Intolerant America: What We Can Learn from Iran

If you get the Sunday paper, chances are good you get Parade magazine. It’s a supplement that’s often bundled with the coupons and comics and features a variety of QVC merchandise advertisements amidst empty testimonials, recipes and celebrity interviews. The substantive value generally hovers around nil and is to journalism what Reader’s Digest is to world literature — soft, truncated and conservative.

I’m not a huge fan of Parade but read it from time to time (Marilyn vos Savant is always good for a laugh). I had hoped the recent September 11 issue would deal in part with the World Trade Center attacks and their aftermath as I want to see how impressions have changed across the Bible Belt in the past four years. A voice or two questioning the government’s response time in 2001 given their woeful shepherding of aid to the South in the wake of Hurricane Katrina could have proven interesting given the magazine’s religious and political bent.

I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up. The cover featured an interview with Olivia Newton-John (prepared so far in advance Patrick McDermott was still on his fishing trip) and a call for educating teenagers about sexually transmitted diseases. Ironically, the only 9/11 reference to be found was an ad for the Discovery Channel’s “The Flight That Fought Back,” a completely farcical glamorization of Flight 93’s heroic “defeat” of terrorism.

Something else on the cover, however, piqued my interest: an article entitled “What We Must Learn From Iran” by Bruce Feiler, author of several books (Walking the Bible, Where God Was Born) chronicling religion and the Middle East.

Warning bells went off in my mind. What lessons did Parade think Americans needed to learn from Iran, of all places? That we should hate countries because our government says that they’re evil? That the Middle East alone is a hotbed for religious fundamentalism? Shockingly, yes.

Feiler’s article is a failure at best and propaganda at worst. The blame of religious unrest around the world is placed squarely on the shoulders of Islam while tolerance and co-existence are professed for his American and Israeli counterparts. (Feiler brings up Israel several times as an example of Iranian hatred of the west and is Jewish himself). The piece, ostensibly one of progress and religious moderation, perpetuates the same tired arguments against Iran one is likely to hear from the Oval Office pulpit.

Does Iran hate the United States? If it does I would not be surprised. It’s been labeled a member of the “Axis of Evil” by the Bush Administration and has faced scorn and hatred from Americans simply because the government wishes it. Starting with the invasion of Iraq, Bush has made it very clear he intends to overthrow the government of Iran; it was even an election promise. Despite evidence to the contrary, the Islamic nation has been repeatedly accused of trying to develop nuclear weaponry by the U.S. and Israel (two nations with a confirmed nuclear arsenal) and is widely seen as a breeding ground for terror cells. Linda Feiler, the author’s wife who accompanies him on the journey, states, “Iran is a pariah. The regime is scary.” Indeed — because short-sighted bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. declare it so through constant demonizing.

Feiler’s piece disputes none of this demagoguery. He refers to Iran as “a declared enemy of the United States,” the “dead-end of freedom,” the “embodiment of America-hating, freedom-hating terror” and a “menacing theocracy” capable of “exporting terrorism” in the first five paragraphs alone. Bile flies from the author’s pen at the visible protests of American influence in Middle Eastern affairs. Outrage is expressed when they use a camera at a religious shrine. Feiler’s wife groans when wearing a full prayer outfit yet grins with vindication when she holds her husband’s hand — in violation of Iran’s religious and cultural traditions.

The American superiority complex is on full display in the article. No culture worthy of respect, no societal difference too shocking. For someone apparently as well-traveled as Feiler (he’s been to Iraq, Israel, and other biblical sites as research for his books), his inability to accept that he is in a foreign land with different rules and norms is embarrassing. He is only able to identify with people who exhibit Western sensibilities and finds other viewpoints distasteful and unnerving. Any pretense of objectivity is lost as is any real lesson culled from Iran.

Feiler also travels to Pasargadae and the tomb of Cyrus the Great, one of ancient Persia’s greatest leaders. Cyrus was a great reformer, one who showed tolerance and respect for the cultures his kingdom encompassed. The Persian Empire may have conquered its fair share of peoples, but it also drew those cultures together in understanding and unification — the Great Audience Hall in Persepolis offers a mural of 800 visitors from 23 different nations coming together as proof of that.

And how does Feiler break it down? “It reminds me of the Declaration of Independence.”

Feel free to shake your head with me.

Cyrus’ ideals were excellent. Religious tolerance, strength in diversity, acceptance of others — these are beliefs anyone should get behind. Feiler believes, however, that this message is best served to the people crushed under the regime of religious fanaticism in Iran as a history lesson. Meanwhile, the United States labors under a similar government absolutely beholden to one religious ideology at the expense of all others. Tolerance, diversity and shared intellect are just as frowned upon here as they are in the Middle East.

That is what we must “learn” from Iran. Islam, Judaism, Christianity; it’s all the same to a corrupt government. Oppression is the same no matter how you slice it. We need to quit lambasting foreign countries for daring to not be like ours, quit threatening to invade them, and open our halls for rational and sincere debate.

Dropping idiotic travelogues propping up the United States as a beacon of goodness is a fine start.