by Zafar Bangash (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 10, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1427)
No visit to Islamic Iran is without excitement, for pleasant as well as unpleasant reasons. As the only Islamic state of our time, Iranis a laboratory for implementing Islamic laws in society. Each time one arrives there, there is something new to observe; the vibrancy that one encounters in Iran is missing in other Muslim societies.
Let us dispense with the unpleasant things first. Given the vicious Western propaganda against Iran’s peaceful nuclear programme, there is intense scrutiny of visitors returning from the Islamic Republic. Not only are they subjected to sharp questioning at Western airports, but customs officials also go through their luggage as if they are carrying a nuclear bomb. Such searches have become so frequent that one cannot but conclude that they are official policy, and that harassment of people is part of a deliberate campaign to intimidate and ultimately discourage people from visiting there.
It is interesting to note the contrast between the attitudes of customs officials at Tehran’s international airports, whether Mehrabad or the brand-new Imam Khomeini airport, and those at airports in the West. The Iranians are polite and professional; in fact, the moment they learn that one is a foreign visitor, they are extremely gracious. Customs officials in the West—and one is not talking merely about the crudeness of the Americans, who are in a class of their own—are arrogant, brash and insulting. Their line of questioning leaves one with the distinct impression that they think visiting the Islamic Republic is a crime in itself. As anti-Iran and anti-Islam propaganda intensifies, Western officials’ questioning of Muslim academics, intellectuals and visitors to the Islamic Republic will also become more hostile; so much for the West’s claims that it espouses freedom, choice and democracy. Those Muslims who have lived in the West long enough are already familiar with such tactics. This reality now has to be conveyed to those living in the Muslim world, who continue to be mesmerized by the West’s tall claims.
When I returned to Tehran after two years, it was immediately obvious that there is renewed confidence and excitement in the air. During my last visit, there had been some despondency among people who felt that the Islamic Republic’s policies were adrift and that officials were not really sure which way to go. There was a noticeable slackening of revolutionary zeal and one got the impression that Iran might be turning into another nation-state with an Islamic tag. This is not to suggest that the vast majority of Iranians had lost their Islamic commitment; far from it: just that their sentiments were not accurately reflected in official policy. With the election of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as president in June 2005, the revolutionary spirit has revived. The young president has made a mark not only in Iran but also on the world stage. He is popular among the oppressed and downtrodden globally, despite the vicious Western propaganda against him. In fact, the more the West criticises him, the more his popularity grows among the world’s peoples, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
President Ahmedinejad’s election has removed the dissonance in policy at different levels of government. Before his election people got the impression that Iran had adopted a policy of appeasement toward the West, which the latter misinterpreted as a sign of weakness. This was further reinforced by secular ideas being propagated in Iranian universities, where Western thought was given precedence over Islamic thought by some professors. There are still some people in Iran who are completely infatuated by Western thought and ideas. Saeed Bahmanpour, an Iranian scholar who has studied at Western institutions as well as in Qum, in a series of exchanges with the West-doting academics, has demolished their arguments. A few years ago these West-doting academics were the talk of the town in Tehran; now they have lost their credibility.
Quite aside from academic debate, the West has never dealt with others on the basis of fairness or equality. This is especially true of the US, which insists forcefully on compliance with its demands. Those who refuse are accused of being unreasonable, and theUS holds itself free to deal with them by force. Iran’s legitimate right under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which permits it to enrich uranium, is being misrepresented as intransigence and aimed at producing nuclear weapons. Although 64 other countries fall in the same category, Washington has singled out Iran for condemnation and harassment. That Uncle Sam is in no position to lecture others when its own record is quite atrocious is conveniently ignored. The US is the only country in the world to have used nuclear weapons twice; it has also used depleted-uranium shells, whose ill-effects are evident in the horribly deformed babies being born in Iraq. These are crimes against humanity that the US has perpetrated on the pretext of ‘liberating’ people from tyranny and oppression.
