by Muhammad Fraser-Rahim
As Iran continues to emerge from the shadows as a result of the recent nuclear deal that lifted sanctions and provided access to tens of billions of dollars of investment and consumer goods, a quiet and steady “urban” foreign policy effort has been taking place between Iran and communities in the U.S. For three years now, Iran has been hosting an annual “New Horizons conference,” which it established to address emerging global concerns. Most recently in October 2015, the conference focused on race relations and police brutality cases in the U.S.
The October conference convened over 20 American activists, scholars, and intellectuals to address the issue of police brutality in the U.S. The timing was not accidental. In 2013, the BlackLivesMatter movement began as a local response to the growing trend of police aggression in major urban areas in the U.S., sparked in part by the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida. A number of social movements, nation-states, and in some cases extremist organizations have sought to capitalize on this social critique movement to recuit sympathizers to their causes.
Those in attendance in Tehran were members of the Nation of Islam, prominent activists on race relations, and notable poet and Harvard University fellow, Amir Sulaiman. In addition, scholars and intellectuals from the larger developing world who have sought to internationalize the plight of the victms of police brutality and the conditions of violence in the U.S were also in attendance. In preparing to attend the conference, Melissa Dargan—the mother of Kwanza Jamal Beatty, 23, who was shot dead in Newport News, Virginia in July 2015—told The Telegraph in England, “I’m interested in coming to the conference. I want to bring awareness. It’s just to bring awareness to the world about what’s going on in America. This is an epidemic and cops are not getting prosecuted.”
By organizing this conference and other upcoming events, the Iranian government has attempted to place itself front and center on current domestic policy concerns facing largely urban communities in the U.S. Tehran wants to use these conferences, according to the organizers, as a means to create “a relationship based on culture, diplomacy and revolution.”
It’s not yet clear what this public outreach to address social, political and economic issues within marginalized communities will produce. But the efforts by the Iranian government to engage with communities of color in the U.S. isn’t new.
Iran’s Engagement within African Americans
During the Iranian hostage crisis that began on November 4, 1979 between Iran and the United States, hostage takers declared a unified stance with “oppressed minorities” including African Americans. They immediately released all African American and female hostages in an attempt to use internal U.S. race relations as a wedge issue and help the new Iranian government connect with minority communities globally.
In 1984, the Iranian government issued a postage stamp of El Hajj Malik Shabazz (Malcolm X) in a sign of solidarity with the universal day of struggle against racism and discrimination.
And, most recently Ayatollah Khamenei, the second and current Supreme Leader of Iran provided a number of social media messages including tweets for “oppressed minorities,” including high profile messages of support for Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. In tweets this year, Khamenei also expressed his solidarity with protesters in New York, Baltimore, and Missouri, using the hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter on his official account:
It’s ridiculous that even though US President is black, still such crimes against US blacks continue to occur. #BlackLivesMatter
Jesus endured sufferings to oppose tyrants who had put humans in hell in this world & the hereafter while he backed the oppressed. #Ferguson
Black Shia in America
The vast majority of Black American Muslim communities in the U.S. align themselves with the Sunni tradition or indigenous Black American movements such as the Nation of Islam and the Moorish Science Temple. Still, there is a small but nascent Shia community emerging in America.
According to historical records, the modern-day Shia community in America emerges in the early 20th century when predominately Lebanese Shia migrated to the U.S. They brought their diverse ethnic and cultural experiences to where they settled, in Midwestern cities like Detroit and Chicago. Black Americans’ path to Shia Islam took mainly three forms: individuals who initially converted to Sunnism via mainstream Sunni groups, proto-Islamic movements like the Nation of Islam, and the plethora of Sufi groups in America with Shia proclivities.
It is hard to discern the direct aim of Iran’s interest in engaging with Black American communities. Tehran might intend to counter Saudi-backed religious and ideological influence or it might sincerely want to aid communities of color in the U.S. who are affected by a spectrum of challenges. In any case, engaging with the larger Black American community, whether Muslim or not, offers an opportunity to counter some of the historical tensions between the U.S. and Iran through the alternative dimension of public diplomacy. As Ralph Bunche, the black American diplomat and 1950 Nobel Peace Prize winner for his 1940s mediation on Israel, argued:
Carefully chosen Negroes could prove more effective than whites [in diplomacy to the “dark world”], owing to their unique ability to gain more readily the confidence of the Native on the basis of their right to claim a good relationship.
Only time will tell whether any of the public overtures made by Iran in an effort to connect with African Americans will actually resonate. However, the desire to address the grievances of a large segment of the US population represents an important feature of Iran’s foreign policy.
Muhammad Fraser-Rahim is a specialist on African, Middle Eastern and Islamic History. He is a Ph.D. candidate at Howard University focusing on Islamic thought, spirituality and modernity.