By Abbas Barzegar
11 January 2020
There is no scorecard for pain. In revolution and war, everyone's truth is real.
I am 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.
As sectarian 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.
American 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.
The mainstream media and political discourse treat even African Americans and Latinos who have been practising Islam for generations in the United States as domestic exiles.
Exile also 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.
American 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.
Connected 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.
But even 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.
Throughout 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.
We explored 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.
I had 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.
But as 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.
Caught in 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 widespread.
Words, 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.
As my 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.
While she 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.
At cemeteries, we all say the same prayers. There is no scorecard for pain. Everyone's truth is real.
For most 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 moment.
I have 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.
I apologise 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.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.
Abbas Barzegar is the National Director of Research and Advocacy at the Council on American Relations (CAIR).
Original Headline: At cemeteries, the Sunni and Shia say the same prayers