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Last Updated: 10/23/2007
UPEACE Reflections from Iran
Dr. Amr Abdalla

Dr. Amr Abdalla writes the UPEACE community from Tehran, Qom, and Isfahan.

October 23, 2007

Dear all:

Greetings from lovely Tehran. This trip has been so far quite an eye opener, and full surprises everywhere we turn, given that Iran has been in the center of news for a long time.

My first surprise in Iran was when I arrived to the airport. I expected a lengthy complicated passport control process as we all may expect in countries labeled with things used in several world media. To my surprise it took less than a minute to clear each person, and there were no disembarkation forms to fill out! BUT, the customs process was unnecessarily unorganized and slow...

Tehran is a clean city with very good roads and infrastructure, and with "mad" drivers like those you see in Cairo!

We are hosted by the Chair of UNESCO for Human Rights, Peace and Democracy in Shahid Behishti University (about 30,000 students, and a beautiful campus). We held several meetings with their faculty and students and with various NGOs working on such matters. It is paradoxical to hear from almost everyone that they are discontent with the political situation in their country, yet they are comfortable expressing themselves in this manner. There is a strong belief among those we met (who are usually educated in subjects of HR and Peace) that there is too much interference with people's lives in the name of religion, and that this can feel suffocating. We sure sensed a lot of dissatisfaction with the current regime. But we were also alerted to the fact that this perhaps reflected the views of some but that the masses may not share such views exactly.

Another amazing observation is that we (US-based scholars and practitioners of peace and conflict resolution in the Islamic context) have been eager and excited to share our positive views on peace and conflict resolution from the Islamic perspective only to face resistance from several to any notion that religion can be useful in anything! I guess that shoving religion down people's throat leads to negative reactions. We, living in the West, are not under such pressure and therefore can see the potential for peace and conflict resolution in Islam. But many of those we spoke to seemed skeptical to say the least!

Finally, it is rather confusing to see all women covered with some form of Hijab, usually a dark color one especially if they are at the university, yet it is obvious from their body language, interaction, free movement even late at night, and "mad driving" like everyone else, that they are confident and self reliant. 70% of students at that university are women. But very few are professors, although almost every female student at the law school told us that she wanted to receive her PhD to become a university professor. Another observation is that almost all women and men I have seen seem physically fit and energetic- nothing like what you observe in developing countries in terms of poor health, heavy weight or malnutrition. I was told that this is because it was very important to appear good in that society. One more observation: There are hardly any beggars on the streets!

All in all, we are treated so well, are learning a lot, and are establishing very good contacts for future cooperation. I admire this city and its people.

Tomorrow we are going to the religious capital, Qom. We expect a very different rhetoric and discourse there. I will write later from Qom. In peace,


Dear All:

We just completed our trips to Qom and Isfahan. Qom is the Religious Capital of Iran and the Shia Muslims of the world. Many renowned Islamic schools exist here, and most of the Grand Ayatullahs reside here. We met three of them. They are treated with so much respect and formality similar to that of state leaders. They all were very balanced in their views on peace in the Islamic context. They ranged from highly spiritual to highly progressive. I did not detect in any of them the sense of fanatacism that the media in some places uses to describe them. Those Ayatollahs are also the leaders of their communities worldwide. They receive huge amounts of donations from their followers in the form of a religious duty to donate one-fifth (Khoms) of income to the needy. Each Ayatollah runs an endowment that is estimated in the $$Billions! They use the funds to support education and social welfare. Perhaps this is one reason why I hardly saw beggars on the streets. But of course there is also controversy about how such funds are used, and the Iranian seculars are skeptical about it as they are about anything that relates to religion in that country.

We also met with several university professors and research organizations. These institutions while mainly focused on Islamic studies, are combining this with social studies. Several of the professors have degrees in Islamic studies and in one of the humanities branches. Some are educated in the US and England. All these institutions are state of the art in terms of technology! Qom is also considered the Internet Capital of Iran! So, many of the assumptions about the separeation of religion and technology were quickly shattered in Qom.

In Isfahan- one of the most beautiful and clean cities of the world- we held a conference at Isfahan University (again, one of the most beautiful campuses I have seen in the world) in cooperation with Isfahan Bar Association. The conference was attended by lawyers and students of law and was well covered by the media. We addressed the same issues of Islam and peacebuilding. We again witnessed the skepticism of some about the role of religion. It is amazing to see how in Iran there is more concern about the public role of religion.

Finally, we are back in Tehran. All in all, I can say that this trip leaves me with more questions than answers. But here are some conclusions:

1. We must always appreciate the compelxity of such situations and avoid resorting to simple dichotomies of either good or bad.

2. Iran is much more developed than any of us have thought! It by far comes closer to first world standards than those of third world. literacy rate for example is close to 90%. All roads are very well paved, and all cities we visited are spic and span clean! But they drive like maniacs!

3. The country does not have a feel of war looming at all. Things are very normal.

4. Religion cannot and should not be shoved down people's throat!

5. Plastic surgery is a booming industry here, especially nose jobs!!!

In peace,


Dr Abdalla is the Vice Rector of Academic Affairs for the UN mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica.