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Date: 2007/01/29

1,300 years later, Iraq can't stop bleeding

This month is the Muslim New Year, the month of Muharram. The tenth day of Muharram, just like the tenth day of the first month in the Jewish calendar, is a day for atonement, making amends, reflection and gratitude. For Jews, the day is called Yom Kippur. For Muslims, it's Ashura. In Arabic, "ashra" means "ten."

Today is Ashura and it commemorates a number of landmark moments in Islamic history. One is commemorating the decision by Muhammad the Prophet to fast the same day his Jewish neighbors were fasting - out of respect and solidarity. Some people say the tenth of Muharram is the anniversary of the Red Sea splitting and Moses winning freedom for his people from Pharaoh. They say it's the day Noah landed the Ark on solid ground.

Ashura also commemorates the day the Muslim hero Hussein was killed. And this is where a sad new year for Iraq comes in.

Hussein was the grandson of Muhammad, who loved him dearly. Hussein's death in Karbala in 680 drove a wedge between Muslims, who then began to identify as Sunni or Shi'a. His death anchored a politically divided ship in a sea of blood. That blood continues to flow in Iraq today.

When the Prophet died, Muslim leadership split over who would take the reins. There was debate. Some of the leadership wanted Hussein's father, Ali, to succeed the Prophet, but a majority of the leaders selected Abu Bakr to succeed, and, as is the case with functioning democracies, the majority ruled.

The minority that supported Ali was called "Shiat Ali," or partisans of Ali. Their descendants and followers are the people we call Shi'a or Shiite. Most Shi'as today live in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon.

Eventually - 24 years after Muhammad died - Ali did become caliph, or leader, of the growing Muslim community. By then, Muslim politics were rife with dissent. People were not disputing the nature of God or how to pray or when to fast or whether they should give to charity. Elements of theology revealed to the Prophet and recorded in the Quran were not contested.

Dissent centered on politics and power: Who would control the expanding empire? Contests of power are not limited to Muslim history. They are at the root of almost all wars on Earth.

A rival murdered Ali four years after he became caliph. Hussein then led the descendants of the Prophet and their followers from the holy city of Mecca to what is now Iraq.

There, Hussein and his community of about 70 men, women and children or so were massacred in battle. The few who survived were taken prisoner; among them was Zeinab, Hussein's sister and granddaughter of the Prophet. (The Prophet's lineage continues through her progeny.)

Hussein had posed a threat to an opposing and much larger force of Muslims, who were seeking power and control. They brutally dispatched him and his company. Indeed this is a story fit for feature films.

The mosque in Karbala is Hussein's tomb. It is ornate with mosaic and gold. On Ashura, thousands of Muslims make pilgrimage to this spot to pay their respects.

Photographs of this pilgrimage can be shocking. Often the men beat themselves bloody with sticks and whips, somehow recreating the martyrdom of Hussein. It is similar to the passion of some Christians who inflict pain on themselves to replicate the torture and death of Jesus.

This makes for gripping news reports, but the deeper story is even more disturbing.

Every day, car bombs, drive-by shootings, kidnappings and thuggery impale Iraqi attempts at stability. The violence is reported as sectarian, Sunni vs. Shi'a, but in fact, just like the attacks on Hussein, these are battles for power and control.

Who will control the economy? Who will control the markets? The military? Who will keep neighborhoods safe? Whose neighborhoods will be protected first, with limited police and hamstrung law enforcement? Who will be responsible for ridding Iraq of foreign fighters? Who will earn the profit to come from reconstruction?

On the day of Ashura, there is more blood, grief and mourning over a massacre that took place 13 centuries ago. What about the massacres happening now?

Terrorism is skyrocketing in Iraq. Given current trends, Ashura, already a showcase of sadness, promises to bring extra grief.

Islam is a religion of peace and mercy. But the question must be posed to Muslims of Iraq and to the Muslim insurgents who are shamelessly abetting Iraq's misery and chaos: How many more Husseins must die before God's message of peace and mercy is heard?

How many more Iraqis will be murdered before this "newly independent nation" can really wish itself a happy new year?


Date: 2006/09/29

Those who have faith know art cannot threaten it

Shout "Hallelujah," if that's your style, or say "Alhamdulillah," if you're Muslim. A Mozart opera may be staged in Berlin as planned after

"Idomeneo," the opera in question, is a story of myth, a monster and a man in love. The sea god Neptune is appeased by the promise of human sacrifice, but love wins in the end. It's a fine subject for opera with no place for Jesus, Buddha or Muhammad the Prophet. In fact, Mozart did not compose parts for any of them. In a traditional staging there would be no cause for religious rage or rebuttal.

