What We Can Learn From Obama’s Cultural Diplomacy

From proposed religious litmus tests for Muslim immigrants to unrelenting efforts to kill the Iran deal and thwart trade and academic exchange, this election has left many in the Iranian-American community feeling alienated. Rhetoric has only intensified fear of Muslims and immigrants and policymaking has only made escape from the mire of identity politics more inconceivable.

But as much as I’ve felt targeted by political rhetoric these past few months, negative political agendas haven’t always borne this targeting. I think back to President Obama’s annual Iftar dinner to commemorate Eid al-Fitr. He has hosted this dinner every year since he took office eight years ago. This year, in his message to Muslim-Americans at the reception, he expanded upon the contributions of Muslim-Americans throughout the U.S. history, from social justice activism to sports to service in law enforcement and the armed forces.

President Obama has prioritized not only religious outreach, but also cultural, particularly to Iranian Americans. Eight years ago, he expanded the White House tradition of addressing the Iranian-American community on the Persian New Year, otherwise known as Eid Norooz. Former President George H.W. Bush was the first U.S. President to commemorate Norooz. In 1992, he released a short written message, greeting and honoring “Iranian immigrants.”

Bill Clinton would carry on the practice, delivering a videotaped message in 1998, in which he said that he “regrets the estrangement of our two nations.”

In 2002, George W. Bush released a statement thanking millions of Iranian-Americans for “condemning the terrorist acts, participating in rescue efforts at Ground Zero, and offering help and support to the victims, who included individuals of Persian heritage.” In 2008, we even got a glimpse of the State Dining Room, which featured a beautiful Norooz spread, or Haft Sin. Bush also conducted an interview with Voice of America Persian, in which he sent a message to the Iranian regime on nuclear energy research and foreign policy.

Ever since taking office in 2008, President Obama has delivered a heartfelt message on Norooz each year. In 2015, he hosted a Norooz reception for the first time in the White House amidst the nuclear talks, aided by the First Lady. In her remarks, Michelle Obama addressed influential leaders in the Iranian-American community – business owners, artists, academics, and public officials.

Obama’s messages have served as a testament to long-standing traditions in the Iranian culture. He has celebrated the cultural, literary, and achievements of Iranian-Americans – both as a historical civilization and as part of the larger U.S. community today. He has wished Iranians a Happy New Year in Farsi and even quoted renowned Persian poets Hafiz, Saadi, and Behbehani.

As I look back on Obama’s final Nowruz message and traditional feast in the White House, an auspicious sign of inclusivity and unity in the face of divisive rhetoric, I realize that truly “oo ba ma’st,” a play on words which translates to, “He is with us.”

And he always has been with us, with our Iranian-American community and culture, throughout and after negotiations with Iran. He has set an important standard for engagement between the U.S. and Iran, culturally and politically, a standard I hope our next President will follow.

This level of positive, notably apolitical, outreach to Iranian-Americans – and Muslim-Americans as a whole – is unprecedented. As we get ready to elect the next President, amidst calls to ban Muslim immigration to propositions of extra sanctions and even military action against Iran, I hope the President will remember that Iran is more than just a political challenge, but a country with a great history that spawns millennia, rich culture, literature and art and an entire people. And by heeding and celebrating our shared humanity, hopefully we can overcome that political challenge.

Posted By Sarah Sakha

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Sign the Petition

 

7,349 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.

Sincerely,

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