I just had a fascinatingly enlightening conversation with a 30-something Iranian physician on a residency program here in Philly. A disarming and engaging fellow, with a strong Persian accent but impeccable English pronunciation, my friend surprised me again and again with his insight into US society and even moreso with his views on American policy. Here are some quick highlights, since I’m too exhausted to bother coming up with expository verbiage. Also note: all quotations are paraphrases to convey his gist.
• “Everyone here in America is so optimistic.”
I’ve heard something like this before, from a Dutch girl when I was in Poland in 2000, while discussing some of the general differences in attitudes between Americans and Europeans…And I am inclined to agree. We are in general more the big-dreaming pie-in-the-sky type than most of the other, more grounded citizens of the world.
In this case, however, my Iranian friend continued by saying that this optimism is due to being too comfortable, and not knowing true suffering, sacrifice, and hard work. He wasn’t accusatory, just stating things as he sees them. I think I agree with him, but I would add that I don’t believe our optimism is at all bad, despite its origins. After all, it has taken us this far. (Note: at a different point in the conversation, my friend observed that many Americans are very hard working, so take this all how you will).
• “One Iranian can do the work of a hundred men, but a hundred Iranians can only do the work of one man.”
This anecdote was shared during a discussion about differences in governmental effectiveness. My friend told me of his pleasant shock when, during the State of the Union address, Dubya said something like “the talented people of Iran are being held back by oppression.” My friend readily agreed, and shared that the above saying tells how individually, Iranians are incredibly hard working and capable, but when they get together, they can never agree and therefore stall each other. I personally think this adage can apply to many different peoples and societies around the world, including our own—consensus and fair governance is supremely difficult to achieve.
• “I am very embarrassed and ashamed, but Iran’s government is like European governments of the Medieval times—under theocratic rule.”
It was vindicating to get first hand validation of my beliefs, as it’s seemed obvious from my outside perspective that this was the case. I posit that all religions, if they survive infancy and begin to explode in growth, then go through a set series of stages of development. It’s easy for most Christians (especially Catholics), as well as Buddhists, to sit back and ask “why the heck do the Muslims have such a stick up their collective ass?” This is because Buddhism is (on average) in the “easygoing grandparent” stage, and Christianity is in the “experienced adult” stage of life. Islam, however, having only been founded in the 7th century, is still in its late “teenage crisis” and early “idealistic twentysomething” stage(s) of life. We all go through these stages—it’s nothing to be ashamed about. Christianity had its crusades (11th through 13th centuries) and inquisitions (13th through 19th centuries), and before that the Buddhists were part of numerous uprisings, rebellions, crackdowns, massacres, and holy wars throughout Asia for centuries. Basically, this all means that Islam is 500 to 800 years behind Christianity in terms of religious maturity. We can probably expect another few hundred years of asinine, violent, and overtly irrational behavior from some elements of the Islamic world before things begin to settle down.
On a more practical note, (regarding Iran’s current system of government), Iranians are very politically active, with, according to my friend, over 10,000 people running for parliamentary positions recently, and who anybody can vote for. Unfortunately, there is a committee of 12 ayatollahs who interview and judge all of those candidates, and who can reject out of hand anyone who isn’t faithful enough, or Muslim enough. This reduces the number to about 3,000. So basically, even if the hardline and conservative Muslims are only a minority in Iran, the ayatollahs can virtually guarantee them government positions.
• “Democracy can work in Iran, but clearly not Iraq or Afghanistan…”
I had been about to object to this, but my friend had a very valid point for this—that Iraq and Afghanistan are nations of tribes, whereas Iran (formerly Persia; formerly the center of a long series of large and established empires), although having some tribes, is much more intrinsically unified. Tribal societies by their very nature don’t work with other tribes, thereby precluding from the start any sort of cooperative government based on Western legalistic abstractions. This relatively simple explanation goes a long way in explaining the difficulties much of Africa have always had in establishing “democracy” too (especially since African borders were simply drawn in with crayons by European colonizers). Just because it works for us doesn’t mean it’s the best form of government for everyone.
• “You must be so proud of your Founding Fathers, since they really did build this nation on the most perfect foundation possible…”
My friend went on to explain that after reading our Constitution 10 times, as well as perusing the Iranian version, the German one, and more, he concluded that ours is not only short and concise, but it broadly and unambiguously grants strong freedoms without religious interference. He then added that our nation is so powerful because it has such a stout foundation that can survive temporary problems and absorb incoming ideologies whole. Iran does indeed have a problem exporting terrorism and extremism, he affirmed, because it lacks such a foundation, which allows other ideologies to infiltrate and insert themselves into Iranian government and society.
I tried to object by saying that many American grow tired of the legalistic oversaturation of our society and that we want less rigidity. My friend caused me to instead be more appreciative of our strongly legalistic culture, since that very backbone is what allows us to take in people from so many different backgrounds and integrate them into a relatively cohesive whole—the US of A—thereby enabling our collective success. In effect, Law is our ideology or Tradition, and that is something to be proud of.
All in all, it was a fascinating exchange of ideas between East and West. I hope there will be more to come!