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The chisel and the hammer
Shirin Ebadi's public endorsement of Islam is a qualified proposition but it is sociologically sound and politically astute

October 14, 2003
The Iranian
The Shirin of Persian romance literature is the iconic female who reposes in sublime passivity. Her enchanted lover, Farhad, carves a mountain into a palace and sculpture garden as a token of his devotion. Far from the languorous Shirin of the legend, the Shirin who won the Noble Peace Prize follows the example of Farhad.

Shirin Ebadi has spent her life chipping away at the rock faces that block Islamic Iran's view of human rights and she has done so patiently, passionately and indefatigably. Ebadi was the first woman appointed judge under the previous regime. When she lost her position to the strictures of the Islamic Sharia, she went back to square one and started her career as a human rights lawyer.

Ebadi knew others who were similarly aggrieved. They would frame the dismissal note as a badge of honor and migrate to a Western metropolis in justifiable anger at those who had ruined their lives and careers. Shirin could have led a comfortable, safe and even meaningful life, donning the mantle of the victim and denouncing the evil Islamic regime from the safety of exile.

Like a recent detractor, Nahid Riazi of Copenhagen, or the radicalized Iranians who booed her at the Berlin Conference four years ago, Shirin could have spoken as the voice of the entire population of Iranian women without risking a thing or lifting a finger to help a single one of them. But the Farhad in Shirin rejected this choice as the easy, and indeed cowardly, way out.

In a recent press conference Ebadi admitted that her struggles on behalf of Iranian women, children, students and victims of political assassinations had not been easy as she lived in fear of her life and liberty for decades. But she added that she could never have been so proud of her accomplishments had they come to her easily.

The Noble Peace Prize could not have come to the aid of the democratic movement of Iran at a more opportune time. Nor could it have gone to a better candidate: one can hardly imagine putting the award to better use in promoting the cause of freedom and democratic struggle.

Ebadi, like her fellow Noble laurite Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, shall wear her laurite clout as a chain mail. She will be ever more effective in pushing legislation in support of the rights of women and children. She will be virtually invincible in defending the victims of political violence and the prisoners of conscience who wander the maze of the right wing judiciary's odious Castle. As her first post-Nobel challenge, Ebadi has accepted to represent Stephan, the son of the slain Iranian-Canadian photojournalist, Zahra Kazemi.

One of the more interesting aspects of the coverage of Ebadi's award has been her self-description as a Muslim woman and her statement that Islam and human rights are compatible. This statement must be placed in the context of Ebadi's legal philosophy, and that of the new theology of the Iranian reform movement. In her legal research Ebadi is at pains to expose the contradictions of the Iranian incarnation of Islamic law.

For instance, she points out that a father will expose himself to the harsh, retributive punishment should he assist his wife to effect an abortion. But, should the attempt fail, the same father could kill the same child at the age of 14 and face only a monetary fine.

In another paper Ebadi questions the Islamic law that prosecutes 9 year-old girls and 15 year-old boys as adults but refuses to let them travel without parental consent. In yet another paper she finds the law that would allow a child's marriage based on parental consent inhumane, contrary to the spirit of Islamic charity and contradictory to the international human rights treaties signed by Iran.

Indeed, neither Ebadi nor anyone else in the intellectual leadership of Iran's reform movement believes that the existing Sharia or any of its contemporary legal makeovers -- including those issued by the Islamic Council of Europe (1980-81,) Kuwait Summit of International Arab jurists and lawyers (1980,) and the Cairo Declaration of the Nineteenth Conference of Islamic Foreign Ministers based on the Tehran draft (1990) -- come close to bridge the gap between Sharia and modern conceptions of Human Rights.

The Islam of Shirin Ebadi is not literalist, and nor is that of the emerging reform theology of Iran. In a recent, boldly iconoclastic treatise Mohsen Kadivar, who is a qualified Islamic jurist (or mujtahid) has argued that the Sharia laws discriminate based on status (slave/free), sexuality (men/women,) religion (Islam/non-believer), denomination (Shia/Sunni), training (clergy/lay), and prescribe cruel and inhumane punishments.

Thus, Kadivar declares, Shaira can not be reconciled with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He adds that for the modern man and woman the superiority of life under rational and humanistic principles of Human Rights over a social order based on Sharia is incontrovertible. This leads Kadivar to the conclusion that the "spiritual Islam" must be allowed to molt out of the hardened, legal shell of "historical Islam."

Iran is not unique in the Islamic world for offering such radical departures from the traditional apologetics but it is the only Islamic country where such interpretations form the ideology of a grass roots movement that has delivered landslide majorities to the polling stations. And it is this Islam with which Ebadi identifies.

There is no denying that Shirin Ebadi's life work as a tireless advocate for modern human rights in Iran could not be seen as anything but an ongoing struggle against an ossified body of laws that claim divine origin but contain mores of a tribal and feudal past. There must be no doubt that her statement about the compatibility of Islam and Human Rights refers to the "spiritual" and not "historical" Islam.

Some might wonder why Ebadi and other reformers don't abandon Islam altogether -- a beguilingly simple choice to many diaspora Iranians. The reformers would respond that as long as three quarters of Iranians are practicing Muslims (according to the most recent sociological study commissioned by the National Science Foundation and conducted by Professor Mansoor Moaddel in Egypt, Jordan and Iran,) abandoning Islam to the exegeses of the mediaeval jurists of the right wing would be intellectually reckless and politically suicidal.

They would remind the laic pessimists who repeat the mantra of "Islam can't be reformed" that the emergence of a post-enlightenment of Islam is not any more impossible that the accomplished facts of the Reform Judaism and post-Higher-Criticism Christianity of mainline churches. Shirin Ebadi's public endorsement of Islam is a qualified proposition but it is sociologically sound and politically astute >>> News & politics forum


Ahmad Sadri is Professor and Chairman of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Lake Forest College, IL, USA. See Features . See Homepage

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By Ahmad Sadri





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