Thursday, June 28, 2007

MCC Peace Office Newsletter/ July–September 2007 11

Christians Talking with Iranians:
An American Muslim’s Perspective
by Hajj Muhammad Legenhausen

Imam Khomeini, 1902-1989

Menno Simons

Menno Simons, 1496-1561

In September 2006, Mennonite Central
Committee (MCC) was asked to arrange
for a meeting between the Iranian president
and some American religious leaders. In February
2007, MCC helped to lead a delegation
of American religious leaders to return
the visit to President Ahmadinejad in Iran.
Such meetings are controversial, both in the
United States and in Iran.

American opponents of such meetings argue
that they provide a kind of Christian religious
legitimization for a regime that has
been repeatedly condemned by the US government
for support of terrorism abroad
and violations of the human rights of those
it governs. It is also argued that Americans
who participate in such meetings are allowing
themselves to be used for propaganda
value by the Iranian government. Some
might also think that policy toward Iran is
most effective if backed by military threats,
and the resolve to carry out such threats is
weakened when American religious leaders
express a desire to talk things over.
Iranian opponents of the meetings complain
that there can be no meaningful dialogue
with those who do not publicly denounce
the anti-Islamic statements made by some
Christian leaders and the policies of the
US government directed against Iran. Some
think that the Christians who participate
in such delegations are only trying to use
the false image of Iran to their own benefit,
to display their own willingness to talk to
“the enemy” without challenging the manner
in which Iran is portrayed. Some might
also think that national unity in Iran is best
served by recognizing American enmity,
and talking with American religious leaders
undermines that clear recognition in the
Iranian populace.

On both sides, opposition to dialogue is
based on three claims: (1) the allegation that
dialogue is not right without beginning with
a condemnation of x, y, or z, and is not right
with those who do not renounce x, y, or z;
(2) the claim that dialogue has propaganda
value for the other side; and (3) the idea that
dialogue weakens the resolve to stand firm
against the other side.
To the contrary, I would argue that such
meetings can be beneficial, and that the
objections raised are irrelevant or mistaken.
First, dialogue can take place without any
question of either party providing any sort of
legitimization for the views of the other side
or the policies of the governments or religious
organizations of the other side. Dialogue
cannot take place in a fruitful way if made
conditional on the condemnation of positions
and policies that are a matter of dispute.
Second, I would hope that both sides would
get some public recognition and approval for
engaging in dialogue; but unfortunately, the
propaganda value for all concerned is rather
equivocal. Third, when we engage in dialogue,
there is no need to compromise our
disapproval of unjust policies or unfair statements
of those with whom we enter into
conversation or of their political or religious
leaders; and no such compromise was perceived
on the part of the Iranians or Americans
who met through the MCC-sponsored
visits. On the other hand, I believe that dialogue
can and should undermine efforts to
demonize our dialogue partners, and that dialogue
should encourage others to seek peaceful
resolutions to issues of controversy.
So much for the critics. What then of the benefits?
I would promote the idea that dialogue
is beneficial both for Americans and Iranians,
provided there is a sincere desire on both
sides to be honest and to seek truth. First,
misjudgments are often made regarding others
because of a lack of understanding. To a
certain extent, lack of understanding can be
overcome by research. However, some understanding
only can be gained by engaging in
the give and take of dialogue on a personal
basis. Through personal conversations one
comes to gain an appreciation of the sensibilities
of those with whom one engages. So, dialogue
between Iranian officials and American
religious leaders can help dispel American
misunderstandings about how people in the
Iranian government look at things, and Iranian
misunderstandings of how religious people
in America see the world.
Second, these sorts of meetings can serve as
an entry for further and deeper conversations.
For example, delegation members and Iranian
officials would be able to suggest and provide
introductions to institutions of higher education
that might be able to cooperate on
the development of programs of Iranian or
Islamic studies or Peace studies and religious
studies. As another example, dialogue partners
might find issues of common concern,
e.g., the environment, about which the means
for further cooperation could be sought.
Third, through the deeper conversations and
opportunities found for cooperation at the
level of people-to-people communication, the
political will might be fostered in our societies
to seek to change United States government
policies that Iranians find objectionable and
Iranian government policies that Americans
find objectionable.
Fourth, both sides might also discover with
whom cooperation is not beneficial, and how
to discern opportunities for fruitful cooperation
from prospects of wasted effort. Fifth,
through dialogue a shared understanding is
made possible through which moral reflection
with others can be conducted. Sixth,
when dialogue is strengthened and matures,
it is possible to get past posturing and stereotyping
that interfere with the efficient pursuit
of religious aims as well as other aims, commercial,
educational, cultural, etc.
Seventh, by opening the way to broader
people-to-people cooperation, dialogue
can help each side to find elements of
priceless value in the other that can inspire
efforts to improve ourselves. Theologically,
I believe that God enables us to encounter
others in which we may find signs to lead
us toward Him, as we are led to truth
through dialogue.
Needless to say, the benefits sketched are
highly idealistic. I certainly do not mean to
claim that meetings that have taken place
have come close to achieving them. The
obstacles to such achievement are enormous.
Still, such ideals may serve a regulative function.
As a committed Muslim with a profound
sense of gratitude for the friendship
and good will I have found among Mennonites
by His favor, I am also convinced that
it is religiously incumbent on both Christians
and Muslims to work at dialogue for
the sake of achieving peace through understanding,
and for keeping the course God
has set for us.
Hajj Muhammad Legenhausen is Associate
Professor of Philosophy at the Imam
Khomeini Education and Research Institute,
Qom, Iran.

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Central Committee Overseas Peace
Office. Editor is Lawrence Rupley. Consulting
Editors are Bob Herr and Judy
Zimmerman Herr. Opinions expressed
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