Bridging the Gaps: The Ayatollah’s Letter

3 years ago ccwa 0

25946-tw51naOn January 21, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran posted an open letter to the Youth of America on his website. The letter was announced on his Twitter under the hashtag #letter4u, which – not surprisingly – didn’t seem to trend among America’s youth.

The letter is written as a response to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and the outburst of prejudice against Muslims that followed. The Ayatollah neither denounces nor defends the terrorists’ actions. Honestly, he hardly talks about the attacks at all.

Khamenei spends a good portion of the letter explaining why he’s reaching out to “the youth of Europe and North America,” and why he’s not writing to our parents or leaders. He wants to talk Western youth about Islam. He appeals to our young intellects and idealism.

“I am addressing you, [the youth], not because I overlook your parents, rather it is because the future of your nations and countries will be in your hands; and also I find that the sense of quest for truth is more vigorous and attentive in your hearts.”

He makes it clear that this isn’t really about the government or its actions. The Ayatollah, Supreme Leader of Iran, wants a paradigmatic shift in Western culture.

In the first half he quickly recapitulates American history, criticizing any view of the United States as a nation of liberty and tolerance. He draws a comparison between the “the oppression of people of color and non-Christians” and how Americans treat Muslims today, and with that, in as many words, declares American hypocrisy. He calls on the youth to apply the same conscience we use to condemn actions of our past to the actions of our present.

The letter is very abstract. It doesn’t really point to any specific events involving Muslims in America, but rather speaks generally to the growing Islamophobia and prejudice experienced by many Muslims in the United States. Khamenei doesn’t like how Islam is depicted in mainstream media – a depiction which might explain why the #letter4u was hardly picked up by major networks.

Who is making the “attempts to prevent public awareness” of Islam? Who are the “oppressive profiteers” that “spread hatred and illusionary fear of the ‘other’”? Who controls the “distorted image of Islam,” and who hides in its “shadow”? Who is it, then, who controls the “flood of prejudice and disinformation campaigns”? In maintaining abstraction, Khamenei doesn’t answer these pointed questions or directly blame the media or Western leaders, but rather implies the culpability of both.

Arguably the most important paragraph of the #letter4u reads: “I don’t insist that you accept my reading or any other reading of Islam. What I want to say is: Don’t allow this dynamic and effective reality in today’s world to be introduced to you through resentments and prejudices. Don’t allow them to hypocritically introduce their own recruited terrorists as representatives of Islam.”

While the Ayatollah doesn’t condemn the actions of Muslim extremists, he draws a definitive line. He acknowledges the many factions of Islam, the diversity of the religion, and he contends that Islamists’ actions do not represent the whole of the faith. He harshly asserts that the media, via “[its] own recruited terrorists,” limits its representation of Islam to the acts of extremists. While exploiting the evils of Islamic terrorism, Western news media derives a narrative that narrows our scope of understanding Islam.

In addition to posting the letter on his website and tweeting excerpts, both Twitter (@letter4_u) and Instagram (@letter4u2015) accounts have been created. Unsurprisingly, an unpopular Muslim leader’s attempt to influence young people hasn’t gained much traction. The twitter has a mere 70 followers. The Instagram account boasts 1,300 followers, many of whom appear to be Iranian.

Many will undoubtedly see this letter as an uncalled-for affront to Western culture, or as an attempt to incite American and European youth to rise up and join the ranks of Islamists across the globe. But it’s not.

Regardless of his criticisms of history, the attacks on American culture, and complete disregard for leaders and older generations, the Ayatollah isn’t completely wrong. Young people are influenced more by what we hear from friends, parents, and CNN alerts than what’s in textbooks. And what we read in textbooks about Islam doesn’t do much for the world’s fastest growing religion either.

The response to the letter – or lack thereof – reflects the American impulse to mistrust and ignore Muslims’ outreach. He speaks poetically of “a bridge of thought and fairness” constructed over the “created gaps.” Assuming his call will be heard, he incites the youth of Europe and North America to utilize this newly gained, unbiased understanding of Islam to “write the history of this current interaction between Islam and the West with a clearer conscience and lesser resentment.”

As the Western world still grieves, reeling from the Charlie Hebdo attacks, many may view Khamenei’s response as arrogant and insensitive. His hopefulness and prose seem disingenuous and strange. Nonetheless, with recent shifts in US-Iran relations and the directness of the tone, the audacity of penning this note seems permissible.


by Natalie Davis