President Ahmedinejad has ended the policy of appeasement and stood up for Iran’s rights. This has earned him much respect and support at home and abroad. It is also a measure of the anti-American sentiment sweeping the world as a result of US president George Bush’s aggressive policies that the US has never been more hated than it is today. Some Americans have also realised this, and are urging a change of direction, but far from heeding such advice Bush and his neocon allies consider this merely a problem of image that they believe can be fixed by doing some public relations work. True to his simplistic nature, Bush appointed Karen Hughes to go to the Middle East to sweet-talk her way into people’s good books. She got an earful and returned to Washingtonwithout making an iota of difference. People in the Middle East are not as gullible as the Americans; they experience the harsh reality of life daily. It does not require much intelligence to figure out who is responsible for the suffering of Palestinian, Iraqi, Afghan and Lebanese civilians. Every bomb that falls on their heads and every child murdered in those lands is the result of American involvement. It is not surprising that the people of Iran do not wish to be "liberated" by the Americans, or have anything to do with them.
Two years ago there was some anxiety among Iranians about a possible US attack on their country; because of the US’s humiliation in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Israel’s defeat in Lebanon, the military threat against Iran has receded. In fact, Hizbullah’s spectacular victory over Israel’s military juggernaut has given the Iranians much to celebrate, as indeed Muslims everywhere. While it would not be safe for them to lower their guard completely, there is a general feeling in Tehran that the US’s days as a superpower are numbered, that its bullying tactics no longer work, and that ordinary people have learnt to confront it in creative ways, neutralizing its technological advantage. Iran is well on its way to being recognised as a regional power. This of course will only be fully realised when the "great satan" has been banished from the region, but there is a strong feeling in Tehran that things are now moving its way. On September 19, when US president George Bush addressed the UN general assembly, he was forced to say that he wants good relations with Tehran. Bush couched his volte face in terms that seemed belligerent, but there was unmistakeable contrition in his tone. He said he wanted dialogue with Iran. This is really something coming from a man known for his bluster and swagger, but it has been forced upon him by Iran’s principled stand.
This could not have come about without strong internal support for the government of President Ahmedinejad, who is extremely popular with his people. His simple lifestyle and his insistence on looking after the poor have earned him enormous respect and admiration among the people, with whom he stays in touch by frequent visits to remote towns and villages. His government has resisted pressure to eliminate food and fuel subsidies that protect the poor from the ravages of inflation. Fuel prices are under review; because they are among the lowest in the world, there is considerable smuggling across the borders into Pakistan andAfghanistan, but it is a delicate subject and has to be tackled carefully. The government is conscious of the fact that if fuel prices are raised, they will affect taxi and bus fares immediately, which in turn will affect ordinary people, because taxis and buses are the main transportation in Iran’s major cities. In Tehran, for instance, a number of passengers share a taxi that travels on major routes, much like buses, and people get on and off at various stops. Any increase in the prices of fuel will affect such fares immediately
No visit to Iran is complete without two other events: a visit to the city of Qum and an audience with the Rahbar, Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei. While this writer has frequently visited Qum, this year it had a special significance because it provided an opportunity to meet a number of ‘ulama for detailed discussions on various subjects. Unlike most ‘ulama elsewhere in the Muslim world, the ‘ulama of Iran are surprisingly well informed about global events. Equally interesting is the fact that most are also familiar with Crescent International and the writings of the late Dr Kalim Siddiqui. Most ‘ulama have also learnt enough English to get by, although they still prefer to speak in Farsi or Arabic. In addition to the Hawziya Ilmiyya, there are also a number of institutes in Qum; they function more like universities, and students from all over the world enroll there. Ayatullah Jafar Sobhani heads the Imam Sadeq Institute, where research into the Seerah of the Prophet (saw), in addition to other subjects, is carried out; Ayatullah Misbah Yazdi heads the Islamic Institute, which specialises in history, psychology and philosophy. A number of teachers at these institutes have studied both in Qum and at Western universities, where they obtained PhD degrees. This blend of the traditional and modern reflects the growing self-confidence of the ‘ulama and institutions of Iran.
