Worldview: Iran Hosts Second International Seminar on Environment, Culture, and Religion (Part 1)

International Efforts to Mobilize Religions in the Cause of Conservation

Part 1. Tehran

“Religion is a powerful social force and for decades diverse actors who understand this have been engaged in earnest efforts to motivate and mobilize religious individuals and groups to construct environmentally sustainable societies. Although broad evidence suggests that these efforts have had limited success promoting the greening of religion so far, attempts are continuing. Given the often slow and multifarious ways that religions can change in time and place, it would be premature to predict the outcomes of such endeavors.” — Bron Taylor

In this two-part series, Bron Taylor reflects on such possibilities from the context of a trip to Iran in April 2016. In Part 1, he introduces us to Tehran and his experiences of contemporary culture and the troubled interface of religion, young culture, and the environment. Part 2 reports on the Second International Seminar on Environment, Culture, and Religion (Tehran, 2016), which was sponsored by UNEP, UNESCO, and the Department of the Environment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This series has been adapted from a conference report originally published in the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture.

In late April, 2016, I was among those who took the first direct flight (after a trial run) from Paris to Tehran after the sanctions were lifted that had been imposed on Iran to discourage it from pursuing nuclear weaponry. I sat next to an attorney who, in 1970, fled Iran with her family to Paris when the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was overthrown during the Iranian revolution. She now has offices in Paris and Tehran, and is taking advantage of the emerging post-sanction opportunities.

After a warm welcome I spent a couple of days being shown around by some Iranian environmental activists, whom I first connected with during the United Nations’ World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. Although it was great to see the exceptional ancient civilization museum and sites where royal families used to live and govern, I was even more fascinated with contemporary life in Tehran. First—as the attorney had told me—Iranians love their automobiles, which even if impractical given the gridlock of the city, are an important sign of prestige. This car-culture also produces traffic congestion and terrible air quality, reminiscent of Los Angeles, where I grew up. Despite some governmental efforts to improve air quality, the love of automobiles and restrictions from what is considered religiously appropriate dress significantly explain why there has been little progress toward making Tehran bicycle friendly. Other modern transportation alternatives have emerged, however. An activist who came to meet me at my hotel arrived in a car he had acquired from a car-sharing service akin to Uber (called Snap). He was amazed that the car was driven by a woman when it arrived, and he took this this as a harbinger of hope.

Many Tehranians are drawn to green spaces in their urban places. This was nowhere more obvious than at the Tabiat (Nature) Bridge. Crossing a major road, on one side of the bridge is a public park and on the other is a hiking path leading into a forest. The bridge, which has won international architectural awards, was designed by an Iranian woman, Leila Araghian. It is known for its beauty and is a magnet for families and groups of (gender-segregated) young people.

The Nature Bridge, crossing over to the forest (Photo: Bron Taylor).


The Nature Bridge park (Photo: Bron Taylor).

Through various conversations, my activist hosts reinforced the impressions I had gathered both from scholars of Iranian society and from the attorney with whom I shared the flight to Tehran—that there was significant resistance to religious sanctions such as the proscription of alcohol consumption and co-ed (mixed-gender) socializing, the requirement that all adult women wear a hijab, and the discouragement of Western music and culture. I saw (mostly young) women taking risks by pushing their hijabs way back on their heads (often behind fashionable sunglasses, providing something of an excuse), or allowing their hair to fall out and down their backs. I learnt that women in Iran use more makeup per capita than in Western countries, perhaps another sign of openness to Western aesthetic ideals. Together with my hosts I visited a cafe where one must first knock to get in, presumably to allow the proprietors time to turn off Western music; inside, the walls were covered with Western artists, movie stars, and even the (non-Iranian) revolutionary, Che Guevara. I also heard from many sources that co-ed socializing, sometimes accompanied by hooch (homemade or illegally obtained liquor) and even dancing, occurred in private settings. This is despite potentially severe penalties: barely a month after my visit, 30 Iranian students caught at a co-ed graduation party each received 99 lashes (Erdbrinkmay 2016).

During my two-day tour, I was introduced to a number of environmentalists. On the evening of Earth Day there was a public showing of the environmental documentary Earth (directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, 2007) in English, without Persian subtitles. Over one hundred people attended, including several families with children. I would later learn that I was being followed that evening by religious security police. They were upset when I innocently switched cars after the documentary and they lost track of me, and my guides were then questioned by security forces about how they knew me and where I had gone (simply to share a meal at a restaurant); my guides were also told to have no further contact with me. Although my gracious environmentalist hosts assured me this was routine, it provided me with a visceral sense of the tensions between an emerging civil society and some powerful religious forces in the country that are highly suspicious of them. This was quite a contrast to the subsequent days at the seminar itself . . .

In Part 2 (out next week), Bron Taylor recounts some of the proceedings of the Second International Seminar on Environment, Culture, and Religion (Tehran, 2016), and in particular, the views expressed by the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hasan Rouhani, with respect to the past and future role of religion in shaping human approaches to nature and the environment.

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