THE BLOG

Crossing the Axis of Evil

06/14/2014 03:11 pm ET | Updated Aug 15, 2014

I officially crossed from the neutral zone into the Axis of Evil when I walked up to an Iranian passport official in the Tehran airport on May 26, 2014. He asked where I was from and I meekly replied, "USA." When he asked what brought me to Iran, I told him that I had come to speak at a philosophy conference and to deliver some public lectures. He asked if I knew a professor-friend of his in the U.S. and then asked if I'd send his friend an email. Finally, and with very little trouble, he stamped my passport and said with a smile, "Welcome to Iran."

Strangers repeatedly asked me where I was from and, upon answering, repeatedly greeted me with, "Welcome," with a smile (a warm, friendly and inviting smile, not a menacing one). I was welcomed by strangers, students, faculty, clergy, and children. I was welcomed into universities, seminaries, mosques and private homes. We shared ideas and home-cooked meals.

People confided in me their the hopes and fears. Although we seldom talked politics, few seemed happy with the current state of their Islamic "republic," and yet everyone was hopeful that President Hassan Rouhani was opening doors to the West.

The evident warmth and cooperation among the Iranian and Western participants made me wonder: Are we two great peoples separated by two stubborn and ideological governments?

Make no mistake: Carved over centuries out of sand and mountains, Iran is a great nation. Despite the crippling effects of the U.S. boycott, Iran is relatively prosperous and stable. Iranian scholars, those with whom I had the most contact, are extremely capable and well-read. Torn between tradition and innovation, and constrained by Islamic authority, they are doing their best under non-optimal intellectual circumstances.

I wanted to apologize to my new Iranian friends. In 1953, a U.S.-led coup overthrew the democratically elected Prime Minister, returning to power the absolute monarchy of the Shah (Persian for "king"). Our motivation: the control of profits from Iran's recently nationalized oil industry. No big surprise there. The Islamic revolution of 1979 was a patriotic movement against the excesses of the increasingly despotic king (which, recall, we installed after undermining Iran's democracy). Helps to understand some of the anti-Western sentiment in the early days of the Islamic republic.

Before the next round of U.S. negotiations with Iran, why doesn't the U.S. apologize for its unjust 1953 actions? Let's start there. We pat ourselves on the back for spreading the light of liberty. Shouldn't we likewise accept responsibility when we've extinguished it? Wouldn't it be good if we were able, as a nation, to admit that we are sometimes motivated by greed and power, not always by the sweet sentiment of freedom? Conceding our complicity in hurting the Iranian people seems like a good place to start in moving towards a mutually acceptable peace. Probably a better strategy than calling them "evil" (with the unspoken corollary that we are good).

Except for a photo taken next to the antiquated "Down With the USA" sign outside the former U.S. embassy, I never sensed any anti-Western animosity (again, which would have been historically merited).

In Iran, I was able to walk where I wanted, speak with whom I wanted, and say what I wanted. Disagreement was sometimes sharp, yet always without acrimony. We looked for common ground but without loss of our deepest commitments. And we worked hard to respect and understand one another when our commitments clashed. Honor not denigration ruled.

Let me be clear: Not everything was peaches and cream. At the end, my final workshop and lecture in the conservative and holy city of Mashhad were cancelled. I had been asked to speak on evolution and ethics, but evolution is a touchy topic in Muslim majority countries. Two Muslim extremist groups, Hezbollah and Basijis examined my bona fides, and Basijis found them wanting. They arranged a public protest of my lectures alleging that I am a Darwinist, gay rights activist and a Zionist who had met with Benjamin Netanyahu on several occasions. The protest made national news.

Twenty minutes before my first workshop, I was informed that it had been cancelled.

And yet. Supportive and apologetic students and faculty gathered at my hotel and asked me to speak anyway. We held a small session in the lobby of the hotel. I received an outpouring of support from friends all over Iran. And Mohammed Motaharri, a leading Iranian cleric and son of Martyr Motaharri (one of the architects of the 1979 revolution), wrote and published a courageous and impassioned defense of, well, me.

I learned that most Iranians were embarrassed by the protest and incensed that extremism had carried the day. With the aid of Google translate, I read one of the comments to the one of the articles. His was a message for all:

"All people and all nations will gather under the banner of freedom and fairness."