Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Post #60 - The Axis of Hospitality

There are now a number of groups bringing Americans and Iranians together.  Here are a few:

A group called Search for Common Ground (SFCG) in 1996 began a series of discreet meetings between well-placed but unofficial Iranians and Americans. Since that time, citizen-to-citizen exchanges have involved wrestlers and basketball players, astronomers, environmentalists, educators and lawmakers. Assisting the Institute of International Education [my employer from 1985 to 2005], SFCG supported the Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program, which placed Iranian graduate students in US universities to teach Persian language. Of special interest to me was a conference held in September 2004. SFCG titled the meeting “The Call for a New World Order: Dialogue among Civilizations Revisited” [a reference to the UN initiative Dialogue among Civilizations that was proposed by the then-president Khatami]. Panel sessions at the conference included: “The Role of Interfaith Dialogue,” and “The Role of Diplomacy in Dialogue among Civilizations.” It is precisely the rich possibilities that exist at the nexus between faith and diplomacy that led me to start this blog.

Network 2020 is an independent nonprofit organization that helps prepare next-generation leaders in the United States to participate meaningfully in the creation of policies promoting global security. Network 2020 fielded two separate trips to Iran in the fall of 2006. Delegates conducted more than 50 interviews in six cities and several villages, to gain a better understanding of contemporary Iranian thinking and attitudes. “Within Iran,” they found, “political debate persists, skepticism about the government’s motives abounds, and liberal civil society institutions have been tenacious. While Western analysts usually portray the country in terms of a crude division between 'reformists' and 'conservatives,' the reality is far more nuanced, and political alignments and personal ideology can be fluid.” Their recommendations: reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Iran, building up expertise on Iran, working with the Iranian government on a variety of issues, opening congressional hearings on how to improve relations, and expansion of people-to-people programs and linkages.

Visiting a residential neighborhood in South Tehran
The Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), an organization committed to non-violent social change, has been bringing together people whose leaders are in opposition since before World War I. FOR organized trips to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, to Vietnam in the 1960's and most recently to Iran. The FOR delegation which I joined in May 2006 included men and women from all parts of the United States: a United Church of Christ clergywoman and a Buddhist peace activist from New York, a publisher from Louisville, an artist from Philadelphia, a professor from Olympia (WA), an anthropology student from Oakland and a child psychiatrist from Amherst (MA). Our group leaders were an Episcopal nun who had lived and worked in Iran for six years, and an author of books on Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Several more delegations have gone to Iran since our trip.

The International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, headquartered in the nation's capital, sees that what it calls “identity-based conflicts” often can resist solution through traditional diplomacy alone. The Center's mission is to bring religion into the dialogue in an effort to achieve better outcomes for inter-ethnic or tribal hostilities and conflicts that have a clash of cultures or faiths as a key element. Its Iran Initiative has brought together Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy and laity, worked with government officials and lawmakers, and sponsored events that encourage examination of differences and commonalities.

Qom ~ center of the Iranian theocracy
Eastern Mennonite University, an institution with a long tradition of attention to conflict resolution and ecumenism, has had scholars attend the Jami'at Al-Zahra Theological Seminary in Qom, Iran, where some 900 international students (among a total of over 12,000) from over 40 countries study theology and spirituality at no cost (except for language instruction). The Mennonite Central Committee was a co-sponsor of a 2007 delegation of religious leaders who traveled to Iran and met with officials, including the President of Iran. One of the delegation members, Jeff Carr, wrote: "What is clear to me . . . is that we must find a way to tell our stories and to have our stories heard. And then we must begin to write a new narrative together. One that comes out of humility, mutual respect, and shared understanding. I am convinced it is the only path for a true and lasting peace with justice."

The Catholic University of America's Council for Research on Culture and Values has maintained a dialogue with faculty of the Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran who are part of the United Nations human rights network of academic institutions. The last joint meeting was held at CUA in Washington, DC in June of 2005.

Garden outside Chahel Sotun Palace, Isfahan
The New College of California has a mission statement that says it is “committed to education in support of a just, sacred, and sustainable world. We cherish intellectual freedom, the search for social justice, respect for differences, and a belief in collective responsibility for the welfare of all people.” New College planned another trip to Iran for the summer of 2007. The program will give its students four credits toward fulfilling their Humanities requirement.

California-based Global Exchange is a membership-based international human rights organization dedicated to promoting social, economic and environmental justice around the world. Founded in 1988, Global Exchange has worked to increase “public awareness of root causes of injustice while building international partnerships and mobilizing for change.” The organization has been sending American travelers to Iran since 2000, hoping to “demystify and contextualize the negative images of Iran, while shedding some light on the many contradictions and realities of life in the Islamic Republic.”

The capital in winter
A group called Citizens for Diplomacy Not Confrontation has promoted the idea of American and Iranian lawmakers meeting one another to find common ground and address common concerns. They have traveled to Washington, DC and lobbied their elected officials to “think outside the box” of U.S.-Iran relations of the past thirty years. CDNC has proposed that the Congress “do what the administration has failed to do” – establish a dialogue with counterparts in Iran.

In November 2006, a group of students from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Tufts University, Medford, MA) and The Kennedy School of Government (Harvard University, Cambridge) traveled to New York City with Jebsen Center for Counter-Terrorism Studies deputy director Paula Broadwell to visit the home of the Hon. Javad Zarif, the then-ambassador from Iran to the United Nations. Ambassador Zarif, his wife Maryam, and their guests enjoyed a private dinner and a rare opportunity to openly discuss topics vital to both nations. The Ambassador and his wife Maryam gave the students a tour of their residence which contains three works by artist Marc Chagall. Three months after this dinner, Boston University arranged a video teleconference for Ambassador Zarif that was attended by 1,200 students.

The author with a Miles for Peace spokesman
The Third National Assembly of United for Peace and Justice, a coalition of over 1300 national and local groups, many of whom have lobbied against war with Iran, met in Chicago in June of 2007. The delegates heard from a dozen Iranian citizens who had traveled from Iran and cycled their way through Italy, Germany, France and England before reaching the United States. The group, called Miles for Peace, brought wishes for reconciliation and cooperation from the people of Iran. Common people, as well as mayors and legislators, had returned the favor by welcoming them warmly in each of the countries they visited. Their creed reads in part: “Humanity is an indivisible entity. The world is home to all humans. No man or nation does not need other men or nations. No nation is superior or inferior to any other nation.”

Traditional Persian restaurant in Shiraz
Enough Fear, whose name gives the group's motivation with great economy, has built a website that features hundreds of photos of people all around the world who are telling their leaders: "Stop!" "It's time" they say, "to put a stop to dangerous cycle of threats and's our lives that are at stake." See:

The Shalom Center,
based in Philadelphia, sees unity at the roots of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Their call -- emanating from American religious communities -- is for "a serious effort to make peace with Iran." Signatories of this call have included officials of the American Jewish University, Islamic Society of North America, Unitarian-Universalist Association of Congregations, United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church and others.

These are just a few examples of the kind of efforts that are being made -- more in my next post on this topic.

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