Monday, March 15, 2010

Trita on a Collective Voice for Iranian-Americans

"I was born in Southern Iran. My father was a university professor and twice got in trouble with the Shah's government for making critical comments. He was thrown in jail and tortured. By the time he got out, we realized that it was time for us to leave the country. We left forSweden when I was about four-and-a-half years old, which was months before the revolution. After the Iranian revolution, my Dad was put on a list of people to be executed on the spot should he return because of false accusations made against him. Still, he returned toIran to clear his name. He was put in jail again, but did manage to clear his name. After he was released, he never went back to Iran. Meanwhile, in Sweden, we were all glued to the TV watching the images of the revolution and its aftermath. Those were the first experiences that really shaped me and my brother's personalities, and I suspect that they had  something to do with why we are so passionate about politics. 

"I was days into my Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins when 9/11 happened. At that time, the Iranian-American community was united in its opposition to the attacks, but had not found a way to collectively voice our opposition to the terrorist attacks or to organize politically. Many Iranian-Americans' experiences in politics were rooted in their experiences in Iran, where nothing good came out of speaking up. There was a sense, therefore, that, in America, you should keep your head down, study, and buy a big house and as many BMWs as you could. But if you don't get involved in politics in this country, you do not exist and have no voice or influence. 

"After 9/11, a lot of Iranian-Americans were concerned that their children would go through the same thing they did during the Iran hostage crisis when it was tough to be an Iranian in this country. It was because of all this that we created the National Iranian-American Council. We started by educating the Iranian-American community on how to get involved and be influential. People needed to stop arguing with their TVs and start doing something. As we grew, we became politically involved and started taking positions. The first big was one was standing against war with Iran in 2006. 

"We also work to educate policy makers and the media on Iran. Iran's problem is that it has not been a sufficiently important country to get approval for American universities to get funds to do Persian-language or history courses. One has to couple that with the absence of diplomatic relations and the fact that the Iranians grant something like 300 visas a year to Americans. We live in a country of 300 million.  Thus, knowledge of Iran is at a very low level. To the extent that the knowledge grows, it is usually due to negative developments in Iran because of the Iranian president saying something outrageous about the Holocaust or because of what they are doing with their nuclear program. 

"NIAC works to make sure that the impression of the Iranian-American community is not dependent on news coverage of U.S. views on Iran, which 99 times out of 99 is negative. The Iranian-American community has made significant contributions to this country. Those stories have rarely been told and won't be told until Iranian-Americans tell those stories themselves." 

Trita Parsi is the President of the Washington-based NIAC and the author of Treacherous Alliance - The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States.

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