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.

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.

The museum and monument were inaugurated in June on the 20th anniversary of the Iraqi gassing of Sardasht, in western Iran, which left more than 100 dead, mostly civilians. For Iranians, Sardasht is a symbol of Iraq's extensive use of chemical weapons in the war against Iran, the first use since World War I.

"That terrible suffering gave us a new understanding of the cruelty of war, the terror of weapons of mass destruction, and the importance of peace," the inscription reads. "Until the day when all people on Earth can live in peace, we will continuously send messages of peace to the world…."

Even the opening ceremony broke new ground. "For the first time it was a celebration, instead of mourning; it was a new way of respecting," says Khateri. "There were a new kind of people, children drawing for peace, and no longer Revolutionary Guards shouting 'death to America' and stepping on flags."

Steve Fryburg, director of the Dayton Peace Museum in Ohio, has visited Iran twice to work with the Tehran Peace Museum. "The people of peace around the world, including the Middle East, far outnumber the violent," he says. "Yet it is the violent people and violent news that is given priority in media coverage. This only distorts people's perceptions of other countries and cultures, increases fear, and reduces the chances for peace."

"At such a critical time in our relations with Iran, it is very important for people not to get a distorted view about Iran and its people," says Mr. Fryburg. "And with the rhetoric from Washington always concentrating on the Axis of Evil line, [there should be focus] on some of the positive things that are happening in the Middle East and in Iran."

The idea for the museum emerged in 2005, when Khateri was in Ypres, Belgium, at a conference marking the 90th anniversary of the first modern use of chemical weapons. He met the coordinator of the global peace museum network, who gave strong encouragement.

While many nations honor sacrifices made in war – Arlington National Cemetery is but one example in the West – many issues of setting up a peace museum here are specific to Iran. For Khateri, it had to start with his own epiphany more than a decade ago, when he was part of a group collecting remains of soldiers from mine-laced front lines near Iraq.

"Dozens of my close friends were killed in the war and hundreds were wounded, so I really respect their cause," says Khateri, who fought for three years. "[I]t was very important for me to discover the roots of the Iran-Iraq war. Why was my older brother killed? Why was my city Kermanshah almost destroyed by Iraqi missiles?"

During the war, Iranians were told that they were soldiers of God, fighting Iraqi infidels. Copies of the Koran found in captured trenches had been planted, Khateri recalls being told, to give the impression that Iraqis were believers.

In fact, the Sunni Arab Iraqis were believers. And when Khateri's group returned remains of Iraqi soldiers to their families at the border, there were other unexpected similarities that made his heart turn against war and toward peace.

"They call them 'family of martyrs,' just as we do," says Khateri. "It was really shocking psychologically to see those mothers, just like Iranian mothers, crying with photos in their hands, candles, and Korans."

Deep respect now drives his effort with the museum, despite right-wing critics. "I am happy with the ideological challenge, because it is a sign of growing democracy," says Khateri. "We have a chance to challenge officials on what was a red line."

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