Islam in Iran: Interview with Saideh Jamshidi Feb 22nd, 2010

Islam in Iran: Interview with Saideh Jamshidi Feb 22nd, 2010

Iran is very much in the news. For example, the mass protests against last year’s disputed presidential election generated tremendous support for the Iranian people. Also, Tehran’s nuclear program is causing fears that Iran is moving towards a military dictatorship with the ability to launch devastating terrorist attacks. But how do ordinary Iranians view their country and Islam? I talked to Saideh Jamshidi recently, a journalist born and raised in Iran. She came to the US in 1999, has been working for Free Speech Radio News, and just started her graduate study in journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Our conversation started with last year’s election protests. Because she is blacklisted by the Iranian government, Jamshidi could not return to her home country to report the events, but she was in close contact with her journalist friends inside Iran at the time and thus well informed of what was happening during the election. “What the people of Iran did not want to happen for the 2009 election was to have Ahmadinejad to be elected again,” she says, “People are very, very, have been very, very frustrated. So they just wanted to see change.” Apparently Ahmadinejad and his government underestimated the public’s frustration and desire for change. They were taken by surprise when protests swept across the streets of Tehran like wild fire.

In the second part of our interview, I asked Jamshidi how Iranians perceive and practice Islam. Compared to other Muslim countries in the Persian Gulf Region, she says, Iran is unique because it is a Shia dominated country whose language is Persian or Farsi, while most other countries are Sunni dominated and speak Arabic. “When we’re talking about Islam, we’re not talking about a religion, we’re talking about a culture as well as a religion,” Jamshidi emphasizes. Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, “is an important country in terms of religion, but it’s not an important country in terms of leading the future of Islam.”

People of Iran are more likely to lead the way. Iran has a large urban, young and well educated population with 58% of the university graduates being women. This population really care about the country and is fed up with hypocritical leaders of religious institutions. “They want a modern Islam,” Jamshidi says, they want to build a country that can participate more in the global environment.

The uniqueness of Iran also makes it unattractive to terrorist group recruiters, in part because of the historical tension between Sunni and Shia. “Whatever Sunni does, Shia doesn’t want to be a part of it. Whatever Sunni does, they don’t want to have Shia to be part of it,” Jamshidi says. Most terrorist group recruiters are Arabic-speaking Sunni. They will have great difficulty recruiting Persian-speaking Shia Iranians. Furthermore, the more educated Iranians are less interested in Islamic ideology. “They really care about their own country now more than caring about what Islam brings to them.”

In the last part of our interview, Jamshidi talked about an issue of her passion: women’s rights. Iran used to have many women in power such as lawyers, judges, publishers, and CEOs. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, many of the rights women used to enjoy were taken away. A group of women has stood up to lead a big movement in which Jamshidi takes part as a journalist. “I always said how come in Iran you can not read Lolita because they said it’s a child pornography, but in Iranian law a 40-year-old man can marry a 9-year-old girl. What is the child pornography here?” The movement has won some battles and is going strong. Jamshidi plans to continue writing and reporting about women’s issues and other topics in the Middle East. She also hopes to serve as “a tiny avenue for the dialogue” between East and West.

What’s your impression about Iran? Do you think the people of Iran are leading the future of Islam? We welcome your comments.