Sunday, January 15, 2012

Post $157 - Xenophobia

"I am a sojourner in a strange land." (Exodus 2:22)
"I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, 'What can get through from such snares?' Then I heard a voice saying to me, 'Humility.' "  (St. Anthony the Great)
For many years, one talked of America perennially swinging between isolationism and internationalism. In the last decade we've managed to combine the least attractive aspects of each. We projected massive U.S. power abroad while often listening to no one else, even our staunchest allies. We squandered decades-old goodwill and the special sympathy that grew out of 9/11, and thereby isolated ourselves more than at any time in recent memory. This trend seemed to be reversed after President Obama came to office, especially in his Cairo speech, delivered June 9, 2009. He said, as a part of that historic speech, which was directed mainly to Muslims of the world:

"For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is indeed a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians. This history is well known. Rather than remain trapped in the past, I have made it clear to Iran's leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question, now, is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build.
Pakistani listens to Obama speech (NY Daily News)
"It will be hard to overcome decades of mistrust, but we will proceed with courage, rectitude and resolve. There will be many issues to discuss between our two countries, and we are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect. But it is clear to all concerned that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point. This is not simply about America's interests. It is about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path.
"I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not. No single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons. That is why I strongly reaffirmed America's commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons. And any nation – including Iran – should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That commitment is at the core of the Treaty, and it must be kept for all who fully abide by it. And I am hopeful that all countries in the region can share in this goal."

Yet, since then, the relationship seems not to have changed all that much. It is not just the attitude toward negotiations -- both sides have evinced openness to some sort of talks. But while they talk about talking, actual actions are taken that make that option more and more unattainable. American travelers are held in Iranian prisons and threatened with severe sentences on dubious charges. Iranian scientists are assassinated in the street. Iran threatens international commerce in its coastal waters, while trade with Iran is choked by punitive sanctions.

Rick Santorum - pro-gay rights....for Iranians
The political season raises a determination to "deal with" Iran with iron resolve and without mercy to the level of a litmus test for many -- some of whom know about as much about Iran as I do about glassblowing (I know that heat and air are involved, but beyond that...). At their worst, such declarations appeal to base xenophobia, by painting the adversary as totally unlike us, driven by perverse motives, and controlled by malevolent passions.  The system is demonically inspired and their leaders are buffoons, dictators, maniacs or all of the above.

Remember that the Christian tradition, starting with the Apostle Paul, is that the Good News is to be proclaimed to all -- xenophobia could have nipped Christianity in the bud, were it not for God's having revealed His truth to the man then called Saul on the road to Damascus – one of the Middle Eastern capitals that our own leaders now decline to visit (unless it might be to dethrone the ruler there). Xenophobia is still a poor basis for foreign policy.

When I read the excellent ethnography Women of Deh Koh: Lives in an Iranian Village, what struck me most about author Erika Friedl's introduction was the professionalism and humility captured in this short sentence: “For almost five years of the last twenty years I have lived in Deh Koh as a stranger learning to listen.” She decried both dismissive judgments of village life as backward and in need of “saving,” and romantic visions of a heroic and idyllic pastoral existence. Opting instead to actually pay attention to how her subjects themselves understood their lives, Friedl modeled the kind of sober, sensitive approach that we should take toward the people of other nations. To listen is not always to agree, but not to listen is to court disaster. An American who traveled to Iran this year, Stanley Rich, wrote: “The Persian poet Hafiz instructs us in compassionate listening to others: 'How should I listen to others? As if everyone was my master speaking to me his cherished last words.'”

My own prayer, as I prepared to return to Iran a few years ago, was this:

Lord, guide my feet to walk in Iranian shoes.
Lord, guide my hands to reach out to theirs.
Lord, incline my head to listen and understand.
Lord, let my mouth give forth only kind words.
Lord, strengthen my legs to carry me to journey’s end.
Lord, give us Your peace.

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