But the director of this production has added a touch of his own, as director's are wont to do from time to time. In a space-time continuum anomaly, Hans Neuenfels has the King of Crete carrying the heads of these three religious leaders onto the stage. Apparently he wants to make a point about how ineffective he thinks they have been. And apparently the theater was threatened with harm if the show went on, and the show was canceled. If the threat came from a Muslim, as it is presumed, the director's point may be proved.

Fortunately the religious and political leaders of Germany are taking it in stride and the curtain may rise on "Idomeneo." The opera company is considering rescheduling the production if police provide sufficient security. As a Muslim I am delighted, for two reasons.

First, there have been enough threats to people, works of art, houses of worship and municipal structures by men of little faith. If an opera, a cartoon, a movie or a spy novel can threaten one's faith in the almighty, some soul searching should be prescribed. A cartoon will not diminish almighty God, nor will God be humbled by an opera with additions. God will not shrink before the quote of a medieval pope. God does not diminish no matter what. Not to a believer, at any rate.

Neither will works of fiction or quotes from the past pull down God's prophets. They stand on their records of faith, integrity, ingenuity and courage. In the wake of "The Da Vinci Code" ruckus, I asked a priest what he told people who were disturbed by the implications of the story. He shrugged and said simply, "You find the book in the fiction section."

Responding to the outrage expressed at Pope Benedict's recent comments, an American Muslim scholar wrote, "The problem with the Muslim reaction is that it is based on an ignorance of both church teaching and Pope Benedict's own personal views." He added that Muslims are often our own worst enemies when we confront other people as enemies rather than address them as friends so we can turn them into friends if they are not already.

The salient points are:

These are works of fiction and quotes taken out of context. This is not the stuff to fuss over, riot about or commit the crime of murder.

Second, too many times of late there have been Muslims raising Cain, protesting perceived slanders against Islam. (Please God, don't let that happen down the road over the staging of an opera!)

However, if Muslims protest that Islam is not violent, that the prophet cannot be portrayed as a terrorist, and that ours is a religion of peace and mercy, why are the protests violent? Doesn't that just prove we are what they say we are?

Granted, for every riot and belligerent response to what's hot in the news there are more Muslims shaking their heads in dismay and condemning violence. For every Afghan girl who doesn't get an education there are hundreds of Indonesian women blanketing their mosques with fliers about Muslim women's right.

But to get the eyes and ears of a planetary public Muslims need to stage mass protests against Taliban treatment of women, the so-called Arab street should be flooded with people condemning Sunni attacks on Shi'as and Shi'a attacks on Sunnis in Iraq. Cyber-space ought to be abuzz with criticism of suicide (as in suicide bombing) as a crime forbidden by Islamic law. Maybe it's the silent-majority syndrome and the "good" people just aren't being squeaky wheels. But maybe now is indeed a time for change.

The spotlight is on Germany for the moment. German Muslims with their compatriots are working to avert a discord that could have erupted into an ugly scene. It might still. Yet we may still walk across the bridges they are building today to a more sensible tomorrow. And Mozart's music will win the day.


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Date: 2005/07/11

Terror is the worst sacrilege against the Quran


The first thing I did when I heard the horrifying news from London last week was to call my cousin who was born in Britain and lives and works in the capital. Nigel's dad and mine both left their homeland, Iraq, in the 1940s. His dad moved to England and mine came to America.

He told me everyone was fine: my aunt, my other cousins, their spouses and children. Fortuitously, Nigel had given his employees the day off, so no one was caught in transit. But they were emotionally shaken, disgusted and aghast, relating now all too keenly to the previously struck citizens of New York and Madrid.

Another friend of mine had left London only 12 hours earlier. But he'd been doing business on the street where the double- decker bus blew up. Other e-mails assured me my friends and colleagues in the news business were safe, each one with some story to tell. But more than 50 families are in the deepest mourning, and hundreds of others are worried sick about their wounded loved ones.

My emotions are complicated in the wake of this evil. I battle feelings of guilt - guilt by association because I am Muslim and Muslims are the likely suspects in this case.

I felt a similar guilt as a white person watching white policemen hose down black American civil rights protesters in the 1960s. There was a guilt reading reports of massacres in Bosnia and Rwanda when my great nation might have stepped in to stop the crimes and guilt at seeing it happen again in Darfur, again on my watch.

