of his/her cultural roots, which in our case are not necessarily based in religion, ethnicity, or even in Iranian nationality (we can be anything from Georgian, Tajik, Afghan, or Uzbek nationals, Kurdish, Jewish, Bahai, Persian, Armenian, Azeri, and be Iranian culturally at the same time). 

In fact, because we have such an expansive cultural heritage, each of us can choose what aspects of the Iranian experience constitute our ‘roots’ individually, which is why we see such an appreciable range of people within our community.

Furthermore, being religious has nothing to do with being a good person, as Alireza struggles to insinuate throughout his article.  Everyone on this planet knows people who pray to God and prey on people interchangeably; on the other hand, many of us also know atheists who personify goodness and sound morality. 

Alireza says that “religion in moderation provides the morals we humans need to guide us”, but religion and its moral guidelines alone do not shape a human being into a moral person (in accordance with what is constituted as ‘moral’ by that particular faith; let’s not forget that morality across faiths is relative, not absolute) unless one actively engages his/her moral conscience in the decisions made in daily life. 

Many people who realize that choose not to follow any religion, especially if they feel that institutionalizing their sense of spirituality is counterintuitive, and instead simply form a strong, independent sense of morality based on experience, intuition, and what they feel is worth respecting in this life.

In the age of the globalization of information, where institutionalized religion is less and less relevant to improving the human condition and instead is focusing on self-preservation in the face of competing truths and beliefs, it is only natural that there has been a strong movement towards religious individualism and mysticism among the youth of today, Iranians included. 

My guess is that this movement, as much as it is going to both change and reflect the changes in religious practices, is also going to be the main medium that preserves the ancient religious institutions of today, in much the same way that Shi’ism came to incorporate and preserve many aspects of our ancient Zoroastrian identity.

It is true that espousing this spiritual path may lead many young people to focus more on the intuitive aspects of faith and less on the written texts while continuing to identify nominally with a religion or a sect within a religion.  Some may be wholly ignorant of certain fundamental aspects of their nominal faiths, but this is nothing new.  Being a lifelong student of religion, I have observed that many deeply religious people today do not know much about their respective religions beyond the main figures in their faith, how to pray, how to get married, and what not to consume.

The move towards religious individualism among the youth of the Iranian diaspora today is due to a number of factors, of which how children are being raised today is only one.  I’ll name just three and return to this topic in a later article. 

First, the majority of Iranian diaspora youth are being raised in countries where the mosque is not the center of community life. 

Second, many Iranian youth are disenchanted by the encroachment of institutionalized religion into the public sphere and legal system, where it imposes itself upon their personal beliefs. 

Third, we are living in the age of information and there is way too much knowledge out there for any one interpretation of how a faith should be practiced to be taken as the gold standard.

Now more than ever we know that a religion, especially one with a long history of interpretation such as Islam, can be practiced and understood in many ways, not just how people like Alireza would like to see it being practiced.  The move towards mysticism and the personalizing of religion among our general diaspora population is inevitable and the way children are being raised outside of Iran is only one part of it.

Alireza’s claim that Iranian girls have a “lack of religious and moral values” due to their non-traditional upbringing outside of Iran by their parents (Islam-bashing or not), as well as noting the inability of Iranian girls to balance “freedom with modesty” shows just how ignorant he is of the first-generation experience. 

Of course Iranians who are raised in America and elsewhere are different from Iranians raised in Iran.  We have a completely different reality to deal with outside of the household, and many of us had to do this with parents who knew just as little about how to navigate through American culture as we did.  We hyphenated Iranians have to create an identity that suits our instincts and the two cultures which we feel at home in, something that people not share the first-generation experience have difficulty understanding.

Some of us do better than others at creating a solid yet flexible and dynamic identity; this depends on a lot of factors, including one’s social situation at home and at school, one’s support system, the number of Persian-speaking peers available for regular social contact, personal self-esteem, and most importantly, the desire to maintain one’s cultural identity. 

Others shallowly rebel against their parents and become hyper-Americanized.  These kids often do things just to spite their out-of-touch parents, and once they grow up and have nobody to rebel against, they revert to being more or less how their parents wanted them to be, especially when they are faced with life decisions such as marriage and how to bring up children. 

Others go the opposite route and cocoon themselves within their diaspora community, like some of the Iranians who have been living in Orange County for years and still can’t speak English because they only associate with other Iranians.

Force-feeding kids your version of religion, culture, and morality often backfires in the aforementioned fashions; many of us have seen this happen.  So what can be done to preserve our identity without sacrificing our ability to assimilate?  First, older Iranians have to critically examine the differences between their worldview and their children’s views.  While there are many traditional values that do a lot of good for our youth, one has to keep in mind that many beliefs and assumptions held by the older generation, especially in a foreign country, are not useful or even applicable to us first-generation kids. 

If parents truly want to be effective in parenting healthy and self-assured children who will be able to realize their Iranian identity and make sound moral decisions independently, they would be better off engaging and supporting their children in the issues and tribulations that they face as first or second generation Iranian kids outside of Iran, rather than trying so hard to turn their children into miniature copies of themselves as many Iranian parents do, especially with respect to their daughters.

I agree that we need to keep our linguistic, cultural, and social traditions alive in our children (try, for example, making it a rule to speak only Persian in the home) but we should not resort to clannish social behavior in our adopted countries in order to preserve our culture, or stress out as much about racial intermarriage as much as we do (there is a mini-apocalypse every time it is known that an Iranian girl is dating a black guy).

Finally, speaking of interracial marriage, why does this necessarily have to represent something bad happening in our community?  If anything, I believe that these marriages help us as a culture because they show us that love between any two people is possible and add to our cultural diversity.  That is a positive message for a community as riddled with racism and classism as we are.  And if you read your history, Alireza, you would know that sectarian marriage practices, as practiced by the Lebanese of your school and the orthodox Parsees of India, are hardly Iranian in spirit. 

Since Achaemenid times, Iran’s greatness has always been based on its ability to respect and assimilate diverse cultures into our own.  Our own kind is humankind, and for Iranians, this is illustrated by history, not just by the idealism of Sa’adi.  Maybe we’re just dating people from other races because in America, we hang out with people from all races, and notice attractive, intelligent, and kind people among them.  I like that answer better than moral degeneration.

For letters section
Maziar Shirazi

Maziar Shirazi



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