Two paths to peace: the secular and the sacred

In late July, while John Kerry sat across a table in Paris from Mohammed Zarif, chief Iranian negotiator for the Iranian-U.S. nuclear treaty, I and six other Americans from the Global Peace Initiative of Women sat across tables from some of the major religious figures in Iran. We were in Qom, the Vatican of Shia Islam.

One thing struck me: We were all working on behalf of peace, Kerry on one level, we on the another. He and his team were trying to control the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Our team — two Hindus, an Evangelical, a mainline Protestant, a Zen master, a Sufi and a Catholic nun — were hoping to find the common ground that makes having weapons of mass destruction unnecessary.

And we both knew, I suspect, that the fires of enmity burn slowly and long. At least if Washington and international affairs of any ilk are any proof of it. The problem is that international enmity is most often stoked by the memory of what "they did to us." Seldom, if ever, do we hear one of the parties talking about what "we did to them."

Instead, we plead our innocence, all the while spewing distrust and dismay.

As television stations around the world played an unending series of photos showing John Kerry and the U.S. negotiating team locked in contest with Iranian negotiators over U.S. sanctions and Iranian nuclear plants, the world around them sat helpless. We all knew that if they failed it would be we who would become prey in this latest game of King of the Mountain.

Congress is apparently sure we are being blind-sided by tormentors who have been our perennial enemies.

It might be a good moment for all of us to review the history of modern U.S.-Iran political relations. It's not too complex. On the contrary, the data is far too clear:

In 1953, according to CIA documentation, the CIA and the British MI6 removed democratically-elected Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh from office in order to give Shah Reza Pahlavi the power to stop Iran from nationalizing their oil fields.

But by 1979, the Shah who introduced Americanism to Iran was branded an American puppet and driven out of office by a coalition of both religious and secular forces.

Two months after Pahlavi's ouster, Iran's major religious figure, the Ayatollah Khomeini, exiled from Iran by the Shah years before, returned from Paris. Almost overnight the Iranian Constitution was rewritten, and Iran became "The Islamic Republic of Iran." What the Ayatollah Khomeini called 'Westoxification' ended.

But the tug of war had begun.

With international tempers still roiling in 1979, Iran held 52 U.S. hostages captive for 444 days. In 1985, Oliver North, a U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, sold weapons to Iran despite the fact that breaking the embargo violated U.S. policy. In 1988, the United States shot down an Iranian civilian airbus we said we mistook for a military plane. Then, in the wake of 9/11, in 2002, President George Bush proclaimed Iran, Iraq and North Korea the "Axis of Evil."

What remains of such a history in Iran is a country whose people have lived divided between Westernization and Islamization, the clear signs of which are still apparent. The memories of Iran's American period linger to this day. Iranian children recognized Americans immediately and tried out their English on us. Families stopped our delegation on the street to tell us "We love Americans." Everyone talked about the meetings in Paris with great hope that the old drawbridge to the West would once again drop into place.

Our response to this pending nuclear agreement is an important moment in international relations. It's true — Iran pulled out from under the Western orbit once before. Relations are still uneasy. But the point must not be missed: Iran has a case of its own to make. We have both sinned. We are not the only ones in this partnership with a reason to doubt the other, to wonder about the desirability of beginning a new future with such an unpredictable suitor, to want authentication of the other's good will.

But there was one meeting that sounded a clarion call for a new beginning. After days of discussion with Iranian administrators, with theological scholars, with professional peers and religious wisdom figures, the last meeting was with the Grand Ayatollah Alavi Boroujderi. This session with the highest ranking of the six Grand Ayatollahs in Qom did more to reduce the distance between us than any other. He was a gentle and genial man, white haired, smiling, kind.

After 20 minutes of welcome and wisdom, the Ayatollah opened the discussion for our questions. I raised my hand. "Ayatollah, I have been in interfaith work for years now," I said, "I have taught Islam and other world religions as well as participated in interfaith encounters. But I am now concerned that some of my explanations may be incorrect. I would appreciate your telling us exactly what 'jihad' means in Islam and explain its uses to us."

The atmosphere in the room tightened a bit. The reserved, grandfatherly-looking old man leaned forward in his chair. His arms flew up. He looked straight at me. His face set: "No. No. No." He looked to his translator for help. "This not jihad. Not Muslim. Not Islam." He paused. "This ISIS — these groups like this — not Islam. These are evil people hiding behind Islam to do evil." He searched our faces for signs of understanding. "Neverrrrrr Islam," his voice rang out.

The message is clear. The Crusaders did not carry the heart of Christianity. The Taliban does not bring glory to Islam when it murders Christians and destroys the shrines of Buddhists. The Koran does not accept the persecution of Jews who, like us, are "the people of the Book who deserve respect."

The silence in the Ayatollah's chambers that day was a saintly one. After all, when a man that long at the centre of a faith speaks out, the timbre of truth rings through the world.

From where I stand, that's the kind of holiness that invites us across the drawbridge of differences carrying the best of the faith that is in us. Then we can all stop worrying about the other side being unfaithful.

[Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister is a frequent NCR contributor.]

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