Some months ago I received an invitation to bring a delegation of American religious leaders to meet with theologians in Qom, Iran for a dialogue on the theme of human unity. A group of us from the inter-spiritual organization known as the Contemplative Alliance spent the first week of June in Iran, visiting Isfahan, Qom, and Tehran. What we found was a revelation to all of us.
I had been to Iran only once before, in 2001, to attend a conference on religion and the environment organized by the United Nations in collaboration with the Center for Dialogue Among Civilizations. At that time, I encountered much revolutionary and anti-American sentiment, and I expected to find the same on this visit. But despite the rhetoric we hear through the media and from some in its government, the Iranian people, like the rest of the world, have moved on.
Americans need to know the new Iran.
Iran’s current eastern cultural invasion
When deciding which religious leaders to include in this delegation to Qom, I chose to show the new religious face of America, as our country has also changed greatly. We had among us a prominent evangelical leader, the president of the oldest Protestant seminary in the country, a renowned Benedictine nun, a Zen Buddhist priest, and two American swamis. The Iranian theologians were very surprised, and I believe pleased, to see this diversity.
Our invitation had come from the University of Religions and Denominations in Qom. This university is the only place in Iran where seminary students can study Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Sufiism, and the history of mysticism. Unknown to many people in the West, there is growing interest in Iran in these subjects. They, like the America of some decades ago, are experiencing what officials are calling “the eastern cultural invasion.”
With the spread of the Internet, it is impossible now to limit people’s spiritual quest. The mixing of spiritual approaches is a growing reality that cannot be stamped out, and it is a positive trend as it is helping to connect cultures and to cultivate a deeper understanding of human unity. America provides one of the best examples of how to embrace this new reality. The integration of multiple spiritual traditions is perhaps our greatest strength.
Our visit to Iran began in Isfahan. As we walked the streets in our religious garb, the swamis in orange robes, the Zen priest in Buddhist attire, we attracted much attention — all positive. So many wanted to know where we were from, and when we said America, a smile would cross their face.
“Welcome,” they would inevitably say and sometimes add, “We love Americans.”
There was great curiosity about us in Qom as this is a city of seminaries and we were a most unusual crew. After an hour discussion with one of the most senior Grand Ayatollahs, we finally reached the University of Religions and Denominations. There we met theologians eager for dialogue with Americans and interested to know more of the Eastern or Dharmic religions, which is a new area of study for them.
America’s swamis and Buddhist teachers have been in training for 40-plus years, as it was then that the wisdom of the East seriously took root in American soil. But for the Iranians, these traditions are a new arrival. It is a challenge for them to integrate these theologies with their own Shia Islamic tradition.
We addressed the issue of whether human unity was truly possible. We all agreed that not only is it possible, it is our natural state. We are one human family; all religions emerge from the One, and we are all aspiring to rejoin that single Source of all. Our dialogue contained great depth. Again and again we affirmed that the religions must deepen their exchange, so that true appreciation, spiritual affection, and friendship will arise.
Finally we arrived in Tehran, a beautiful, dynamic, and elegant city, more akin to the capitals of Europe than the Middle East. Sitting in fashionable coffee shops, eating at a top notch vegetarian restaurant, we could have been in Soho, New York. Our group could not get over how different the city was from what Americans imagine.
Do our politicians know of the new Iran?
For sure, there are policies of the Iranian government with which we don’t agree. There are reactionary and unfriendly elements there like everywhere else. But Iran is a country of young people, and they look and act just like the young people in our country. They are part of an awakening global consciousness.
As we traveled through Iran and were so warmly received, I could not help but wonder how much our politicians know about this new Iran, a country that today hosts many European and Chinese tourists — especially the Chinese, who are heading there in droves to buy up Iranian goods while the rest of us debate how to proceed. With or without America, this new Iran has already entered the global community, and business people are lining up, hungrily eyeing the market.
We can hold on to the myth, the memories of the Iran of 30 years, or even a decade, ago, or we can move on as they have already done. Iranians are welcoming Americans. They want engagement. It would be worse than folly to miss this opportunity, which has the potential to shift in a positive way the dynamic of the whole region. Sandwiched between Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran is a pillar of stability in an endangered region, and we should appreciate rather than seek to undermine the stability it offers.
Before voting on whether to increase or be rid of sanctions, it should be mandatory for every member of Congress to visit the new Iran, or they risk voting on false information, as was the case with Iraq a decade ago. The failure to support this new agreement will lead to greater instability and the possibility of expanded war, something neither the American nor the Iranian people want.
There is no other sane position than to support the agreement that has been negotiated with such great care and consideration of all possible options. This will begin a new chapter not only for Iran but for America as well.
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