On meeting with the ‘enemy’

Op-Ed by Pat Hostetter Martin

I met with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, last Wednesday (Sept. 26) in New York City.
Why would I be part of ongoing efforts at “dialogue” with people and institutions that some Americans view as the “enemy”? The branch of Christianity in which I am rooted, Anabaptist-Mennonite, holds that Jesus calls us to offer love and hospitality even to one’s enemy. Further, the professors of conflict studies at my university hold that one must move toward conflict, dealing with it open-heartedly, rather than trying to suppress or skirt conflict.

This is why I was one of about 120 people from a dozen religious groups and institutions who met with President Ahmadinejad. Requested by Iranian officials, the meeting was organized by the relief and service agencies of the Mennonites and Quakers, but included Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, Christian university leaders and others.

During the two-hour session, President Ahmadinejad addressed the audience for 20 minutes. Then five panel members, selected for their range of perspectives, responded to his speech and asked their own questions. The dialogue covered the differences many of us have with Ahmadinejad, but it was conducted with respect and civility on all sides.

Last February, I visited Iran for two weeks as part of a delegation of “civilian diplomats” sponsored by the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I discovered in meeting with Iranians from many walks of life that their president is not particularly popular. Many Iranians openly and freely criticize him for his more outlandish views, such as his public denial of the full reality of the Holocaust. But they explain he was elected, and they expect he will be voted out of office given his declining standing in polls.

Iranians we met were quick to point out things they liked and disliked about the policies of the United States, and I welcomed hearing both. Yet in my experience and those of others who have visited Iran recently (including theologians from my university who, by invitation, have given explicitly Christian talks at Islamic institutions), the average Iranian extends warm hospitality to American visitors, regardless of their level of disagreement with our nation’s policies.

I would like us to do the same. To extend hospitality. To be open to dialogue, which means politely listening as well as frankly speaking in a civil manner.

I often disagree with positions that President Bush takes, but I would never presume to change his views and behavior through refusing to speak to him or insulting him.

Instead of fanning the flames of hatred, our security may be served better by not adding fuel to the fire.

This article appears on the op-ed page of the Oct. 2 Times-Dispatch. Pat Hostetter Martin holds a masters degree in conflict transformation from Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg and is director of its 13-year-old Summer Peacebuilding Institute.


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