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William Penn and Tehran

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Pennsylvania

It seems to me that the struggle in Iran over the last few days has occurred because - as in so many Islamic countries - there is no freedom of religion. Without the freedom to worship God as you choose - or not worship at all - there can be no other freedoms - no freedom of speech, no free and honest elections, no freedom of assembly and little freedom to take a job of your choosing. Religious compulsion trumps all. It becomes a form of totalitarianism and mind control which stifles creativity and prosperity.

The Iranian people are assembling, under threat. The question, as the New York Times reported, is how much are the hard-liners willing to inflict to suppress the people and tell yet another generation to shut up? And how much pain are Iranians willing to stand in order to fulfill their dreams? And will they be willing to establish religious freedom for all? Today they are valiantly defying the forces of oppression. Tomorrow?

These same questions, so desperate now for Iranians, have been asked repeatedly in the past, which is why I turn to William Penn.

In jail, looking for something new

In Britain in the 17th century, thousands of Friends who opposed the established church were in jail. Thousands more men, women and children (and their dogs) had sailed for America, defying Atlantic storms to search for freedom of religion and a new start. They found freedom, but some of them in turn became intolerant of any religious beliefs but their own, forgetting that the only love that God could want is freely given. Others lived under the absolute rule of the ‘duke’s law’, without trial by jury or representative government. Still others had made Rhode Island a safe place for people of all religions, only to find their colony pulled apart by factions.

William Penn, who had been jailed for his religious beliefs, decided to create something completely new. He managed to persuade Charles II to support his untested but oddly compelling vision – that he could create a home in America for all the religious dissenters that Charles so disliked and that religious tolerance would create a prosperous society.

The idea had profit possibilities for the king, and Charles owed Penn quite a bit of money. Since he preferred to pay with a grant to land he arguably did not own, he gave Penn 45,000 square miles in America. In 1682 Penn left Britain to establish the colony of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love.

Penn had the king's grant, but the land belonged to native Americans. Penn won their trust by being brave enough to negotiate without carrying a weapon and by paying them for their land. (His treaty with the Indians was never broken.)

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A unique sort of real estate promotion

He then became a real estate promoter to attract settlers, and developed a unique form of promotion - Pennsylvania's constitution, which he wrote.

Penn created one of the first places on earth with freedom of religion and representative government, fair taxes, free elections, a limit to executive power, the protection of free enterprise and trial by jury. His constitution contained the innovation of being amendable. Pennsylvania and Pennsylvanians thrived.

Those wandering in a desert of man’s making – unable to graduate from school or to hold a job because of their religious beliefs, fined if they didn’t attend church, thrown into prison if they talked about their ideas, and unable to vote – looked for sanctuary. They wanted life and refreshment, soul-liberty and opportunity. They created and defended Pennsylvania.

A century later, others established the United States of America, a place where everyone is still free to worship - or not - as they choose.

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