There is guilt seeing the destruction my tax dollars are bringing to my father's homeland, Iraq. But being associated by faith with people who may be behind this unjustifiable bloodbath is the knottiest problem.

Most Muslim Americans I know are tired of defending our faith in the wake of ongoing terrorism claimed in the name of Islam. We keep reminding our fellow Americans that there are bad apples in every barrel. That with five Muslims in one room you may get six opinions.

We point out, too, that maybe, just maybe, we're jumping to conclusions - although in my heart of hearts I am resigned. Yet Catholics from the Irish Republican Army terrorized Great Britain for many years. And a Jewish terrorist assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Homegrown Americans blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Remember that terrorism is political, not religious - and even if people who are Muslim are indeed the perpetrators of this atrocity, neither Islam nor the billion-plus Muslims in the world are all to blame. It's just a few too many deranged and dangerous criminals who don't understand that Islam is a religion of mercy. And that is something I do understand, as do most other Muslims.

Let me reiterate something I've written on this page before:

These crimes against humanity are in no way a "jihad." They are in no way a struggle or striving to do God's will. These are acts of what we call in Arabic "hiraba." Terrorism. They are acts that defile Islam.

In the light of this tragedy in London, the stories about desecrating the Quran in American military institutions pale. Destroying or disrespecting a book, no matter how precious, cannot be compared with murder.

If Muslim individuals are indeed behind the slaughter of innocents in London, it is they who truly commit sacrilege against Islam's holy book. They are the ones who are truly trashing the Quran.

Every Muslim individual and organization I know condemns these acts of terrorism.


Date: 2004/12/29

Let's rescue a beautiful word from its captors

I'm picky about words. Maybe it's because I'm the daughter of an English teacher. Maybe because I went to journalism school. Or maybe it's because I've always wanted to show Henry Higgins he doesn't have a corner on the English language.

Words are powerful. They can save lives or destroy them; make truth of falsehood and weave tapestries about our society, our safety (remember weapons of mass destruction?) and who our enemies are.

Words can hurt, too. Almost as badly as sticks and stones.

I remember in 11th grade an English teacher at the High School of Music and Art in New York began shouting hysterically in the hallway at a Jewish friend and me: "She's an A-rab! An A-rab!" The message was to my friend: Get away from her. We both exited. Shocked. Stung. My heart hurt for a long while after that.

Years later I worked on a CBS News magazine team looking at American involvement in Lebanon in the 1980s and the attack on the Marine barracks in '83. One version of the script called it a "terrorist attack." I argued that the attack was against soldiers, not civilians. As journalists, it's our job to clarify, and we must distinguish terrorism from acts of war. Besides, Arab-American kids had it tough enough already, with the words "terrorist" and Arab virtually synonymous in our media. It wasn't fair that an attack on the military should be called terrorism just because Arabs committed it. Eventually the script line was changed to "surprise attack."

But 20 years later not much else has changed. Except now we abuse even more words, foreign words, that we don't understand.

As a Muslim of Arab descent, I feel the wrath of one particularly abused word every day: jihad. News reports about "jihad" or "holy war," bear the unspoken insinuation that because of my background I am connected with the terrorism that abounds; that my way of worshipping God is a threat to our national security; that it's okay to go after others with my background - before they come after us.

So let me clarify. I'm not. It isn't. And it's not okay.

For me growing up, "jihad" was a beautiful word. Jihad was the effort you made to do your best in school; your struggle to polish the talents God gave you; how you strived to live up to your parents' and your own highest expectations; to lead a life acceptable to the Almighty.

So, people flying planes into buildings, beheading hostages in Iraq and fomenting hatred against people of other religions - that's not jihad!

According to the Qur'an, the holy text of Islam, the Almighty does not reward the murder of innocent people. Nor does the Creator condone suicide - as in suicide bombings. Terrorism is sociopathic. In secular terms, it is criminal behavior. In religious terms, it is blasphemy to claim cold-blooded murder in the name of God. It is not jihad.

What's a journalist to do? The good news is we can call a spade a spade. There is an Arabic word for these crimes against individuals and crimes against humanity, and the word is "hiraba." War against society.

People who are following God or practicing jihad do not join war against society. Terrorists serve Satan, if anything. They are bad people, criminals in a secular sense and blasphemers in the sacred. Just because they think they're on God's side doesn't mean the American media and our government PR folks need concur! But by parroting their misuse of the word "jihad," that's just what we're doing.

