An appeal by an Islamic scholar to Grand Ayatollah Khāmene’i of Iran

The following is a personal appeal by Ambassador Akbar Ahmed to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Grand Ayatollah Ali Hoseyni Khāmene’i, to show Islamic compassion during Ramadan, the month of fasting, and free the three young American hikers who have been held in Iran for over a year. The appeal comes in advance of the Night of Power, which falls in the last days of the month. It is the time when Muslims are called to show special mercy and kindness. Ambassador Ahmed delivered this appeal, the first on behalf of the hikers by an Islamic scholar, to the senior most Iranian diplomat in Washington, D.C. last week.

The following is the text of the letter:
August 27, 2010

Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Khāmene’i
Tehran, Iran

As-Salamu Alaykum and Ramadan Kareem, Grand Ayatollah Ali Hoseyni Khāmene’i,
Let me introduce myself. I am Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington D.C. and the former High Commissioner from Pakistan to the United Kingdom. For the past three decades, and especially since 9/11, I have been heavily involved in promoting dialogue and understanding between the Muslim world and the West. One of my challenges has always been to convey the Islam that I know, consistently and publicly telling non-Muslims that God’s two greatest attributes in the Quran are Rahman and Rahim–compassion and mercy. It is with these two attributes in mind that I appeal to you now.

When the blessed month of Ramadan began, I received a letter from Laura Fattal, the mother of one of the three young American hikers currently detained in Iran. Ever since this episode involving their children began, the families have experienced constant pain and anguish. They decided to reach out to me, the first Islamic scholar to whom they have turned.

The Iranian government has stated that Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd crossed the Iranian border while on a hiking trip in Iraqi Kurdistan on the last day of July 2009; and they may have. All former top students at the University of California, Berkeley, these are the best and the brightest of America, much like the American students I have had the pleasure of having in my classes. But I know that sometimes young people do things that land them in trouble, and travel to places they should not go.

After listening to the pleas of the families, who poured their hearts out to me, I believe these young people did not set out to cause any problems or tension between the U.S. and Muslim world or the U.S. and Iran, but had the opposite intent. They were committed to dialogue, understanding, and making the world a better place. The day after 9/11, Shane, who would major in Peace and Conflict Studies at Berkeley, decided he would do all he could to improve relations with the Muslim world. He moved to Damascus both to write stories that promoted justice and empathy for those of cultures different from his own and to take photographs to convey personal stories. The woman with whom he is engaged to be married, Sarah, lived in Damascus and worked with Iraqi refugees, teaching them English and helping them enroll in American universities, at the same time she was enrolled at the University of Damascus learning Arabic. Sarah also wrote many articles, which often focused on the plight of women and the many souls affected by war and upheaval in the region. Their friend Josh, concerned about the environment and public health, worked as a teaching fellow with the International Honors Program in Boston, officially traveling to countries in Asia and Africa as part of a group of faculty and students. He lived with families to learn more about the challenges they face in attaining health services and was planning to begin graduate studies. Though not Muslim, all three were living the directive of God in the Holy Quran: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other).”

These young Americans are driven by the example of their Founding Fathers of the United States, who had the highest respect for Islam. John Adams, the second president of the United States, called the Holy Prophet of Islam, Peace Be Upon Him, one of the greatest truth-seekers in history. Benjamin Franklin, America’s great philosopher, called the Holy Prophet of Islam, Peace Be Upon Him, a model of compassion. Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president and author of its Declaration of Independence, owned and honored the Holy Quran, which informed him to host the first iftar at the White House. George Washington, the first president of the United States, who Americans revere as the “father of the country,” stretched his hand of friendship to Muslims around the world, welcoming them to America.

As someone dedicated to helping alleviate the suffering of all humanity, whatever their cultural or religious background, I am concerned about the mental and physical well-being of these young people. All are at risk for permanent psychological damage due to their isolation in solitary confinement. They cannot speak Farsi, apart from requesting to be led to the bathroom blindfolded.

For over a year Sarah has lived alone in a prison cell for 23 hours a day. She also may have cancer. Sarah has a precancerous cervix, which requires treatment every three months. She has been taken out of prison once for testing, but the results have not been released. In addition, Sarah has discovered a lump in her breast which demands immediate attention. Besides being potentially afflicted with cancer at such a young age, Sarah is also clinically depressed. Shane has severe stomach problems, which could include hemorrhaging.

This ordeal has also greatly affected the families of those involved, all of whose lives have fallen apart. All three mothers have stopped working. Shane’s mother has shut down the business she had for 18 years and is worried that if Sarah does not get urgent medical care she and Shane will be unable to have children, in addition to her life being in danger. Sarah’s mother, who lives alone on disability insurance and is in a great deal of financial hardship, is in desperate need of major abdominal surgery, and has had to be rushed to the emergency room numerous times over the last year. Yet she feels that she cannot bear to undergo the surgery without her daughter present. Aside from one short meeting and one brief phone call in the case of Josh and Shane and two for Sarah, the mothers have had no contact with their children. They write them letters every day but have received none back. All the mothers have trouble sleeping, and when they do, they have nightmares.

Other family members are also suffering. Shane’s two younger sisters are traumatized, with the youngest feeling unable to begin university last year and the eldest developing a stress-induced thyroid disease. Josh’s older brother has taken a leave of absence from his Harvard doctoral studies, and the aging grandparents of all three have been hit particularly hard.

I can assure you that I have not been asked by any government or private agency to initiate this letter. I am acting purely out of compassion after hearing the stories of the families. I am a father and a grandfather so I know how parents love and feel for their children.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Hoseyni Khāmene’i, in the name of God, the most Compassionate and the most Merciful, I appeal to you as an esteemed scholar and religious leader to show compassion and mercy to these young people and their families.

I ask this in the spirit of your noble ancestor, and our beloved Holy Prophet of Islam, Peace Be Upon Him, who is described in the Holy Quran as a “mercy unto mankind.” Your great namesake Hazrat Ali was renowned for both his wisdom and his kindness to all. As Laylat al-Qadr, or the Night of Power, approaches in this blessed month of Ramadan, it befits all of us to remember these great examples. We know that on this sacred night, the gates of heaven are open and God blesses us with his special mercy. I pray to God that you will respond in the spirit in which this letter was written, as one Muslim appealing from his heart to another Muslim. I am prepared to travel to Iran to meet with you in order to help end the suffering and anguish of all concerned.

With high regards and high expectations,
Professor Akbar Ahmed
Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies
American University
Washington, D. C.


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