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Focus on common ground
Misplaced frustration among Ebadi's critics abroad

Mariam Memarsadeghi
July 15, 2004

In the safety of emigration, they all naturally came out in favor of fighting. Sabina said: "Then why don't you go back and fight?" -- Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Over the last couple of months, Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human rights lawyer and first ever Muslim woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, spoke in numerous US cities on topics such as the compatibility of Islam and democracy, the US occupation of Iraq, and global threats to free press, not to mention human rights in Iran.

While generally viewed as an unsung hero, Ebadi has been the subject of sharp criticism by some members of the Iranian diaspora. They claim that Ebadi has lacked courage in not saying enough against the repressive regime in Iran. Some claim that she, like the once entrusted, wildly popular President Khatami, has betrayed Iranians by remaining too mild and indirect in her characterization of human rights abuses in Iran. They also say she should give up on her idea of the compatibility of Islam and democracy. A few even say she is undeserving of the Nobel.

Yet while Ebadi may not have the tough-talking style of a revolutionary martyr or the Western air of some Iranian secularists, she is far from feeble or complacent. Her's is a voice grounded in the painful realities of over two decades of tireless resistance against an authoritarian regime masked as Islamic. The daily violence of oppression-that which Ebadi and the dissident intellectuals she has defended have endured-are unknown to Iranians living freely and comfortably in the West.

Unlike those in the diaspora pushing for her to make bigger, bolder denouncements of the Iranian government, Ebadi will go back to live and work in a country where political persecution-and torture of political prisoners--remains all too common.

The real cause of frustration among Ebadi's critics may not be so much her pragmatic balancing act between appeasement and confrontation with the regime, but her willingness and ability to achieve piecemeal rights in the here and now (and not in some distant utopia where a different regime rules). Her independence of thought and reluctance to join any of the diaspora's ideological camps may add to her critics' resentment.

A brief glance at some highlights of Ebadi's life is perhaps a good rebuttal to those who claim she is fearful or intellectually spineless. Before the revolution of 1979, Ebadi served as Iran's first female judge and did so in the country's High Court. Immediately following the revolution, she was stripped of this position because of her sex alone, and was later reinstated as a mere secretary in the very court over which she had once presided.

As Ebadi tells, radicals co-opted Islam to legitimize their retrograde, repressive rule and made their practices and Islam self-same and irrefutable. Disagreement with the regime or subversion of its policies was made blasphemous and punishable by death. Ebadi was barred from practicing law for seven years (during which time she wrote a total of 11 books on law, including an authoritative study on the inadequate legal protections for children in Iran). After she was finally permitted to again practice her profession, she argued over 70 cases, including those of the families of prominent intellectuals killed in 1999 and 2000.

Ebadi has also worked to uncover government orders behind the violent crackdown on students at Tehran University in 1999. She has struggled valiantly for her cause despite having been imprisoned and despite having had her life threatened for her beliefs and activities. But if her heroic deeds alone are not enough, then let's examine Ebadi's carefully chosen words.

Since winning the Nobel, Ebadi-always appearing outside Iran without the headscarf, an understated, yet shocking act of defiance-has used her new stature to show that what has been promulgated in Iran as Islamic government is nothing more than a ruthless power play, a bogus interpretation of a peaceful religion with ample history of and prescriptions for religious and cultural tolerance, democratic values, human rights, and intellectual freedom.

She's refuted cultural relativists who claim that Iran's experience with political Islam should be respected, and has warned that what they consider a principle of enlightened tolerance is being exploited by the power-hungry to impose their will over that of the people.She has argued that the religious persecution of non-Muslims practiced by the regime is counter to Islam, reminding that at the time of the Prophet Mohammad, Muslims and others lived peacefully alongside one another.

Concerning the severe restrictions on women's rights, Ebadi has argued that a perverse, patriarchal interpretation of Islam alone is to blame. Ebadi has also called for the country's election laws to be changed so that the electorate can choose its leaders, and has joked about not casting a vote in the last parliamentary elections because she didn't know any of the candidates the government had permitted to run.

In citing the Iranian government's routine censorship of journalists and its closing of over 90 newspapers and magazines in just the last two years, Ebadi has characterized the ideology of Islamic fundamentalism as no different than all other forms of despotism throughout history. She argues that despotism, whatever its professed ideology and tactics, is ultimately self-defeating and that all undemocratic states, like the Soviet Union, are bound to disintegrate as a result of social crisis.

Though democracy is inevitable universally, Ebadi argues that nations must be left alone to experience social crises, work through them and autonomously reach their historical imperative of free and democratic societies.Foreign interventions in the name of democracy, like the US occupation of Iraq, only delay the natural, inevitable disintegration of despotism, strengthen forces opposed to freedom and inspire hatred of external others, argues Ebadi.

Talk of a "clash of civilizations" and "Islamic terrorism" only act as self-fulfilling prophecies, she warns, and those in the West should choose their words more wisely when characterizing violence with/in the Middle East. There is nothing Islamic about terrorism, says Ebadi, and rather than stress how Western and Islamic civilizations diverge, those seeking peace and security are better off focusing on shared experience and points of convergence between cultures, especially at so divisive a time.

Iranians critical of Ebadi would also do well to focus on the common ground existing within the diverse opposition to the Iranian regime. Secularists might benefit from better appreciating Ebadi's insistence that the regime has afforded her no choice but to defend human rights through Islamic law. If Iran is ever to be ruled by a secular regime, the forces of Islamic fundamentalism and remains of the current regime must still be managed; sophisticated thinkers like Ebadi, precisely because they understand Islamic law and explicate its compatibility with democracy, would prove vital to a smooth political transition.

Those among the diaspora intent on forceful change and/or foreign intervention might take note of Ebadi's descriptions of the US's failures in Iraq and also take note of how a quarter century ago, Iran's experience with revolution, begun with all good intentions, led only to a chaos hijacked by radicals intent on securing their power alone.The current political landscape in Iran, marked by a forceful takeover of power by hard-liners in the last elections, leaves room for potential fruitfulness.

The blatant exclusion of reformers from official political power may give them more reason to work against the system than with it, and the country's disappointing experience with a reformist president who managed little reform may convince youth to organize around themselves rather than a leader in government. Meanwhile, Ebadi's critics in the diaspora should have a critical look at themselves to see how they might, as Ebadi recommends to governments interested in fostering democracy in foreign lands, peacefully support individuals and institutions working for freedom.

There will never be one perfect voice against oppression. This is a fact to be celebrated rather than lamented. Ebadi's critics and supporters alike might take her suggestion to roll up their sleeves and engage in practical activities leading to a free Iran, rather than remain comfortably distanced from politics through the quintessentially Iranian pastime of building up and beating down leaders.

Mariam Memarsadeghi is an Iranian-American who emigrated to the US during the revolution at the age of seven. She is a student of post-modern political theory and has worked on human rights issues in the Middle East and the Balkans. Memarsadeghi works in the field of conflict mitigation and humanitarian assistance for international organizations such as the International Rescue Committee and the International Organization for Migration.

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