From my upcoming book Peace With Islam:
America Meets Radical Islam, Our New National Enemy –
My first encounter with Islam was America’s introduction to Islam during the 444 day hostage crisis that began in 1979 when Jimmy Carter was president. Iranian students in Iran’s capital Tehran took over the American Embassy, held 52 employees hostage, and demanded the extradition of the Shah of Iran who was in the States for cancer treatment. The Shaw of Iran was who the United States had installed as their dictator after our CIA invaded Iran and got rid of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953. Though the Shaw had looked promising as a friend of the US and British oil interests in his country compared to a dreaded Socialist like Mosaddegh, he turned out to be just another ruthless thug. The Iranians removed him from power in 1979. He sought safe haven and medical treatment in the US and the Iranians wanted him back in Iran to be tried for crimes he committed while in office.
During that time in the spring of 1980 while our embassy in Tehran was still under siege I was a student with Pacific Lutheran University’s Study Abroad program in London, where another hostage crisis was unfolding at the Iranian Embassy near Hyde Park. It wasn’t retaliation on our behalf by our allies across the Pond, it was another group of Iranians who abducted 26 Iranian and British embassy employees to put pressure on Iran’s new ruthless thug-in-charge, the Ayatollah Khomeini, to release 91 political dissidents he was holding as prisoners.
On May 1, the second day of the six day embassy takeover in Central London, I went down to Knightsbridge to see if I could catch some of the action. The police had cordoned off everything within 200 yards of the embassy making it impossible to see anything without binoculars and aerial lifts like the news companies were using to look over the trees in the park and get some news footage. One daring news network was able to infiltrate the security perimeter and set up a camera with an unobstructed view close enough to the embassy to give the world a front row seat.
The crack counter-terrorism force of the British SAS was busy at work in the offices next to the embassy drilling holes through the two and a half feet thick stone wall separating the embassy from the unit next door in order to place microphones to get a better idea of what was going on inside. To isolate the hostage takers they cut the telephone lines and communicated with them through a telephone that kept listening to them even after it was hung up. In the units adjoining the embassy were SAS teams ready to react in a moment should the hostage takers start shooting hostages. While negotiators worked on settling the issue without a loss of life, the SAS built scale models of the embassy for planning a coordinated rescue attempt.
In Hyde Park a group of Iranian students had gathered on the lawn in support of the goals of the hostage takers who were members of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) which had been in exile in Iraq since the overthrow of the Shah by the Ayatollah Khomeini a year earlier. Not knowing what I was getting myself into I decided to join the students to strike up a conversation and find out more about what was going on, from their perspective. I was aware of the anti-American sentiment among Iranians but was willing to risk verbal abuse for the sake of an education in history, political science, and religion. It was much more interesting this way than sitting in a classroom listening to boring lectures after all. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hear it from the horse’s mouth. If the Iranian students wanted to educate a typical American who was ignorant about what went on outside of his country this would be their chance.
Adding to my trepidation was the fact these were probably Muslims and I was a Christian, a rather outspoken one at that. I was the kind of guy who would spend a Spring Break in San Francisco not seeing the sights but allowing myself to be invited to a ministry center run by followers of the Reverend Sun Yung Moon (Moonies, as we called this cult) to debate theology and try to corner their new recruits when nobody was watching to talk them out of staying with the cult. To me that was more fun than fish and chips on the boardwalk. Even that day, on the way to the Iranian Embassy in London I popped into a Mormon church and watched their movie about Joseph Smith’s first vision, afterward telling the nice lady there I thought Joseph Smith’s vision wasn’t from God but from the Devil. She thought I would make a great Mormon since I was such a sincere fellow.
Who knows what I might say and how they might react if I mixed it up with these Muslims in Hyde Park. From what I understood about Muslims they might not be as nice as Mormons.
Iran’s new leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, had become the face of Islam for the West. He was infamous for his support of the hostage takers during the Iran hostage crisis, his later fatwa calling for the assassination of British novelist Salman Rushdie, and for referring to the United States in his venomous speeches as the “Great Satan”. I didn’t know if this vitriol spilled over to these protesters but seeing they were fellow students I thought I had a chance of avoiding a shout fest and engaging in a “scholarly discussion.” They were, after all, students, and they weren’t waving signs and chanting slogans. They looked more like they were just out to enjoy a lovely May Day picnic in one of Europe’s premier parks.
