When American sailors rescued Iranian fisherman from their Somali pirate captors, they were greeted not only with relief and joy, but as those sent by God in answer to the captives prayers.“’It is like you were sent by God,’ said one of the rescued fishermen, Fazel Ur Rehman, 28,’ said, as reported by the New York Times. This is a striking response for many reasons, not least among them that these were U.S. personnel from the same naval strike group which had been threatened by the Iranian navy just days before.
With tension mounting between the two nations, is it surprising that these fisherman would welcome their rescuers, given how much ink is spilled and air time spent reviling the United States in their home country? I don’t think so, and for two reason, both of which should factor into our thinking about how best to deal with Iran.
First, personal encounters in which people are well-served by those about whom they would otherwise be genuinely suspicious can open hearts and change minds. Give someone a chance to feel grateful, even to someone they would not otherwise embrace, and it’s amazing how often their gratitude will trump their politics.
Second, despite the public harangues of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there is no significant evidence of broad-based hatred of America by Iranians. I would not suggest that there is great love either, but to equate the emotions and intentions of the leadership of a less than democratic state with the will of the people is to give a non-democracy more credit than it deserves.
On the American side, the story here, and one that is especially important to be reminded of as news of the apparent desecration of Taliban dead by a small group of United States Marines is in the news, is that U.S. military policy takes humanitarian obligation very seriously, even to those who we consider enemies or potential enemies. The sailors who boarded that Iranian boat, and all those who up the chain of command which led to that happening honor that tradition and give us reason to be very proud.
Finally, it’s always important to pay close attention to when and how people invoke the concept of divine intervention --in this case, the Iranians were praying for rescue and saw the hand of God in the work of the United States Navy. Did God also send the Somali Pirates? After all, if there is one God, as these Muslims surely believe, then that God is responsible for both the things we like and the things we don’t, right?
Would they see the hand of God in a U.S. act against the Iranian navy? Would they see U.S. victory as a sign that they have lost favor in God’s eyes, perhaps even being punished for past bad acts? In no way am I suggesting that those encounters should or would occur.
I am suggesting however that invoking God is serious business and that if we do so only when we get what we want, we really aren’t invoking God at all - we are simply patting ourselves on the back and insisting that it’s God who is doing the patting.