Ex-hostage Moorhead Kennedy; A year of freedom, a quest for peace

Two years ago peace seemed the furthest thing from Moorhead Kennedy's mind. With Christmas drawing near, his temporary three-month assignment as a Foreign Service officer at the US Embassy in Tehran was entering its final weeks , scheduled to wrap up in time for the holidays.

Instead he found himself bound and blindfolded in a back room of the embassy compound, grappling mentally with the terror of captivity at the hands of skittish Koran-quoting militants, being wakened periodically in the middle of the night as some of his American colleagues were escorted out of the room, and hoping that the shots in the distance were not meant for those being led out - or that he would be next.

But the captivity that bound the American hostages two years ago now has catapulted Moorhead Kennedy into peacemaking ventures totally unforeseen in his 20 years with the US diplomatic corps.

Though at the peak of a career that had plunged him into the intricacies of diplomacy in Yemen, Greece, Lebanon, Chile, and Iran, and despite the utter disbelief of his State Department colleagues, he has left the Foreign Service. He is founding instead a new peace institute.

The lesson of 14 long months' captivity: It's time to take a deeper look at why religion and conflict seem so intertwined in world affairs, and see what can be done about it.

Sitting in his temporary office at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, he is still amused at the disbelief of many of his former colleagues.

''The amazement has been something to behold,'' he says, with a kind of good-natured cynicism.

''It was not so much that I was taking early retirement, but - imagine - to think that I was leaving to go to work at a cathedral!''

The institute's headquarters here look more like the lodging of some medieval lord than a modern think tank. The elegant chamber once served as reception room for the cathedral, and more recently as a research center for futurists of the likes of William Erwin Thompson.

Tall double doors open into a large square room whose gray stone walls converge in a high vaulted ceiling. A huge fireplace, carved wood chairs bearing coats of arms, red carpeting, and narrow, ornate windows with small, leaded panes add to the Gothic appearance. And along one side, nearly blocking the doors, sits Mike Kennedy, as he is known to friends, behind a long cafeteria-like table piled with papers.

Meeting him in person, it's difficult not to conjure up the tense days when the hostage crisis still weighed upon the daily news. It was his wife, Louisa, who impressed American TV audiences week after week with her quiet dignity and unruffled, articulate, and often penetrating comments on behalf of the hostage families. Mrs. Kennedy is writing a book on that turbulent time to be published late next year.

But now Mr. Kennedy is the picture of calm.

He still looks very much the Foreign Service officer in his closely tailored pin-striped suit, pink button-down shirt, and blue-dotted red tie. The silver sheen of hair slanting across his forehead and square brown glasses give his ruddy-cheeked, sad-eyed, boyish features a look of savoir-faire. A tie that is slightly off center, along with the never-absent wry Kennedy wit, keeps formalism at a comfortable distance.

''Story has it,'' he interjects, slightly tongue in cheek, ''that this building was built back before the first World War by J. P. Morgan.

''When the bishop saw the elaborate plans, he said, 'Mr. Morgan, your plans are indeed very generous and imaginative. But I would understand it - and I'm sure God would understand - if you undertook something a little more modest.'

''Mr. Morgan looked at him and said, 'Nonsense! The bishop of New York should live like everyone else!' ''

Kennedy's fledgling ''World Center for the Study of -Religion and International Affairs'' was formally launched in September. Yet it is still very much an idea waiting to be realized - and Kennedy a one-man institute (albeit with an eager administrative assistant).

During his long captivity and in the time since his release, the Harvard-educated diplomat has had plenty of time to think through what he thinks a peace institute should do.

He is not one for setting up Utopian peacenik schemes or wild-eyed disarmament projects. Instead he envisions a sober, though innovative and creative, program of research into the forces that produced the hostage crisis - especially how religion relates to the creation of conflict and its resolution.

Paradoxically, he says, it is the church-state separation that protects Americans' freedom of religion at home which is now getting them in trouble abroad.