Thankfully I found out they were actually against their new Muslim cleric/statesman the Ayatollah Khomeini for his human rights abuses and preferred a secular government instead. Bonus points for students getting past rhetoric and having their eyes open, I thought. We had a nice discussion as the Iranian students were glad to see someone from America care enough to ask them what they thought about it all.
Though these students were on the opposite side of Iran’s political divisions than those embarrassing the United States government by holding the hostages in Tehran, they had one thing in common: both groups were against the policies of the West in general and the imperialist United States policies in particular.
Here was a valuable lesson that would have served me well in the coming years, had I not forgotten it: American foreign policy was an issue. How we treated the Muslim world had more to do with their response to America than their religion did. According to a lot of Muslims, politics has everything to do with it and religion has nothing to do with it.
Coincidentally I had just begun that day to keep a journal of my time in Europe. After having been in England for several months, my life’s first journal entry was from that day, May 1, 1980:
Stopped by [Knightsbridge] on the way home to see what was going on around the Iranian Embassy where anti- Khomeini Iranians were holding 3 hostages. The Iranians seem to be a bit revolution-happy. Some pro-Ayatollah Khomeini, anti-Imperialists are holding 50 Americans hostage in Tehran, and some anti- Khomeini, anti-Imperialists are holding 3 people hostage in London. After talking with a couple Iranian students at [Knightsbridge] I must admit they have a right to be PO’d at Carter and the American Gov. But I’m not so sure holding hostages is a just way to approach things, although they do say they do not intend to harm the hostages.
Four days later one of the Iranian hostages was shot and his dead body pushed out the front door. So much for a peaceful demonstration. The SAS team went into action and another hostage was shot during the ensuing rescue siege. All but one of the hostage takers was killed during the rescue. The one that wasn’t killed was the one who was captured as he tried to take advantage of the chaos and mix in with the hostages being escorted out of the building but was identified by one of the hostages. All of the hostages made it out alive except for one who was shot by the Iranians during the siege and the one shot and pushed out the front door. The success of the operation, combined with the high profile it was given by the media, invoked a sense of national pride in England comparable to Victory in Europe Day, the end of the Second World War in Europe. It strengthened the Conservative government of the day and gave a big boost to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s personal credibility.
That rescue in London went considerably better than the American attempts to rescue the American hostages in Tehran. Just two weeks earlier the US Navy had launched a rescue attempt from two aircraft carriers that ended in an aborted mission with the collision of two aircraft and the death of eight servicemen and one Iranian civilian in a sandstorm at a refueling point in the Iranian desert. For President Carter it was a huge blow to his political popularity and prospects for being re-elected in 1980, especially after a television address on April 25 in which he explained the rescue operation and accepted responsibility for its failure.
I left Hyde Park with the same feeling I had about the Middle East that many Americans have: it’s complicated. I’ll probably never get it figured out. But then, I didn’t go to London to solve all of the world’s problems, I went for the adventure of seeing new lands. I did learn a few things that afternoon I probably would not have learned in a college classroom, but they were soon forgotten in all of the activity to finish up papers and study for finals, and plan for my upcoming hitch-hiking trip through the Continent after finals.
I didn’t take notes on what exactly I learned from the Iranian students that day and it was 36 years ago so I don’t recall but having learned some history in the meantime I can guess that it had to do with what the US started doing to their country in 1953, and what the British had already been doing for a long time before that.
Most Americans have never known. Most Iranians will never forget. I’ll get more into it later.
Up until the Iran Hostage Crisis the enemy of our country had been Communism, an ideology that was fairly easy to understand. Communists ruled the Soviet Union, China, and a few small countries, and seemed intent on spreading to other countries, either through indoctrination or by force.
Pretty simple stuff.