There was also an opportunity to meet Ayatullah Seyyed Musavi Lari, an author of distinction who has written many books that have been translated into several languages, including English and French. It was a delight to see his well-stocked warehouse, from where books are shipped throughout the world. Similarly a visit to the library of Ayatullah Mar’ashi Najafi was a great experience. More than 35,000 rare manuscripts, which date back hundreds of years, are preserved there. A full-fledged laboratory has been established to work on the preservation of rare manuscripts. In addition, there are hundreds of thousands of books in the main library on almost every subject. A measure of the respect of the library’s founder, the late Ayatullah Mar’ashi Najafi, for scholars and scholarship can be gleaned from the fact that he willed that he be buried at the entrance to the library, instead of in the Haram in Qum where ‘ulama are usually buried. He wanted scholars visiting the library to walk past his grave and remember him in their prayers.
In Qum there is also an Islamic computer centre that produces Islamic software. Inaugurated 18 years ago, it has produced more than 50 software packages so far. There are nearly 400 researchers working at this institute, compiling CDs on such subjects as tafsir, hadith, philosophy, ‘irfan, kalaam, logic and the like. The Institute manages a hundred databanks at universities and educational institutions, and has trained 60,000 Iranian students and more than 50,000 from abroad. Their website can be accessed at www.noor.org.
Unlike other Muslim countries, Islamic Iran is keenly aware of its responsibility toward Iranians residing in other countries. For this purpose, it has established at least a hundred schools in different parts of the world with the support of Sazman-e Madarris Jahani (Organisation for International Schools), led by Ayatullah Mohsen Rabbani. There is also another institute, the Basaer Cultural Institute in Qum. Its function is to look after foreign students studying in Qum. Many of them, who are not familiar with the language or culture of Iran, are assisted by this Institute.
Since the Islamic Revolution 27 years ago, Iran has made enormous strides in education, and not merely at the university level. The ‘ulama of Iran have produced well-researched books on almost all subjects. Visitors are frequently showered with gifts of books, a rare treat for those who wish to acquire knowledge. Two years ago I visited Ayatullah Sobhani at the Imam Sadeq Institute inQum. After our meeting, Ayatullah Sobhani accompanied me to his well-stocked library and made a comment that brought a lump to my throat: "There is no hijab between a scholar and books; browse through the library freely." In fact Ayatullah Mohsen Araki, who heads the Islamic Thought Institute in Qum, provided, during my recent visit, a beautifully bound four-volume set of Mosoo’atut Tarikh al-Islami by Shaikh Yusuf al-Hadi Gharawi. This multi-volume series provides a fresh perspective on Islamic history. Agha Araki spent many years in London and is reasonably fluent in English.
The visit to Iran was at the invitation of Majma’ al-Taqrib Bain al-Madhahib al-Islami, an organisation headed by Ayatullah Muhammad Ali Taskheeri. He has worked tirelessly to bring scholars from different parts of the world and madhahib together. He has initiated a dialogue not only between the different madhahib of Islam but also between different faiths. His efforts have been amply rewarded: scholars from different schools of thought feel completely comfortable sitting together round a table to discuss the burning issues of the day. The highlight of the conference was a private meeting with the Rahbar, Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei. This came about because this year’s conference was postponed from April, when it would have coincided with the birthday of the Prophet of Islam (saw). On such occasions the meeting with the Rahbar takes place in a huge hall where ambassadors of Muslim countries, cabinet ministers and guests from all over Iran are assembled. This year’s meeting was in a smaller room where only overseas guests were present, and each one had an opportunity to personally meet, greet and share a few words with the leader of the Islamic Republic.
The sparsely furnished room, lack of extensive protocol and simplicity of the event left no doubt that this was a meeting of brothers in faith, where sincerity enveloped the proceedings. It is impossible to find such simplicity in any other Muslim country, where rulers try to cover their lack of popular support with elaborate protocol and pomp in an attempt to enhance their self-importance. This is one of the many things that distinguish Islamic Iran from every other country in the world.