In 1985, musician Sting released a song called “Russians.” With its chorus of “Russians love their children, too,” it was reminder that even our most implacable enemies, with weapons that could destroy the world, were still human. We saw past the ideology of communism to find a common humanity. A generation later, rampant Islamophobia has made it difficult for the United States to see Muslim nations as anything other than existential threats. There is no distinction made between Islamism ― the push to turn religion into an ideology to control people ― and Muslims, who are the greatest victims of Islamism. Most of us do not conceive of Muslims as humans who love their children, too.
The U.S. response to Iran’s recent economic protests, and President Donald Trump’s decertification of the Iran nuclear deal, show us how little we understand Muslims. That ignorance, and our failure to see Muslim nations as rich, diverse cultures peopled by, well, people, tears at America’s social fabric, and weakens the U.S. as an international actor.
We cannot ignore the impact of the the 1979 Iranian Revolution on the American psyche; the revolution, and especially the hostage crisis, set up a political and cultural hostility between the two nations that continues to this day. However, from an Iranian perspective, the revolution was the natural outcome of Operation Ajax, the not-so-covert 1953 U.S. operation to overthrow the democratically elected prime minister and replace him with the Shah. Most Americans are unaware that the catalyst for the revolution came a generation earlier, spurred by the U.S. meddling. But many Iranians have not forgotten.
Iranian resentment of America is not difficult to understand. Most loyal Americans resent or despise a former Soviet agent interfering in our democratic processes to install a lecherous and kleptocratic authoritarian figure. As it applies to Iran, we do not have to excuse hostage-taking to recognize mutual grievances between the U.S. and Iran.
It was with this mutual recognition that the international community, lead by the U.S., negotiated the Iran nuclear deal. The agreement sought to move beyond the acrimony between the U.S. and Iran to create a more stable and secure world. Unfortunately, as Trump chooses to walk away from the deal, we are forced to confront the fact that, since Iran is in complete compliance with the agreement, the most salient argument for walking away from it traffics in American Islamophobia.
The general American understanding of Islam is deeply influenced by Saudi Arabia, which practices a new form of Islam called Wahhabism. Wahhabism represents neither of the two largest traditional Muslim communities, the Sunni and the Shi’a, the latter of which is practiced in Iran.
As a movement, Wahhabism is animated by xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, exploitation of people, massive unethical accumulation of wealth, spreading of hatred and corrupting the foundational teachings of the faith. Imagine a combination of the GOP’s white evangelicalism, but Muslim and in the Persian Gulf region. Wahhabists are not fundamentalists, as their understanding of the faith shifts as the geopolitical situation demands, and with their excessive love of riches, they cannot rightly be called puritanical. The Wahhabi and Saudi leadership are nihilistic, and see the world through a lens of benefiting at someone else’s expense.
Intellectually, the Taliban and Daesh ― also known as the Islamic State ― are the natural continuation of Wahhabism. In addition, many of the financial patrons of Wahhabi ideology are also patrons of the Taliban and of Daesh. The vitriol of the Wahhabis gave rise to the Taliban and Daesh. The Saudi leadership, as supporters of the Wahhabi state, are extremely anti-Shi’a, as Shi’ism offers a different vision of what it means to be Muslim. But most Americans cannot imagine a Muslim country that practices Islam differently from Saudi Arabia, even though Iran offers a very different approach to the religion.
While it is true that Iran shares with Saudi Arabia an obsessive interest in controlling women, the religious differences between the two nations speak volumes as to how that control can manifest. The Prophet Muhammad’s beloved wife, Khadijah, was his employer, and had a relatively public life both before and after her marriage to Muhammad. He loved his daughter Fatima so much that he said that he would love whomever she loved, and curse whomever she cursed. As a result, she wielded a great deal of social power, prohibiting those she believed betrayed her father’s message from attending his funeral.
Most Americans cannot imagine a Muslim country that practices Islam differently from Saudi Arabia, even though Iran offers a very different approach to the religion.
Because the Islam of Iran follows the edict of the Qur’an to love Muhammad’s family, the state can only do so much to curtail the opportunities for women, such as dictating how they dress. The result is that women are educated, own businesses, and occupy elected and appointed political positions. In addition, their schooling includes religious education, which means they are able to argue against the regime’s restrictions using the language of religion.
This use of religious language and symbols is important, as it is based on an understanding of Islam that is systematic, rational and based on an ethical worldview. Although corrupted by the needs of the state, the religious system also has the potential to correct the state’s worst excesses. It is the story of the murder of the Prophet Muhammad’s favorite grandson, by the 7th century equivalent of the Saudi state, that informs the political positions of many Iranian Muslims. He stood against oppression and died for his convictions in 680. This story inspired both the 1979 and 2009 revolutions, and continues to drive criticism of the regime.
Just as important as the religious language are Iran’s aesthetic contributions to global culture. The 14th century poet Jalaluddin Rumi wrote in Persian, and is a best-selling poet in the U.S. Yet, despite his impact on American culture, many Americans do not connect his poetry to his religion, to his cultural background or to the fact that he was a scholar of the Qur’an. We do not understand that the beauty he generated was because of his faith, not in spite of it. Nor is he the only Persian-world poet whose work was shaped by his religion. While other names may not be familiar to many Americans, Persian poetry has a deep archive of beautiful work, inspired by love of the Divine, the Prophet Muhammad and Muhammad’s family. The music of Iran remains an important cultural touchstone, and the architecture, such as the Pink Mosque, generates awe through beauty.
There is a extensive intellectual and artistic history, informed by faith, that is part of Iranian culture. We cannot ignore the years of conflict between the U.S. and Iran, but the Iran nuclear deal was a way to create a way forward. The negotiations accepted that the religion of the country could help bridge that divide. We cannot let Islamophobia scuttle one of the most important diplomatic achievements of the decade. By looking at the beauty that Iranians cherish, and the fact they show love and devotion to the family of the Prophet, we cannot doubt that Iranians love their children, too.
Hussein Rashid, PhD, is a faculty member at Barnard College, a Truman National Security Fellow, and founder of islamicate, L3C, a consultancy focusing on religious literacy.