Naturally, the Soviet Union was demonized as the Evil Empire, and not without good reason. In one of my letters home to Mom and Dad I told them one of my options for traveling after the Study Abroad program was over would include a trip into the Soviet Union. That of course elicited a fearful response from my Mom who was normally not one to worry about her son’s adventures. As it turned out I discovered the Magic Bus, a hippy run outfit that could get me all the way to sunny Greece for 80 bucks where I could hitch-hike back through Italy, joining the numerous hippies and students in the ultimate in low-budget travel. The Evil Empire would have to wait.
The Red Scare had been all consuming, but was about to crumble with the demise of the Berlin Wall under President Reagan who was elected that year. The Iran Hostage Crisis introduced our country to our up-and-coming National Enemy that would eventually replace Communism. Up until this time all of the collisions between Islam and the West had been minor and more curious than problematic for our large country that had had bigger fish to fry with the Viet Nam War and the stream of soldiers returning home in boxes.
When a country is introduced to the other major world religion through a humiliating event lasting 444 days that does much to make our president’s reign a one-term affair, and when we have what appears to be a rabid cleric as Islam’s spokesman to the West, it’s easy to see how a national narrative can begin to develop that makes use of what’s easy to explain in one sentence, such as: nominal Muslims don’t do bad things – devoted Muslims, those most committed to obeying their Quran, are the ones who take over embassies and are willing to risk their lives and kill others for a cause they believe in. They are the ones who hate the West and burn American flags. This of course must be what their sacred text tells them to do and is the example left by the founder of their religion, Mohammad.
Or so I thought.
History for the next two decades would be punctuated by a few more run-ins with Radical Islam but with the exception of the car bomb in the parking garage of the World Trade Center in 1993 they were not on American soil. They were mostly in the Middle East and Europe aimed at US military personnel and could be easily chalked up as the perils of having a global military presence. During this time they averaged one attack per year coming from a variety of radical jihadists that included the Libyan government under Muammar Gaddafi, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Shiites, a militant sheik, two attacks from al-Qaeda operatives, and others.
In our recent past as a nation our struggles had been with secular forces such as the Nazis, the Japanese government, and an anti-religion social ideology that began with Karl Marx. Our new National Enemy was a bit harder to define. It included religious leaders of Islam such as the Ayatollah Khomeini and some lesser known clerics. Also included were the political leaders of Muslim nations such as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, yet other leaders of Muslim countries were our best friends, including those of Saudi Arabia which seemed to epitomize Islam with its burka-clad women and being host to the world’s Muslims making their pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest sites.
You couldn’t hand out religious tracts on the streets of Riyadh – I heard you could get shot on the spot for that – but if you were an American you were welcomed with open arms to work and do business there, as long as you behaved yourself. My dad, who had been the hospital administrator in my home-town, was hoping to get a job with a British hospital administration company looking to win a contract in Riyadh. Had he gotten the job my mom was reluctant to invite me to join them for fear I would get myself into trouble trying to spread my Christian religion. These Muslims took a dim view of Christians like me and Mom didn’t want to spend her time trying to get me out of jail. Or the morgue.
Though it was difficult putting a finger on just who this new enemy was, that didn’t prevent us Americans from trying to make sense of it in simplistic terms. As Islamic terrorism became more ubiquitous a common way to sum it up was to say, “Not all Muslims are terrorists – but all terrorists are Muslims.” Though that statement is not historically accurate – every religion and most every ideology has produced terrorists given the right political conditions, such as Protestant and Catholic terrorists in Ireland – it did express what everyone was thinking, that Islam sure produces a lot of terrorists, and seemed to imply what we began to suspect, that Islam taught evil, and the terrorists and rabid clerics were the ones who put their religion into action while the average Joe Muslim next door still had a conscience to keep him from going all the way with his religion.
From 1980 until 2008 the United States was involved in nine major military actions against the Muslim world and has overthrown governments in the region and sustained or installed new dictatorial regimes with regularity. Most Americans are unaware of what we do overseas, so it’s out of sight, out of mind. For those who are aware, it’s no big deal since it doesn’t affect us personally. For those living in those countries, on the other hand, it’s a life and death issue that can’t be ignored.
After two decades of minor run-ins with Radical Islam came 9/11. Our country was hit, and jarred, like it had been only at Pearl Harbor.