On Streets of Tehran, Family Values, Not Rancorous Rhetoric

While Iran's government aids terrorists, the people welcome Americans, wear few veils, and tell mosques to 'turn it down'

Public displays of affection are rare in the Islamic world, but in Iran I came across them again and again.

Never mind the tough propaganda painted on billboards across the Islamic republic, which depicts turbaned ayatollahs leading Muslim shock troops in a holy war against Iran's many enemies; forget the dark image of bearded warriors ready to shed their blood for martyrdom.

Look instead to the sidewalks of Tehran, where many times I caught young fathers cuddling their small children, kissing them affectionately; loving them.

These are men who, with their Iranian passports, would be stopped at most airports in the West, interrogated at length, and considered potential terrorists.

But open affection for their children contradicts the notion that every Iranian is a suicide bomber ready to die for Allah - and underscores the contrast between myth and reality in the West and Iran.

"You have the holy job to explain the reality of Iran to your people," an American-educated government official told me. "You must tell them: Yes, they have beards, and they believe in Islam - but they are not terrorists.

"They are humans and have families and farms - just a different culture," he continued.

Since the Islamic revolution of 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led the ousting of the pro-Western Shah, Iran has been fiercely anti-American, anti-Israeli, and its leaders have made the export of their militant brand of Shia Islam an article of faith.

History of terror

Iran ranks high on the US State Department's list of states that sponsor terrorism, and US officials see Iran's hand in a long string of lethal, anti-West attacks that began with taking 52 Americans hostage in Tehran in 1979.

Iran-backed Islamic groups in Lebanon took US and other Westerners hostage in the late 1980s; Iran is believed to have been involved in numerous suicide-bomb attacks against Western targets that span two decades; and Iranian dissidents have been gunned down in Europe.

But the violence - and the mutual suspicions that have festered between the West and Iran - have led to deep misunderstandings, Iranians say.

"The problem is that the American people, they don't know us ... so they are scared," said the government official. "The common people have a good heart, but they don't know anything except what the TV tells them - and that is wrong."

Few Americans are allowed into Iran, and the reaction when an Iranian sees an American is first surprise, then often: "Good, America good."

Mullahs' grip not so tight

The widespread belief that Iran is run more strictly than, say, the hard-line conservative Kingdom of Saudi Arabia - a staunch American ally - is also mistaken.

Iranian women must cover their hair and bodies with black chadors. But unlike in Saudi Arabia, they may drive and often have high-level educations and professional jobs. Very few wear the face-covering veil, which is mandatory in Saudi life.

Another indication of the selective power of the ruling mullahs is the call to prayer. Throughout the Islamic world, speakers hung from minarets blast the call to prayer five times a day. But here Iranians complained to the spiritual leaders that the early morning "noise was bothering them." Now few mosques broadcast the pre-dawn call, and the volume has been turned down countrywide.

For the sophisticated, Western-educated Iranians who remained through the revolution, daily life can be tough, although one woman who lived in Europe said exile was far worse.

"The reaction to Iranians is too strong; there is always suspicion," she said. "They think we are all terrorists, and some people have done criminal things. Here I have a good life - a car, a house - but I also have to be as [the Islamists] want me to be."

Indeed, even those familiar with Iran often fall prey to stereotypes. One Iranian-American, who has lived in southern California for eight years, returned last week to his homeland with trepidation.

But what he discovered confounded him: "I thought they might cut my head off," said the university student.

What will he report to the rest of his family? "I will tell them that things have changed," he said, "and that we must change our attitudes accordingly."

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