Many Americans have bent over backwards to try to understand the past injustices which have driven Iranians to such impassioned hatred and suspicion of the United States. They are therefore all the more baffled when they see Iranians themselves resort to acts of inhumanity all men find repugnant. The public display outside the American Embassy of the bodies of the eight airmen who perished in the US raid to free the hostages was saddening, as well as horrifying, for it reminded the world how far mankind still has to go before the darker sides of human nature are conquered.
President Carter rightly minced no words when he chastised Iranian leaders for violating "all principles of humanity and decency."
It may help for Americans to know, however, that many Iranians, too, were appalled by the gruesome display. Irate public opinion, in fact, reportedly helped reverse a decision in Tehran to use the bodies to bargain with the US for the return of Iranian assets. Moreover, as Iran scholar William Beeman writes in the Boston Globe, the incident might be explained as an effort to dispel rumors that the American raid had never taken place and that it was merely a propaganda maneuver.
One unsettling aspect of the event is the implication that the religion of Islam allows for such insensitive conduct. Dr. Beeman assures readers it does not, that it in fact calls for respectful treatment of the deceased. There is a difference, he explains, between Islamic ideals and the clergy, who traditionally are often distrusted by Iranians. Thus the Ayatollah Khalkhali, who supervised the display of the bodies, and Ayatollah Beheshti, the most militant voice on the Revolutionary Council, are widely disliked.
Christians, too, know that there is often a gulf between genuine Christianity and its so-called exponents. Hence they can understand that religious idealism may be under no less challenge in Iran than it is elsewhere, especially when ambitious men are striving for power and influence. If Dr. Beeman is right, Americans should not confuse acts of barbarity with Islam. But it remains no less true that Iranians today bear a heavy responsibility for the image the world will hold of the Islamic faith and its capacity to effect righteous and noble behavior.