Short answer: Just tell them that a few decades and a few men can’t represent 14 centuries of vastly diverse religious, cultural, and intellectual output. There isn’t one “Islam” that can be an object of hate. If you want to hate a regime, ok, but something as diverse and loose as an entire religion, that really doesn’t make sense (unless you are a bigot.)
Long answer: I think people in general tend to have very antiquated views on religion and its place in society. Whether we like it or not, the phenomenon of religion (however you may understand it) has always existed and will continue to exist. Even things which people consider “not religion” take on the structure of the dominant religions of their environment, like the New Atheism and popular science (especially in as much as they too, like many religions, rely on submitting to an ‘expert.’)
Anyways I think the main points anyone should make is:
1) It is problematic to look at 1400+ years of history through the lens of post-1979 Iran (whose story is still being written.) Furthermore, the Islam of an “Islamic state” is a very new phenomena, incredibly new actually given that its very existence relies on modern technology within the model of the “state,” a term that from its inception has come with its own theology of sorts. There is a lot to this but I really don’t have time to get into it. Also, the ascendancy of the legal scholars (the mullahs) as opposed to other forms of religious authority probably only dates back to a century or two ago.
2) When we speak about religions as unified wholes “(Christianity” or “Islam,”) we are not speaking about something that is real, but rather an abstraction that helps us talk about something.
3) There are as many different “Islams” as there are individuals. There is no singular group called “Muslims” that thinks and acts the same way.
4) Most of the things people complain today are almost always things that people in the past have complained about. The only difference would be that people in the past usually blamed specific people or movements while people today blame the aforementioned abstractions. This happens with other things too, for instance someone asks, “Why is there such oppression in such and such a place?” Then some talking head throws out a bunch of words either blaming “capitalism” or “socialism” or “racism” etc. etc.
5) Another major problem is that Iranians don’t have access to new research and are often far behind the cutting edge in history and other fields. They still read translated Orientalist fables about the conquest and conversion of Iran via modern nationalistic notions of what an “Iranian” is and what an “Arab” is, none of which hold historically. Iran (the classical area, not the modern nation state) has a lot of history and all of it is fascinating. But as a rule, mistrust anyone that paints ANY time in history as being “golden” or some utopian paradise. That has NEVER been the case. People, whether Muslim or not, have tended to be for the most part pretty crappy, with occasional exceptions. That doesn’t make the history any less interesting. The transition from Sasanian Iran to Islamic Iran is really fascinating, and full of more continuities than it is of ruptures. And things never remained the same, things always changed. We forget this about the past. Sadly, even in America, the state of Iranian studies is pretty sad, and the few people who try to save it from second-rate nationalist scholarship tend to face vehement criticism. It is difficult for those of us who are devoted to other studies to not feel a pull to enter into the arena and try to help the situation.
The Persian-speaking individuals in the past who left timeless legacies didn’t do it through priding themselves on their ancestors, they did it by being fully human. “Religion,” in the academic sense, is a human phenomenon, it is something we humans do. Even in the absence of a divine source, humans ritualize their actions and create elaborate cosmologies to live. We idolize even if the idols are not sacred. We turn men into saints even if we reject higher powers. Have you seen how people speak about Edison or Einstein? Or, on a more depressing note, have you seen how some kids talk about Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber?
I’m sorry this is way too long. I really don’t think we need to defend anything, certainly not Islam. You can’t erase Islam from Iran’s past just like you can’t erase Zoroastrianism, Mazdakism (though this almost happened,) Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and a billion other things. So much of what people love about our cultures (because there are many Persian and Persianate cultures) comes from the Muslim period. It is stupid to let a few decades change that.
Also, in general, we need to start having people think of history on the global level, not the specific regional or national level. It’ll help put things in perspective. We also need to use these terms in a more sophisticated way. “Islam” doesn’t say or do anything, people do, in their own place and time.
Rant over. If you have more questions, send them and I’ll get to them eventually. Gotta do some work.
(PS I don’t respond to reblogs. If you have a comment you want me to respond to, send it to my inbox.)