''We think religion is something very personal,'' he says. ''It is not something that we come to terms with very readily as a political force. I think it was particularly revealing to hear a senior State Department official comment about the hostage crisis: 'Who would have thought all this could have happened because of religion?'

''But religion plays an extraordinarily important and complex role in world affairs. We need to take it into account. And this is what we want to explore as our contribution to human understanding and world peace.''

For a man who experienced such extended anguish in captivity, Kennedy appears remarkably conciliatory toward his Iranian captors.

Like so many of the other hostages, he had been jostled about Iran during those turbulent months: first to the confiscated home of a wealthy Iranian; then back to the embassy compound for the winter of 1979-80; then to the southwestern Iranian city of Isfahan after the American rescue attempt failed in April 1980; back to a prison in Tehran in August. Finally, in December, he was moved again to an elegant guesthouse in Tehran where Algerian mediators were allowed to see the hostages.

The irony of Kennedy's captivity was that he is an expert in Islamic law, and had been sent to Iran to help ease US-Iranian tensions. Though an Episcopalian, he studied Islamic law at Harvard while earning a law degree there.

''I could understand why the students felt the way they did about us, about our country, about international law,'' he reflects. ''It was the only way they could get back at the United States after many years of trying in vain to get world attention about the rule of the Shah.

''That doesn't mean that I agreed with that, or ever -approved of the means they used. And I told them that on TV: However you feel, don't ever take over an embassy again!

''But neither do I go along with the comments of Americans who began referring to the students as 'animals,' or said they wanted to nail each and every one of them. To my mind that's absolutely pointless. Getting mad at people doesn't get you anywhere.''

The peace institute is, he believes, a more practical response.

First on the agenda: a series of interrelated symposiums that will bring together leading thinkers from various disciplines to take a hardheaded look at the relation between religion and conflict.

The results will then be published for the benefit of policymakers, clergy, and citizens trying to relate more effectively to a conflict-torn world.

The approach will be distinctive, he feels, from the burgeoning array of peace movements, antinuclear marches, and institutions such as the International Peace Academy at the United Nations and the proposed national peace academy now being considered by Congress.

The opening symposium in April will bring together leading behavioral scientists and psychiatrists. They will explore why people who profess the ideals of peaceful religions so often choose the road of confrontation and violence. Other symposiums will follow on violence and children, and on conflict resolution.

Still another will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the correspondence between Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. Einstein had been asked by the League of Nations in 1932 to correspond with the leading thinkers of the world as to how peace could be maintained in the difficult years of depression and psychological turmoil in Europe. Now Kennedy is trying to persuade the United Nations both to look at the insights of the earlier correspondence and to launch a similar project among today's leading thinkers.

If Moorhead Kennedy's own approach to understanding religion and conflict is any indicator, his institute will avoid one-dimensional religionism. He is searching for that middle ground between underestimating or overestimating religion as a factor in world events.

Underestimation has been a force of aggravation, he -argues, not only in the Iran experience, but also in the assassination of Anwar Sadat.

''You know, after the assassination we heard this tremendous gulp come out of Washington: 'What will we do now? Our peacemaker has been lost.' And yet nobody had really inquired very much why, only six weeks before, Sadat had thrown into the slammer not only the Muslim religious leaders but the Christian leaders because they refused to go to Jerusalem while it was under Israeli occupation. They had dared on the grounds of principle to criticize Sadat's policies. So into the slammer they go. And then he gets assassinated by a religious group.

''Now if our analysis had been correct about the assassination and its relation to peace in the Middle East, we should have been asking - as it was not asked in Washington: Didn't Sadat bring this on himself? How genuinely popular was he in Egypt?

''The press discovered the absence of popularity very quickly, of course, at the funeral. The only ones crying were the Americans.

