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Open criticism
It is the responsibility of every one of us to challenge each other and to make views transparent

November 26, 2003
The Iranian

Since the publication of my article "Ayatollah Ebadi?", I have received a considerable number of responses. Most of them were encouraging. Some were critical of my point of view at the same time as providing well-reasoned arguments and factual references to historical events, and I value and appreciate such opposing views.

There were also some angry letters. Some are not worthy of response, for example that Shirin Ebadi was fighting in Iran while I was spending my time in nightclubs or as women we must stand behind Ebadi [Be fair]. Here I try to summarize and respond to some of the opposing views to the best of my ability.

Am I confusing the Islamic Republic with Islam? Am I attacking Ebadi for her religious beliefs? The answer is no. As a matter of fact, the article was not an attack on Islam, theology (fegh), or even the Islamic Republic or Ebadi's beliefs. It was an objection to Ebadi's approach in addressing profound social and cultural problems in Iran by reconciling theology with human rights.

The compatibility of Islam with democracy and human rights is a hotly debated topic within religious circles. Ebadi and some renowned clerics believe Islam and human rights can be reconciled, many others don't share this view. If we listen to Friday Prayer sermons in Iran we find numerous examples of the latter group.

Islamic theologians are welcome to spend years and years debating this issue and I will be very interested to follow their arguments closely. While I am not in a position to participate in this debate, I have the right to demand that the fate of our nation not hinge upon the outcome of such a debate.

History has shown that only through separation of religion and state can religion gain the dignity it deserves and the society gets the freedom it needs to foster and safeguard the so-called "marketplace of ideas". The odds that our nation suddenly discovers a new magical recipe that contradicts thousands of human experiences is, realistically, slim to none.

Ebadi is living and working in Iran. She cannot express her opinions freely. Am I expecting too much? It is a rather tricky question, which also keeps me wondering. On the one hand I have to admit that she is already under a lot of pressure. After all she is human, with all the emotions and fears. And in fairness to Ebadi, she didn't choose to become a Nobel Laureate.

On the other hand, there are numerous examples of people shouting their conscience under much harsher conditions without enjoying a Nobel class protection. A few examples are Abbas Amir-Entezam, Akbar Ganji, Hashem Aghajari, Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, Kianoush Sanjari, Ahmad Batebi, Mohammad Maleki, Manouchehr Mohammadi... The list goes on. They have broken new ground without shying away from speaking up. As a matter of fact I can point to some specific examples of people who have pursued a timid approach and have been punished more heavily.

If Ebadi decides to continue helping women and children and represent victims, nobody can force her to do otherwise. But when she suggests a particular approach to solving Iran's profound problems, she opens the door to criticism. This is the responsibility of every one of us to challenge each other and to make views transparent.

One reader noted that my reference to Black civil rights movements was indeed an example of how change could come from within the legal system instead of being a counter-example by pointing to the role of the Warren Supreme Court. While this is certainly an interesting and productive discussion, my point was to warn against setting a discourse blindly without examining the alternatives from the wealth of experience provided by human history.

Finally some readers found the title of the article ["Ayatollah Ebadi?"] provocative. This objection should be directed to the editor who picks the titles!

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By Sheema Kalbasi




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