Iran's Peace Museum: the reality vs. the glories of war
The museum aims to insert peace into a culture that glorifies martyrdom.
In the soil of an Islamic state long defined by war and martyrdom, some Iranians are planting a new seed of peace, by opening a museum that showcases the horrors of war.Skip to next paragraph
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In Iran, countless acres are dedicated to cemeteries for soldiers killed in the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. Endless tears of mourning and pride have fallen for loved ones lost in that "sacred defense." And numberless sermons and solemnities have turned martyrdom into the highest form of worship.
Tehran's Peace Museum, dedicated in June and set to open soon, aims to adjust a mindset that has prevailed since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
"The people of Iran always hear about the glories of war, when we were invaded, but they rarely hear of the devastation of war," says Shahriar Khateri, director of the museum. "It's not easy. People charge that you are damaging the morale of those who will stand against the enemy, when they see how bad war can be.
"This is a philosophical challenge, [to show] that this will not frighten people from defending their country, but show the horrible consequences of invading, of using force to solve problems," says Dr. Khateri, one of Iran's top experts on the impact of chemical weapons, who volunteered to fight at age 15. "A few officials still believe that peace is the same as surrender, because we are a country under permanent threat from enemies."
Finding the right balance is not easy in a nation that feels threatened by talk of "regime change" in Washington and the tens of thousands of American troops adjacent to its borders in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in the Persian Gulf.
Hard-line groups take issue with the very idea. But the Peace Museum's volunteers are hardly typical peaceniks. They are former soldiers who have been subjected to Iraqi chemical weapons attack, and many remain as committed as ever to the defense of their homeland.
They are building an interactive museum with workshops for children, students, and the public to learn about the suffering caused by war and chemical weapons. It will include a studio to record oral histories of Iran-Iraq war veterans – modeled on those made by survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bomb – and will exude an energy very unlike the reverential but dusty, glass-encased exhibits of the local Martyr's Museum.
The Peace Museum brought together the voices of Iranian "victims of warfare … to speak of the sinister ills of war," a brochure reads. Giving people details of "its depravity [and] the acute human costs" of war – including graphic images of chemical weapons victims – is "tantamount to educating them for peace."
Once a simple and largely unknown exhibit in the basement of the Society for Chemical Weapons Victims Support (of which Khateri is a director), the museum now has some high political backing. Tehran's Mayor Mohammed Baqr Qalibaf – a former presidential candidate who is positioning himself for a run again in 2009 – spoke last spring at the unveiling of the monument and the building being donated by the city for the museum.
Both occupy prime real estate. The monument, with its sculpture of a white dove mounted on a marble pedestal at the center of Tehran's large City Park, is literally across the street from City Hall, its message written in six languages. The new museum building stands on park grounds 100 yards away, its large new sign evidence of a planned full opening in coming months.