There is nothing "holy" about war. There is no jihad in terrorism. Only hiraba.

So what happens if we call a spade a spade? Think of the disincentive to young, hungry, cynical Muslims - angry at their own governments and angry at ours for bolstering theirs. If they heard "hiraba" instead of "jihad," if they heard "murder" instead of "martyr," if they heard they were bound for hell not heaven, they might not be so quick to sign up to kill themselves and a handful of so-called "infidels" along the way.

We know words are powerful. After all, we attacked Iraq for a mere acronym: WMD. So those of us concerned with accuracy should use our mightier-than-the-sword pens and keyboards and get the word "hiraba" out there.

Someday, I hope, "jihad" will find its way back into our lexicon, used properly, in sentences like "she's on a jihad to achieve the American dream."

In the meantime, people like me, performing jihad in our own ways - being patient with our kids, volunteering in our communities, practicing our professions to the best of our abilities - can walk free of guilt by association with those engaged in hiraba.


Date: 2002/02/20

Why antagonize Iran?

U.S. blows a chance for reconciliation with 'axis of evil' talk

In Tehran on Nov. 4, 2001, I covered the routine rally commemorating the takeover of the U.S. Embassy. It felt like I was walking through a movie set: Everything looked just as it had on television. Women clad in black, placards reading "Dwin Wit America" (their spelling error, not mine!), burning effigies, speeches with raised fists and the rhythmic, repetitive "Marg Bar Amrika."

I wondered for a moment if I should be worried for my safety. No. There was no cause for alarm in the least.

I've made multiple trips to Iran over the past three years in the process of reporting an upcoming two- hour documentary special for PBS' "Frontline." Each trip confirmed for me the affection Iranians feel toward Americans. Between listless chants of "Down with America" ("Death to America" is an inexact translation of "Marg Bar Amrika"), I interviewed dozens of men, women and children, mullahs, mothers and merchants. Every single person welcomed me with a bright smile when I introduced myself as an American. Many offered their sympathy for the tragedies of Sept. 11.

One particularly disheveled elderly man tapped me on the shoulder, and once he had my attention, gave me the thumbs up. "I think America is the best country in the world," he said.

Was he, perhaps, one of the reported hundreds of thousands of Iranians gathered at Freedom Square on Feb. 11, the 23rd anniversary of the Islamic revolution? The annual celebration of independence this year was paired with bitterness toward the U.S. government for accusing Iran of being part of an alleged "axis of evil." Who came up with that term? And who approved it?

To name Iran as part of an alleged axis of evil with Iraq and North Korea is an error. It is shortsighted and small-minded.

I can't comment on North Korea; it lies outside my expertise. But how can Iran and Iraq possibly be in league? Those two nations fought a gruesome, nearly 10-year war. Millions died on both sides, and the burial grounds go on for miles. Today, even though the Iranian government formally opposes the U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq on humanitarian grounds and many Iranians grieve for the suffering of Iraqi families, there is no love lost between the governments of President Mohammad Khatami and President Saddam Hussein.

It is worth noting that neither was there love between the Taliban government and the Iranian government. Situated between Iraq and Afghanistan, it would seem that Iran could be called far closer to "our" camp than "theirs." Iran more effectively could be cast as the perfect independent buffer between one acknowledged American foe and a fledgling new government on which the jury is still out. This is an opportunity lost.

As an American who fully appreciates the principles on which our revolution was fought, I understand Iran's desire to be master of its own destiny. The Iranian government (conservatives and reformers alike) and the majority of the Iranian people staunchly want to remain independent. They want to be free from what they consider the captivity of American political hegemony. That includes choosing their own allies and which "independence movements" Iran will support.

The United States chose the Nicaraguan Contras. Iran chooses Hezbollah in Lebanon. The American government may not agree with Iran's position on this. The Iranian government does not approve of U.S. support of Israel. Nevertheless, the Iranians have been open to cordial, mutually beneficial relations with the United States.

After all, if you can talk only with people who agree with you 100 percent, where would most conversations be today? I have conducted formal interviews with Iranians of all walks of life and vastly diverse lifestyle preferences. From government representatives to the most secular, "West-toxicated" Persian, people I have met distinguish between American government foreign policy and the American people.

The Islamic revolution of 1979, the American Embassy takeover that year and the holding of American hostages for 444 days are events in an unhappy and distant part of Iran's contemporary history. I fear those events remain near the core of America's attitude toward Iran.