''And how much strength could Sadat really have had if his own political base was that shaky? He apparently wasn't the hero to his own country that we thought he was. Indeed, if he had antagonized the religious elements, he was

Paradoxically, he says, it is the church-state separation that protects Americans' freedom of religion at home which is now getting them in trouble abroad.

''We think religion is something very personal,'' he says. ''It is not something that we come to terms with very readily as a political force. I think it was particularly revealing to hear a senior State Department official comment about the hostage crisis: 'Who would have thought all this could have happened because of religion?'

''But religion plays an extraordinarily important and complex role in world affairs. We need to take it into account. And this is what we want to explore as our contribution to human understanding and world peace.''

For a man who experienced such extended anguish in captivity, Kennedy appears remarkably conciliatory toward his Iranian captors.

Like so many of the other hostages, he had been jostled about Iran during those turbulent months: first to the confiscated home of a wealthy Iranian; then back to the embassy compound for the winter of 1979-80; then to the southwestern Iranian city of Isfahan after the American rescue attempt failed in April 1980; back to a prison in Tehran in August. Finally, in December, he was moved again to an elegant guesthouse in Tehran where Algerian mediators were allowed to see the hostages.

The irony of Kennedy's captivity was that he is an expert in Islamic law, and had been sent to Iran to help ease US-Iranian tensions. Though an Episcopalian, he studied Islamic law at Harvard while earning a law degree there.

''I could understand why the students felt the way they did about us, about our country, about international law,'' he reflects. ''It was the only way they could get back at the United States after many years of trying in vain to get world attention about the rule of the Shah.

''That doesn't mean that I agreed with that, or ever -approved of the means they used. And I told them that on TV: However you feel, don't ever take over an embassy again!

''But neither do I go along with the comments of Americans who began referring to the students as 'animals,' or said they wanted to nail each and every one of them. To my mind that's absolutely pointless. Getting mad at people doesn't get you anywhere.''

The peace institute is, he believes, a more practical response.

First on the agenda: a series of interrelated symposiums that will bring together leading thinkers from various disciplines to take a hardheaded look at the relation between religion and conflict.

The results will then be published for the benefit of policymakers, clergy, and citizens trying to relate more effectively to a conflict-torn world.

The approach will be distinctive, he feels, from the burgeoning array of peace movements, antinuclear marches, and institutions such as the International Peace Academy at the United Nations and the proposed national peace academy now being considered by Congress.

The opening symposium in April will bring together leading behavioral scientists and psychiatrists. They will explore why people who profess the ideals of peaceful religions so often choose the road of confrontation and violence. Other symposiums will follow on violence and children, and on conflict resolution.

Still another will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the correspondence between Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. Einstein had been asked by the League of Nations in 1932 to correspond with the leading thinkers of the world as to how peace could be maintained in the difficult years of depression and psychological turmoil in Europe. Now Kennedy is trying to persuade the United Nations both to look at the insights of the earlier correspondence and to launch a similar project among today's leading thinkers.

If Moorhead Kennedy's own approach to understanding religion and conflict is any indicator, his institute will avoid one-dimensional religionism. He is searching for that middle ground between underestimating or overestimating religion as a factor in world events.

Underestimation has been a force of aggravation, he -argues, not only in the Iran experience, but also in the assassination of Anwar Sadat.

''You know, after the assassination we heard this tremendous gulp come out of Washington: 'What will we do now? Our peacemaker has been lost.' And yet nobody had really inquired very much why, only six weeks before, Sadat had thrown into the slammer not only the Muslim religious leaders but the Christian leaders because they refused to go to Jerusalem while it was under Israeli occupation. They had dared on the grounds of principle to criticize Sadat's policies. So into the slammer they go. And then he gets assassinated by a religious group.

''Now if our analysis had been correct about the assassination and its relation to peace in the Middle East, we should have been asking - as it was not asked in Washington: Didn't Sadat bring this on himself? How genuinely popular was he in Egypt?

''The press discovered the absence of popularity very quickly, of course, at the funeral. The only ones crying were the Americans.

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