There is no
scorecard for pain. In revolution and war, everyone's truth is real.
Iranian American and, like most Muslims in the United States, I have had the
honour to work with, I am unapologetic in my faith and hopelessly idealistic in
matters of justice.
Yet it is
times like these, after years of immeasurable death and destruction in the
lands that house our ancestors that our passionate convictions may no longer
serve as reliable roadmaps.
tensions escalate and we edge closer to another regional conflict, now is the
time for leaders to resist calls for revenge and retaliation. They must refuse
to feed the dogs of war and lay the groundwork for a different future than the
one promised to us by reckless politicians.
Muslims like myself, regardless of background or belief, live in a state of
perpetual exile. As the great Edward Said wrote in 1984, the feeling of exile
is "the un-healable rift forced between a human being and a native place,
between the self and its true home".
Those of us
born here, but with families from places like Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Palestine,
have lived on the brink of war for our entire adult lives. We have grown up
desensitised to Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism, finding it commonplace in
most quarters of our society.
mainstream media and political discourse treat even African Americans and
Latinos who have been practising Islam for generations in the United States as
comes from home: those of my generation have reluctantly inherited the
religious traditions given to them by their families. But with echoes of
sectarian bias and cultural hang-ups masking as religion, many like me have
fought hard to practise an Islam we can be proud of and clothe ourselves in the
sacred values it promises us.
Muslims and their leadership still pride themselves on rejecting sectarianism
and staying above the fray of the geopolitical conflicts that dominate news
headlines. But in fact, those very headlines perpetuate the exile we are always
trying to overcome.
to the lands, cultures, and societies of the classical Islamic world, American
Muslims have to live the reality that their own tax dollars have literally
destroyed the treasures they hold so dear. From the training of religiously
radical mercenary armies in Afghanistan and implementing grotesque,
debilitating sanctions and then invading Iraq, to enabling Israeli crimes
against Palestinians and supporting petrodollar dictators, the list of American
and European crimes in the Muslim world keeps getting longer.
worse, exile and alienation burn when we see the cannibalism of contemporary
global Muslim politics: revolutions turn to civil war, freedom fighters to mercenaries,
islands of resistance to storms of oppression. Most hands, it seems, are
stained with brotherly blood.
my own professional and personal life, these contradictions have been
predictable forces to manage - routine job hazards, you could say. But with the
lost promise of the Arab Spring, the unspeakable horrors in Syria, Libya and
Yemen, and now as Iran and the US face off in a death stare, the cracking is
getting louder and louder.
I am made
especially aware of this when I recall the summer of 2015 when as a professor
at Georgia State University; I took 20 students to Turkey. We spent a year
preparing for a month-long visit to better understand, document, and relate the
tragedy of what was then still the Syrian revolution.
everything from children begging in the street to the political infighting of
factions in the Turkish city of Gaziantep. We delivered food and clothing in
caves outside of the Turkish city of Sanliurfa and listened to widows who lost
husbands and sons to both the Bashar al-Assad regime and ISIL.
already, for two years, been working on high-level policy dialogues and
research aimed at identifying and mobilising peace-building assets that leaders
could use to help mitigate the destruction that was impacting civilian life. By
that point, I had effectively turned all of my professional and personal
attention to the conflict.
firmly as I was committed, it was and still is one of the most difficult things
to reconcile: facing aid workers, refugee children, and Syrian freedom fighters
as an otherwise proud Iranian American.
the violent realities of geopolitics, the victims of the Syrian conflict had
and have every right to despise Iran's unflinching support of the al-Assad
regime. The suspicion with which I was repeatedly met and the hatred I heard
about Iranians and Shia (and the promise of their pending slaughter), never
impacted my ability to recognise the suffering and loss that had become so
pictures, films will never be able to communicate the hell that Syrians have
endured. And in moments like this, my rather eclectic Islamic theology -
"Sushi Islam", as we American Muslims often jokingly call the blend
of Sunni, Shia, Sufi practices we mix and match - mattered very little. I was
and am what the world made me. I could only sit and listen.
students returned to the US and I finished meetings in Istanbul, I went to
Kuwait to be with my wife and children, who were visiting family there. Within
days of my arrival, an ISIL suicide bomber blew himself up in the historic Shia
mosque Imam Sadeq during Friday prayers. My wife, a journalist for a major
international media network, was forced to cover the story from start to
finish. Within hours she was combing the blood-soaked, flesh debris on the
mosque floor and searching for survivors to talk to in the hospitals.
was reporting, I was at the cemetery. Amid the cries of loved ones, I helped
carry the bodies, dig the graves, and fill the resting grounds with dirt over
the still warm bodies of 27 men, young and old, martyred for a fantasy. For the
Shia around the world, who had suffered similar attacks in Pakistan, Iraq, and
elsewhere, this was yet another reminder that they and their loved ones could
be killed at any moment.
cemeteries, we all say the same prayers. There is no scorecard for pain.
Everyone's truth is real.
Syrians, Qassem Soleimani was a butcher. For a few others, a saviour. For many
Iraqis, he is a master manipulator. For others, an irreplaceable mentor. For
some Iranians, he was the face of oppression, for many others, a force for
freedom. For Shia being blown up in mosques, Soleimani was everything.
I do not
believe in seeking equivalences and these facts do not cancel each other out.
Unlike what many might believe right now, grief and tragedy cannot be measured.
But to be sure, villains and heroes are both fantasies, just as are the clean
and easy stories we create around them for our own benefit.
We do have
choices though. The option to indulge anger and foment discord or be forces for
reconciliation and temperament, no matter how implausible it might seem in the
spent the last couple of days trying to keep pace with the events, but more
importantly, trying to reach out to friends and family impacted by this
directly, or soon to be. I talked to former students now in Baghdad, Iranian
families afraid at what might happen at the border, and aid workers and
revolutionaries relieved that Soleimani is no more.
I have focused
mostly on rallying people to calm tensions and refrain from anything that could
be seen as a sectarian or partisan discussion. I have deepened some
friendships, and will most likely be walking away from a few others.
to my friends who would rather rally around easy answers, a dream of revenge,
and turn grief into hatred. I will not be joining you. But please feel free to
do as you wish, we all live in the world we choose.
As we wait
on the suspenseful stage set by callous politicians and robotic armies, I hope
we at least will not act as their puppets. There are different plays that can
be performed, but it is us who will have to be their authors.
views expressed in this article are the author's own.
Barzegar is the National Director of Research and Advocacy at the Council on
American Relations (CAIR).
Headline: At cemeteries, the Sunni and Shia say the same prayers
Professor. “.and turn grief into hatred. I will not be joining you.”
are following what all learned Believers do: “ you have nothing
what so ever to do with them” 6:159,