Saturday, September 02, 2006

Quote of the day: Ethnic tolerance may not be easily achieved or sustained, but it's a lot easier without war chants of intolerance and extremism


"More than any religious instruction, these stories [i.e., her father's stories of his Iranian childhood in "the largely Muslim town" of Khonsar] shaped my understanding of what it meant to be an Iranian Jew. In Persia, the land of Queen Esther, whose virtue overcame evil, one could, by wit or by wisdom, overcome every bigot."
--Roya Hakakian, in a NYT op-ed piece about the current threat to the historically uneasy but symbiotic relationship between the Jewish minority and the Iranian majority

"Throughout its 2,000-year presence in Persia," writes Hakakian, described as "the author of two books of poetry in Persian and the memoir Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran," "the Jewish community has helped shape the Iranian identity." Which is why, she says:

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rhetoric about the Holocaust may terrify people who don't know Iran. But those who do, find it, above all, tragic. By resuscitating symbols like the swastika and other Nazi-era relics, he is contaminating the Iranian social realm, where such concepts have scarcely existed. No doubt Jews have been mistreated in Iran throughout their long history, but to a degree incomparable to that suffered by Russian and European Jews.

Still, there was a price to pay. "Iranian Jews have had to hide their identity and restrain its expression. Of all the pain that Muslim Iranians have inflicted upon the Jews, the most persistent is obscurity. We have always been admired for being 'completely Iranian,' the euphemism for being invisible, indistinguishable from Muslims."

Non-Iranian Jews often don't get it, Hakakian notes:

Sometimes they are shocked when I say that my generation was on the streets chanting "Death to the shah!" But 1979 was a blissful, egalitarian moment when young people shed everything that defined them as anything but Iranian. . . .

The post-revolutionary regime has had the misfortune of ruling a people reluctant to embrace its radical message. That is why Iran remains home to the second-largest community of Jews in the Middle East--second only to Israel.

Obviously what Hakakian is describing is far from a paradise of egalitarianism and tolerance. But there is a strong suggestion that even the messiness of human relations is less messy when no serious hearing is given to the voices of extremism and intolerance.

The message has peculiar resonance for Americans who have to face the reality that the religious loonitude to which George W. Bush gives voice--under the cover of a crusade for "freedom" and "liberty"--is now one of the world's more more militant and therefore more dangerous war chants of extremism and intolerance.

This, of course, is my reading, and not something that Hakakian says. After you read her piece, feel free to draw your own lessons. I'll be surprised, though, if you too aren't left haunted by this final image of exile:

My father barely ventures out of his Queens apartment these days. When my siblings and I scold him for not getting out enough, he says that there is nothing here he wishes to see. "Tell me we're going to Khonsar," he says, "and I'll see you at the door."


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