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Ripe for reinterpretation
From Ebadi's various remarks it is clear that progressive Islam protects human rights but also advocates a secular approach with regards to political institutions

December 4, 2003
The Iranian

For a long time I've stayed away from the Shirin Ebadi "issue" to witness how Iran, the international community, and the diasporas would be effected and whether institutional polarization would emerge. Particularly, when one considers that initial responses were celebratory and reactionary, literature analyzing the effects of Ebadi's aware are all the more necessary.

Kalbasi's article on "Ayatollah Ebadi?" and Izadi's retort to "Be fair" are important stepping stones to this analysis. In this article I wish to outline what I believe to be an emerging paradigm not created, but certainly clarified by Ebadi's Nobel award and subsequent remarks.

The paradigm design is for change and reform of Iranian political institutions through a grassroots human rights emphasis. This differs significantly from the approach of constitutional monarchists, neo-conservatives, and the MKO in that the impetus of change is bottom up rather then top down. As of late the latter organizations have coalesced a fairly simplistic plan.

Radical change to the regime and the protection of democratization ill naturally promote human rights. The major assumption of course is that A) change will lead to a democracy and B) democracies protect human rights. (I have discussed the fallacies of these assumption in previous articles, specifically in "Before Satan").

Instead the Ebadi paradigm focuses on human rights as the impetus for democratization, much like it was prior to 1953 and once again in 1979. Both movements were reactionary to human rights abuses which emerged from a grassroots level that eventually spilled over to structural changed. In fact the only times by which Iran's movement stagnated was when external powers imposed institutions in Iran, as famously illustrated in 1953.

Based on Ebadi's comments it is clear that her belief is focused on two developments: First that human rights are the foundation for any improvement in the lifestyle of Iranians. At her first press conference after the award ceremony, Ebadi states, "There is no future for mankind without human rights. Any discrimination on the basis of gender, race, or religion is a challenge to our basic humanity."

Implicit within that statement is that any formal institution must be based fundamentally on the principles of human rights in recognition of their integral role to our basic humanity. This contrasts substantially with a "democratic" paradigm in that the latter focuses on the role of democracy in facilitating rights, rather then democracy as a right.

Subsequently, many democratic regimes justify massive human rights abuses by identifying themselves as democratic states. Israel, Argentina, Brazil, and a variety of African states, to name a few, are prime examples of this condition. Put short, these countries gain legitimacy by stressing the importance of democratic rule, rather then human rights. Ebadi's approach, therefore, reverses the paradigm by basing legitimacy on human rights rather then democracy. Consequently, states cannot use "democracy" as an excuse for state violations.

Second, Islamic tenets support human rights claims. Her interview with Newsweek on October 20 attests to this, "There is no contradiction between an Islamic republic, Islam and human rights. If in many Islamic countries human rights are flouted, this is because of a wrong interpretation of Islam. All I've tried to do in the last 20 years was to prove that with another interpretation of Islam it would be possible to introduce democracy to Muslim countries. We need an interpretation of Islam that leaves much more space for women to take action. We need an Islam that is compatible with democracy and one that's respectful of individual rights."

There needs to be some clarification here. This is not to say that religion and the state should be one. Quite the contrary, in an interview with London-based Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Ebadi clarifies, "I support separation of religion and state because the political arena is open to an unlimited number of interests. This position [i.e., separation of religion and state] is in effect supported by the leading religious authorities, and it corresponds with Shi'ite tradition."

The question here is whether the Ebadi paradigm derives human rights norms from Islam, or whether Islam is interpreted in light of human rights? Ultimately, however, the answers are one and the same because to derive human rights from Islam naturally requires a reinterpretation.

From Ebadi's various remarks I believe that it is clear that progressive Islam protects human rights but also advocates a secular approach with regards to political institutions. Thus, wherein our initial step focuses on a reinterpretation of Islam, ergo the modernist Islam movement, the end product would be secularism, human rights, and democracy. More importantly, it would be a product of grassroots mobilization rather then artificial imposition.

This is not to say that Ebadi herself is the symbol of this movement. Kalbasi is all but correct when she names Abbas Amir-Entezam, Akbar Ganji, Hashem Aghajari, Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, Kianoush Sanjari, Ahmad Batebi, Mohammad Maleki, and Manouchehr Mohammadi, to name a few, as significant personas in the Iranian human rights movement.

Nevertheless, I believe that Ebadi's Nobel Prize conceptualizes and highlightes this paradigm in the same way that Gandhi, Mandela, and King were able to represent progressive rights movements in their countries. That is to say, none of these movements were based on independent actors and one could fairly argue that Indian independence and South African and American institutional discrimination would have ended regardless of their roles.

No movement is dependent on an individual actor. Yet the actor becomes representative of the movement. As such I believe that Ebadi has not only taken that role, but is hoped to embrace that role. Ultimately, however, Kalbasi is correct in her conclusion that we need to be open to criticism. I believe that Ebadi's stance is currently at odds with the belief of conservative institutions in Iran, but also with that of major Diaspora groups in and around the western world.

Nevertheless, its appeal to the masses is that it attempts to restructure the system without directly putting itself at odds with that system. This I believe is the promise and hope relevant in the Ebadi paradigm. The bottom line is that Islam has hit a kind of Dark Ages, hitting a low point with 9/11, so the Muslim world desperately needs its own renaissance of interpretation, and if any country is ripe to do that, its Iran.
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Nema Milaninia is a Graduate Student, International Human Rights Law at the American University in Cairo.

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By Nema Milaninia





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