Since the election of Khatami in 1997, there have been official and unofficial overtures for reconciliation between the American and Iranian governments, but there had been no noticeable movement. Until now. Now the movement is backward. The "axis of evil" statement will have the unfortunate effect of pushing the toe back out of the door and closing it in our faces.

NOTES: Anisa Mehdi, who lives in Maplewood, is a documentary producer and writer. Her lat est piece about Muslims and the West is scheduled to air tonight on ABC's "Nightline."


Date: 2001/09/19

We are Americans, too

Arab community and Islam are not to blame for attacks


I sat on the left side of the NJ Transit train escaping New York City that Tuesday. Like so many of us, I needed to see the smoking towers with my own eyes to shake the disbelief from my senses.

Commuters, ordinarily strangers to one another, talked all the way home. The man next to me and I shared our astonishment and sorrow, wondering what the horrible events might portend. He asked why I had gone to New York that morning, and I said that, ironically, I was producing a television documentary aimed at helping Americans understand Islam better. He shook his head grimly and said, "This is going to help."

I asked why he thought everyone was pointing blame at Muslims at a time like this. "Racism," was his simple and precise response. I trembled involuntarily.


You can't tell I am Muslim just by looking at me. I do not cover my hair. My eyebrows are waxed back to dark, defined, dramatic lines, that don't shout, "I'm an Arab!" Not anymore.

Gone are the painful days of a schoolgirl called "terrorist." No one asks about the camels in my yard anymore, or about the bomb in my backpack. My friend's parents can't forbid me to play with them because now I'm grown up. Not that I ever was a threat. I was just a kid who happened to have a different background, trying to peacefully share the same American playground as everyone else.

I grew up in Queens, and there, as anywhere in the metropolitan area, people of Arab, South Asian or homegrown Muslim roots learned to steel themselves against prejudice.

Until last Tuesday I'd forgotten how much armor I'd been wearing in emotional self-defense. What started in school evolved into decades of explaining oppressed people's frustration in Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iran. I'd get the evil eye when I suggested that maybe people in other countries might not see our government as the same "good guy" we may consider it to be.

But Sept. 11 shattered my shields and silenced my historical clarifications. Nothing explains this. Nothing justifies this outrageous attack. We are all horrified beyond expression at the evil we have witnessed. This assault is on upright people everywhere: Muslims, Christians, Jews, people of other faiths and people of no faith.

I join Muslims all over the world recoiling in disgust that anyone could remotely associate this brutality with Islam. With Arab-Americans I weep for the children of Lebanon and Palestine and Iraq who have already suffered extreme deprivation and stand now to suffer even more. I weep for the young Americans who will be taunted and ostracized, as I once was, for crimes they would never commit.

Americans, all of us, are stunned by this act of violence.

Yes, it's imperative to find the guilty parties, try them, convict them and punish them. But it's also imperative that we do not blame the innocent and curse a whole community unfairly. The world is home to 1 1/2 billion Muslims - an estimated 7 million in this country. The overwhelming majority are good, decent people.

Islam is a faith based on peaceful submission to the will of God. Muslims are commanded to respect the faiths of others. We are instructed to do what is good and avoid what is evil. Chapter 35, verse 10 of the Quran says: "If any do seek for glory and power, to God belongs all glory and power. To him mount up all words of purity. It is he who exalts each deed of righteousness. Those that lay plots of evil, for them is a penalty terrible; and the plotting of such will be void of result."

Islam allows no excuse for the killing of innocent people.

So why are some Americans reacting so forcefully against Muslims? To take blind vengeance on Muslims or Arabs is another kind of evil that we, as Americans, have been fighting for decades. That evil is bigotry, so starkly stated by my fellow commuter in the shadow of the smoke last Tuesday.

Bigotry and racism won't help: not locally, not globally.

It will take years, perhaps generations, for all the emotional and political dust to settle from the attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. For Muslims the pain and politics are multilayered. We have not only suffered the loss of loved ones but also are suddenly suspect - guilt by association. Numerous acts of violence against Muslim businesses have been reported around the country. Mobs have menaced mosques; women in traditional Islamic dress have been beaten. Many shudder with the knowledge that their homelands may soon come under attack.

I am heartened by what I've seen in many New Jersey towns: calls for solidarity among all our diverse communities and measured military response. The guideposts for action are in our great Constitution and the prayerful words of "America, the Beautiful": "Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law."

What your Muslim and Arab neighbors, your doctors, your students and classmates, coffee-shop owners and gas station attendants need now is to be embraced, not rejected. We are not the "them" or the "they" that did it. We are part of "us." We stand with other Americans. Together we can build a more stable and understanding tomorrow.


