The Path of Respectful Engagement

November 9, 2007

In the weeks since Columbia University’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, introduced his invited guest speaker, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as a “petty and cruel dictator," the media have been full of support for Bollinger’s treatment of Ahmadinejad. Many of the writers piled on more insults. One prominent blogger described the Iranian president as a “brown-skinned, terrorist-enabling, nuclear-proliferating certifiable nut.”

The we-hate-Ahmadinejad writers were divided on tactics. Some believed Ahmadinejad should never have been invited. Others thought Bollinger handled it right by bringing him into the spotlight and then lashing into him.

The only rebuttal to the hate-Ahmadinejad stance came from a minority -- the writers of perhaps 1 or 2 out of every 10 published letters -- who held that in the interests of academic freedom Ahmadinejad should have been treated politely and allowed to speak.

At my university, we think there is a third way that should have been taken at Columbia. It’s one that has been successfully taken with Iran by our academics, staff and students since the 1990's. It’s called active, but respectful, engagement. We hold our dissenting views. We express our views clearly and with integrity. But we do so in the spirit of transforming conflict rather than pouring fuel onto it. And we do so with the knowledge and humble admission that we, too, are fallible people and that we are part of a fallible nation. While this essay centers on contact with Iranians, this could be a model for how colleges might handle any number of controversial figures who come to their campuses, whether from around the world or down the street.

My small university in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia tends to be better known among people who work at places like the United Nations, World Vision, and Catholic Relief Services than it does among academics at large North American universities. We’re situated in the shadow of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, far from the media circus we saw at Columbia. We have about 1,600 students, two-thirds being liberal arts undergraduates, one-third being graduate students. About half come from faiths other than the pacifistic Mennonite church, including from non-Christian traditions. By virtue of our path-breaking programs in conflict transformation -- through which 3,000 people have passed since 1994 -- EMU is widely known by people around the world working in conflict or immediate post-conflict zones, such as in Croatia, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Nepal, the Philippines and Indonesia. Beginning with relief work after the 1990 earthquake in Iran, EMU and its sister Mennonite agencies have worked hard to earn the trust of Iranians of various persuasions, enabling a unique level of educational exchanges.

On October 9, 2007, two weeks after Ahmadinejad was insulted at Columbia, EMU president Loren Swartzendruber sat near me at a lunch round-table with one of Ahmadinejad’s advisers, Ali Akbar Rezaei, a senior member of Iran’s Foreign Ministry.

Swartzendruber, who holds a doctorate in ministry, opened the lunch with a prayer in which he asked for God’s blessing on the food we were about to eat and on the dialogue we were about to have. Swartzendruber then excused himself from the lunch with Rezaei with the explanation that he was heading to a lunch presentation on building peace through interfaith dialogue, study, and exchange, given by a pastor-scholar who had spent 1997-99 in Qom, Iran, studying Islam as well as Persian language and literature.Yes, it may seem hard to believe, but here in Harrisonburg, Va., we manage to have competing lunch events about Iran!

For Rezaei -- who had been responsible for setting up meetings for Ahmadinejad in New York in September -- this was the beginning of 24 hours of contact with the faculty, staff, and students of our university and its Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. The center houses a master’s-level graduate program that attracts students from around the world. Among its 100 graduate students are 9 from the Middle East, mostly Fulbright students. Some of these students, joined by six Muslim students from other countries, had a meeting with Rezaei in which they respectfully, but frankly, disagreed with most of Rezaei’s characterizations of Iran’s policies, particularly with his description of Iran as a “status quo” state. Rezaei counter-challenged them to not take Fox News about Iran at face value. He encouraged people to come to Iran and see for themselves.

I had met and been impressed by Rezaei seven years ago when he came to my university’s annual Summer Peacebuilding Institute. At the time, he was a young scholar in Iran’s Institute for Political and International Studies. Rezaei took five successive classes, including one on strategic nonviolence and one on inter-religious peacebuilding taught by Marc Gopin, an orthodox Jewish rabbi who is now director of the Center on Religion, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University.

During the two months that Rezaei was at EMU, his first child was born in Iran, and we all celebrated with him. After his return to Iran, we followed his career with interest. He spent four years in London, working in the Iranian embassy there, and then returned to work in the Foreign Ministry in Tehran as director of the North and Central America Department. On the home front, two more children were born.

It was a pleasure to see Rezaei again after all these years and to see that his intelligence, open-heartedness and curiosity were undiminished. Over the lunch -- attended by more than a dozen faculty and staff members -- Rezaei expressed concern that both the United States and the Islamic world contain an influential minority of people who “think they are 100 percent right, that God is with them, that everyone else is wrong, and that they are the only good guys in the world, so they should impose their views on everyone else.” He noted that those who planned the invasion of Iraq and the men who organized and executed the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States demonstrated similar biases in their thought patterns.

Rezaei lamented mutual ignorance about each other’s countries. He said many Iranians view Americans as being uncivilized people who don’t believe in God, who like killing people and who want to eradicate Muslims. He said, “We desperately need ways to overcome this ignorance.”

