By Doug Hostetter
Forty years ago, as a conscientious objector, I worked for the Mennonite Central Committee in Tam Ky, Vietnam, organizing literacy classes for Vietnamese children whose schools had been destroyed by theU.S. Air Force. As a Mennonite, I had a strong personal commitment to biblical nonviolence, but also a naïve belief in the honorable intentions of my government’s military efforts in Indochina.
My Mennonite faith did not permit me to participate in the U.S. war in Vietnam, but as a U.S. citizen, I felt I could understand why my government stated that we needed to defend our nation against the rising tide of atheistic, godless communism. Communism had started in Russia, spread to China, and was now sweeping through Vietnam. It was like falling dominos, we were told: the first domino strikes the second, which falls against the third, and so on, until the entire world becomes communist.
Communists are different than normal people, we were taught. They are primitive, savage, and completely brainwashed. One could never negotiate with the Communists; the only thing they understand is the power of the gun.
When one looks below the propaganda, one usually discovers that there are less noble, more strategic interests involved. Vietnam had the misfortune of being rich in natural resources while also being geographically located at the major crossroads between China and India, while its coastal waters are on the major shipping routs between East and West.
During my years in Tam Ky, at the height of the war, I learned to know and love the Vietnamese people, their language, literature, culture, and history. I also began to understanding the arrogance and folly of the U.S. attempt to use military force to control a people and a civilization which we never bothered to learn to know or understand.
I recently returned from a two-week, five-city tour of Iran, and am struck with the parallels between the Vietnam and Iran. Our delegation of academics had one Canadian and 11 from the U.S.— seven men and five women in all — and included two fluent Farsi speakers. The tour was organized by the Mennonite Central Committee, which has worked in Iran for 17 years.
Despite our attempts to blend in, we obviously stood out as tourists. People would often come up and ask where we were from. When I responded “From the United States and Canada,” there was always an initial look of surprise, followed by, “You are welcome here.” That was often followed by, “We don’t really like your president or his policies, but we do like the American people.”
Some will say, “Yes, the Iranian people are likely good, it is their militarized government which hates the U.S.” I was frankly astonished by the dearth of observable police and military in Iran. Admittedly, unlike the other travelers on our flight, our North American delegation was forced to do the full fingerprint routine of all ten fingers upon entering the country (a reciprocal gesture for our U.S. Customs treatment of Iranians), but this was the exception.
We traveled by bus over 1,000 kilometers through Iran, and our only encounter with the police was when our driver was clocked doing well over the speed limit in a radar trap. I see more police and soldiers every day in midtown Manhattan — as I pass through Grand Central Station and walk the few blocks to my office — than I observed in two weeks in Iran. Iran has its own problem with terrorism in their country, and I’m sure that it has a large police and military, but their presence is certainly not felt on the streets of Iranian cities.
Our delegation did not meet with Iranian government officials, but we did have two meetings in the Foreign Ministry with professors from the Institute for Political and International Studies and School of International Relations. We were astounded at the warmth of the welcome that we received from these two organizations, which educate Iran’s diplomats. Fifty-five faculty and graduate students were waiting for us when we arrived. They wanted to talk about joint projects and exchange programs between our educational institutions. Most astounding was the invitation for Mennonite and other Peace Studies professors to come to Tehran this summer to do a two to three-day conference to introduce the field of Peace Studies to Iranian universities. The hope is that it will be followed by an one to two-week graduate level Peace Studies workshop taught by our professors, and jointly accredited by one of their universities and one of our Mennonite universities.
Iran is predominately Shi’a Muslim, and most of the people we met during our trip were Muslim. We did visit Archbishop Sarkissian and other Christians in the Armenian Orthodox church in Tehran, and we met with members of a Jewish congregation at a Sabbath service in a synagogue in Shiraz. Iran guarantees religious freedom and representation in parliament to recognized religious minorities: Zoroastrians, Jews, and Armenian Orthodox Christians, but unrecognized religions groups fare much worse. Iran is an Islamic Republic, and as with all religious states, citizens of minority religions always find their rights diminished.
But Iran is much deeper and more complex than its political or religious establishment. This member of the Axis of Evil is an ancient civilization, first settled 12,000 years ago, with a written history that goes back 6,000 years and includes some of the world’s greatest poets. The Persian poet Ferdowsi wrote theShahnameh (or The Book of Kings, a poem of 60,000 lines), in the 10th century, about the same time as the English epic poem Beowulf. The difference is that Shahnameh is still quoted by Iranian schoolchildren today, while few American children have even read Beowulf. But Ferdowsi is only the earliest in a string of internationally-recognized Persian poets: Omar Khayyuam, Hafez, Sa’di, and Rumi, just to name a few. In Iran, it is their beloved poets, not the military leaders, who are honored in their public shrines.
Four decades ago, Communism was the designated evil which Americans were taught to fear and loath, and Vietnam was the cutting edge of that conflict. Today, Islamic Terrorism is the enemy, and Iran is the charter member of the Axis of Evil. As with Vietnam, there are also strategic considerations. Iran also has the world’s second-largest known gas reserves and the fifth-largest known oil reserves, while being strategically located between China and Europe and between Russia and the India subcontinent.
Iran is certainly not perfect. There are dark corners of social and political repression in Iran just as there are in the U.S. and other nations, and I met many Iranians who are dedicated to addressing those problems. But I am also sure that Iran is not the paragon of evil, militarism, and repression as is often portrayed in U.S. media. I did not meet one Iranian who wanted war with the United States. Everyone was reaching out for friendship and respect.
Forty years ago, most Americans stood by as our government attached a nation we neither knew nor understood that was composed of a people who wanted only to be our friends. Fifty-eight thousand American soldiers and five million Vietnamese lost their lives in that war. We must not let this happen again! The future of our civilization depends on it.
Doug Hostetter is Director of the U.N. Liaison Office for the Mennonite Central Committee. A Contributing Editor to Fellowship, he served on the staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation for many years, including terms as Executive Secretary and Director of Interfaith Relations.