Date: 2000/02/27

Slowly, Iran sheds wraps of repression
By Anisa Mehdi


Make sure you cover your toes, too. Not just your hair."

The advice came from a fellow reporter who had covered Iran after the revolution in 1979. A former State Department officer who served in Iran suggested I not look in the eyes of any man I might interview. I listened carefully.

But times change, I found. Iran is not as shackled to 1979 as many American views of it may be. My careful covering made me one of the more conservatively dressed women in Tehran in 1999.

Many women still wrap themselves in black chadors - as was the fashion in pre-Islamic Persia. But there are also brightly painted toenails, flaunted in platform sandals; calf-length coats showing blue jeans underneath. And from teenagers to grandmothers, women tied scarves loosely, casually, over their heads.

Democracy cannot be measured by women's wear, but in Iran it symbolizes an expanding envelope of tolerance. The landslide win by reformers in last week's parliamentary election shows the extent to which the nation is embracing change. We're witnessing the birth of a democracy, a gradual and peaceful evolution from totalitarian religious rule to a system that's flexible enough to respect the popular desire for change.

This won't be easy. The religious hierarchy controls the army and the courts, and has an effective veto over decisions regarding both domestic and foreign policy initiatives. Most of the clerics are likely to try to keep it that way.

University of Tehran professor Nasser Hadian looked ahead as he sipped a cup of sweet tea in his semi-detached home in Tehran. "Those in power feel threatened by political values like democracy and human rights," he said. "They feel they may lose their power. They don't want to be challenged."


Steps toward freedom

But they are being challenged. Many Iranians point to the election of President Mohamed Khatemi in 1997 as a turning point. More people criticize the government without consequence. The press is stumbling towards greater freedom.

Of course, personal freedoms are nowhere near as secure as in the West. Disagree with the religious powers that be and you may end up in jail. Write an editorial that is too sharply critical, and your newspaper may be shut down.

In his Tehran office, parliament member Mohamad Jawad Larijani gave me an example of the delicate balance authorities must now strike.

"According to our constitution, you cannot propagate an idea which runs against the Islamic nature of the state," he said. "The government is entitled to prevent you if (it) wishes. If (it) considers an offense that serious, (it) will stop you. If it's not serious, the government won't prevent you. But it has this obligation and this mandate."

The Iranian press is testing the stability of the system and elbowing new limits for itself. Over the past few years, dozens of newspapers have opened in Iran, many of them feisty and mildly critical of governmental policies, and some of those newspapers have been closed by order of the religious leadership. But they've opened again, and in that, some Iranian journalists see promise.

"Iran is in a transitional period," said Hamidreza Jalaeipour, an editor who has been jailed and whose newspapers have been closed repeatedly. When we spoke, his fourth paper, Al Iqtesad, had been on the streets for just two days. He is not at all satisfied with the way things are, but he is optimistic.

"I see a reform trend," he said. "It has a good place among the new middle class, among educated people. You know more than four million in this country have got B.A., M.A., Ph.D. Twenty million students go to school. There is good ground for reform trend in Iran."

New kind of democracy

If reformists in Iran are gaining ground, there is also widespread acceptance of the idea that religious authorities and Islam should play a central role in society. Iran is not seeking to create a Western democracy, but is instead feeling its way towards something new, improvising as it learns from mistakes.

"What we have right now is much closer to the idea of Islam than what we had at the beginning," said Hasan Ghafoorifard, another member of the Iranian parliament.

He and his wife both studied at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. At lunch in their home, Jaleh Ghafoorifard managed the meal with all but her face covered by a chador because men outside her family were present.

"This is the first Islamic government after the Prophet Mohammad," Hasan Ghafoorifard said. "We have to start everything from scratch."

The reformists' victory may even have cracked a door to possible dÈtente with the United States. Despite the American view that Iran supports terrorist organizations and is seeking weapons of mass destruction, the Clinton administration this week announced it was looking for ways to open dialogue toward ending two decades of hostility between the two countries. The leader of the reform coalition in Iran signaled the same interest.

"Iran is coming of age," Larijani said in his office. A portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini watches all conversation, but also on the wall is a picture of the popularly re-elected president, Khatemi. "The Islamic Republic is 20 years old now. We're out of babyhood; we're not rebellious teenagers anymore. Now we are carving a future as mature members of world society. We have the will and the self-confidence. We can admit our mistakes and stand by our principles. That's what this election is all about."


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