He didn’t have to articulate how most Americans view Iranians. All of us sitting at that lunch table were painfully aware of the ignorance about Iran in our own society. I had experienced this myself when I visited Iran as part of a Fellowship of Reconciliation delegation of “civilian diplomats” in March. We thought we would be viewed as the “enemy” in Iran. Instead our group of Americans, seeking to exchange ideas with a broad range of Iranians, was extended warm hospitality wherever we went. Since only about 300 Americans have visited Iran this past year, people seemed surprised to hear we were from the United States. And invariably, the first thing out of their mouths was “We love you!” They would sometimes go on to say that we don’t like your president or we don’t like your government, but their feelings about “Americans” were demonstratively warm-hearted.

In the last 18 months, faculty and students from various departments of Eastern Mennonite have taken trips to Iran. Two students attended a human rights conference in Qom in May, giving presentations on human rights from a Christian perspective. One of our seminary professors gave a theological paper at a conference in Iran on messianism. EMU has also hosted a number of Iranian visitors, including several university professors and an Iranian researcher from the University of Tehran, who attended two sessions of the Summer Peacebuilding Institute.

To be sure, there are numerous issues between Iran and the United States that deserve very serious scrutiny. No one is served by naiveté or ignoring those concerns. One of our Indonesian Muslim students raised concerns about Mennonites interacting with Iranian officials in this e-mail message to me:

“I’m writing this e-mail just to ‘remind’ the Mennonites to be careful in building networks and relationships with the Iranian government. Who takes benefit from this ‘peacebuilding project’: Iranians, Mennonites, Muslims, the United States? I am afraid there is a ‘hidden agenda’ behind the meeting.

“They just use the Mennonites to send their ‘peaceful message’ to the American public, while at the same time they produce uranium, discriminate against non-Shi’ite communities and non-Muslims, massacre members of the Baha’i faith, and so on and so forth.

“Last, but not least, hopefully what I was thinking does not happen. Hopefully, by the Mennonites’ intervention, justice and peace will greet Iran, like in the Harrison Ford movie ‘Witness.'"

We in the peacebuilding field cannot know whether eventually “justice and peace will greet Iran,” just as we cannot know whether eventually the United States will choose the path of equitable peace in the world instead of military and economic dominance. But we are certain that to transform conflict and lay the groundwork for a better future, one must treat others the way – yes, to borrow from our holy book (but not the only book to say this) – one would want to be treated. In our conflict transformation program, we teach our students to move toward differences of opinion without fear, dealing with it open-heartedly, rather than trying to suppress or avoid conflict. Iran’s president undoubtedly has his own agenda for promoting exchanges with American colleges and academics, but our agenda is to promote respectful talking and listening, knowing that none of us has a corner on the truth and that each of us views matters through a particular lens. The more effort we make to peer through the lens of the “other,” the less likely we will end up in violent conflict.

Seeking to “practice what I preach,” I was one of about 120 people from a dozen religious groups and institutions who met with Ahmadinejad two days after his speech at Columbia University. Requested by Iranian officials, the meeting was organized by the relief and service agencies of the Mennonites and Quakers, but included Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, Christian university leaders, and many others.

During the two-hour session, Ahmadinejad addressed the audience for 20 minutes. Five panel members, selected for their range of perspectives, responded to his speech and asked their own questions. The dialogue covered the differences many of us have with Ahmadinejad, but it was conducted with respect and civility on all sides.

I believe this model is a better one for encouraging positive change – on both sides – than verbal attacks. I agree with the petition circulated by Columbia students, which was signed by 660 people online as of this week, in which the petitioners expressed distress that “inflammatory words were delivered at a time when dialogue with Iran is of the utmost importance in an effort to forestall war.”

One petitioner who identified herself as Alena, class of 2009, in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia, wrote: “As someone who grew up in the U.S. State Department world, I was often exposed to how difficult it was for my father to dialogue with leaders with whom he deeply disagreed. However, it was always his imperative to treat others with human dignity and respect and that U.S. Foreign Policy is best served by always having a platform for dialogue. There is always room for decorum and respect – even if you are faced with your worst enemy.”

We in the academic world must always be open to dialogue, which means respectfully listening as well as frankly speaking in a civil manner. I often disagree with positions that President Bush takes, but I would never presume to change his views and behavior through refusing to speak to him or insulting him.

Instead of limiting our choices to, on one hand, treating Ahmadinejad hatefully or, on the other hand, inviting him to speak without rebuttal in the interests of academic freedom, we advocate a third way: respectful, but active, engagement with those with whom one disagrees. This is what Martin Luther King did and wrote about in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It’s what Gandhi did in India with the British. And it is what Nelson Mandela did with the leaders of the South African regime that jailed him for 27 years.

We advocate this third way both for intellectual and spiritual growth, as well as for combating injustice and achieving peace. Nothing is ever gained by pouring fuel onto a simmering fire.

Bio

Pat Hostetter Martin, who holds a masters degree in conflict transformation, is one of the administrators of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University, in Harrisonburg, Va., and director of its 13-year-old Summer Peacebuilding Institute.

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