Focus on common ground
Misplaced frustration among Ebadi's
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.
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
Yet while Ebadi may not have the tough-talking
style of a revolutionary martyr or the Western air of some Iranian
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
on human rights issues in the Middle East and the Balkans. Memarsadeghi works
in the field of conflict mitigation and humanitarian assistance
such as the International Rescue Committee and the International Organization
goodbye to spam!