Citizens in Iran are continuing to protest weeks after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in the custody of morality police on September 16. Amini was arrested for not complying with the compulsory head scarf laws. Authorities ruled her death as a “heart attack”, but her family insisted she had no prior health conditions and accused the government of lying. 

Middle East expert, Professor Nader Hashemi talks to AMT about the lessons American Muslims can learn from the protests against Iran’s authoritarian regime and how they can advocate for those with limited freedoms. AMT has also shared Hashemi’s insight on the history of the situation in his OpEd, “How an Iranian Woman’s Death Sparked Revolutionary Feminist Backlash”. 

What role has the U.S. played in creating the situation in Iran and what implications does it have for American Muslims? 

Hashemi: I think one of the lessons that American Muslims should be learning, is the dangers that flow from authoritarian regimes and authoritarian politics. 

One of the consequences that we are seeing in Iran today is that authoritarian regimes that are used for political control, tend to give religion in this case Islam a very bad name, and tend to generate a lot of animus and anger toward Islam among the victims of the authoritarian regime. 

American Muslims need to be aware of how there are deep dangers that events in Iran today can further inflame and enhance Islamophobia in the United States, which is a big problem, particularly among Republicans. 

There is a sort of a narrative that’s out there that, what we’re seeing in Iran today is an embodiment of what Islam allegedly represents. Being able to distinguish between different forms of Islam, ethical Islam, human rights-oriented Islam, and democratic interpretations of Islam, which have been crushed in Iran, versus authoritarian, anti-women and unethical interpretations of Islam, which is the type of Islam that is in power right now, helps navigate these very dangerous political waters related to the relationship between Islam and politics and helps arm American Muslims to push back against anyone who might want to use events in Iran to enhance their Islamophobic agenda.

The last point is that because the United States is a global power, the politics in Iran today have been shaped by very misguided U.S. policies toward the Middle East and Iran in particular, in the past and present. 

U.S. foreign policy in the past has contributed to the crisis of politics and human rights violations in Iran both prior to 1979 when there was a pro-American dictator in power, and after 1979 when US policy toward Iran has been almost exclusively about Iran’s nuclear program, and Iran’s regional interventions. 

It really hasn’t been about what the aspirations and hopes of the Iranian people want for their future and what they want from American foreign policy. 

How can American Muslims use their privilege to help people in countries like Iran?

Hashemi: I think there’s a lot that American Muslim communities can do to help women and men and young people who are struggling for democracy and human rights in Iran today. 

To understand what’s happening in Iran much better, American Muslims should start by talking to organically connected indigenous leaders who have an understanding of what’s happening on the ground. Before you try and help anyone you have to first consult with that person or their community and ask them how can we best help. 

The concerns, frustrations and desires of the Iranian people have been at the bottom of the US foreign policy wish list. When it comes to American policy toward Iran, that has to change for American Muslims because they are American citizens, they have voting rights and they can get involved in political campaigns that play a role in this area. 

I would make the point that what’s happening in Iran today matters for American Muslims because the big picture story that explains what’s happening in Iran today is actually a very similar story that applies to the crisis of states and societies across the Middle East in the Islamic world.

That can be summarized in the following way; you have corrupt, incompetent, and repressive ruling elites that refuse to relinquish power or share power, and you have societies down below that are suffering from expanding poverty and polarization. 

You have a society down below that effectively does not have basic citizenship rights with respect to representation, with respect to a voice, with respect to access to a free press. 

Suggest that these societies that are Muslim-majority are going to eventually experience the exact same type of turmoil and uprising demands for an accountable government that Iranians are demanding today. So in that sense, the story of Iran while it’s unique to Iran at this moment, and it specifically is about the status of women and repression, and how religion has been used to suppress women’s rights, but this story writ large also applies to countries across the Arab and Islamic world. Understanding what’s happening in Iran today does help American listeners better situate themselves to deal with similar situations across the Islamic world.