On May 14, Shirin Ebadi, 2003 Nobel Laureate, delivered a speech at the UCLA International Institute; her topic was “Islam, Democracy, and Human Rights.” Her speech was in Persian, and a young woman translated for her. The event was held at Royce Hall which has a capacity of 1,800; almost all seats were filled, mainly by Iranians.
Much has been written about her work, and her speech will be available online at UCLA’s website in few weeks. My intention is to summarize the main points of her speech and to offer a few comments relative to future benefits of the Persian community.
She drew a correlation between poverty and the lack of human rights. She noted that in 2002 more than fifty countries were at war, and most of the damage was done to civilians. The resulting injustice is the root of terrorism, which she strongly condemned.
After 9/11 many countries implemented practices of discrimination against non-citizens, especially from third world countries. She emphasized that terrorism and torture should have no place in this world. She added that the name of Islam has been misused to associate the wrong doing of Muslims with Islam in the minds of people. She questioned why no one drew similar parallels to Christianity when Christians were killing Muslims in Bosnia. She emphasized the importance of separating a people’s religion from their actions and practices.
Ebadi urged people to put aside their differences and to concentrate on their common interests. No one benefits from wars except companies which are manufacturing military equipment. The arts, education, and democracy will flourish in an atmosphere of peace.
According to Ebadi, democracy does not happen accidentally or quickly. Democracy is a process. If a country believes in democratic society, it must commit to behaving as a democracy. A country cannot bring democracy to another country by force.
She emphasized that peace begins from schools and family units. From there peace spreads to work places and ultimately beyond a country’s boundaries. Exchange of students, faculty members, and information will help spread peace all over the world. She encouraged countries that have good universities to be generous in sharing their academic resources. After 9/11, many students from less developed countries have had a difficult time pursuing higher education in developed countries.
Her conclusion: Do not forget the people who live in less developed countries. Extend the hand of friendship. Fight against terrorism and war. Strive to be a moral human being and to seek peace.
The Lian Ensemble, based in Los Angeles, consisted of five Iranian and four American musicians performed two songs which were selected by Ebadi for this event. The poems for these songs were written by Saadi and Akhevan Saales. The performers created a music composed of traditional and folk melodies and delighted the audience with their performance.
Ebadi’s responses to Question & Answer Session
Q. What is your opinion about democracy in Iran?
A. Democracy, like a plant (flower), requires constant attention and monitoring. Democracy must be earned; safeguarding human rights promotes democracy. The most important thing in a democratic process is to have free elections.
Q. What have you done in defending women’s rights?
A. The majority (63%) of Iranian university students are women. Educated women know their rights and will help the democratic process. In the early days of the revolution, few women were writing or fighting about women’s rights. Today, the majority of Iranian women, even traditional women want democracy.
Q. What is your view of the proper role of foreign powers in the Middle East?
A. The United Nations was created to stop invasion by foreign powers. The United Nations must act when governments go against their own people. When Iraq attacked Kuwait, the United Nations did the right thing by acting against the aggressor. But attacking Iraq was not the right thing. Although we disliked Saddam Hussain, she wished that he had been over thrown by the Iraqi people.
Q. Religion was created over 1,400 years ago. If we cannot modify it to fit our time, can we keep it in our hearts and not mix it with other things?
A. Yes, the relationship between a government and its religion should reflect the opinion of a majority of its citizens. The democratic process will make this possible. If a society wants to separate state from religion, then this should happen. Muslim people must not believe that they must choose between Islam and democracy; they can have both.
Q. What is your view of radical Islam and moderate Islam in today’s world?
A. Let us ask what is censored. Censorship is something that governments impose. But there are a few strong mass media in the western countries which control the news and therefore affect people’s opinion. Especially after 9/11, to divert people’s minds from the real issues, something was created such as fear of Anthrax, before tacking drastic measure or attacking another country. The western media talks about Islamic terrorist. Let us separate religion from terrorists. Do not start war between religions or civilizations. The focus should be on evil people who have bad intentions, wherever they might live.
Q. You wear Hejaab in Iran but not here.
A. Hejaab in Iran is mandatory for all women regardless of their religion. As a lawyer, I understand the laws and abide by those laws when I am in Iran. Iranian laws do not apply in the other countries, and I follow the laws of those countries when I am there.
There were a few shouting individuals in the audience of 1,800 people who tried to stop Ebadi’s speech a few times. The security guards were lenient in controlling trouble makers. It seems that there are people among us who do not want to tolerate differing views.
From listening to Ebadi views, one can say:
— She is process oriented and is a supporter of law and order.
— She comes across as a global activist who is trying to make an impact on an international scale, especially in Moslem countries.
— She tries to separate religion itself from the actions of people who believe in that religion.
— People are equal, regardless of race, faith, or gender.
— She is a courageous person. For example, she argues that all political prisoners should be freed.
— She is a human-right activist, not a politician.
— Parliaments in totalitarian regimes are not reflective or representative of their citizens.
— Islam is being used to control and to silence dissidents.
I enjoyed listening to her in person, and I am proud of her as an Iranian human-rights activist. She is dealing with various issues in her own way and trying to reach people globally, a goal which must be respected. In some cases, the leadership of a country might not be in a position yet to assume the responsibilities of a democracy. There are individuals who have ambitions or motives who will influence societies in their own way. I hope Ebadi continues to voice her commitment to peace. By supporting her, we will help to stop acts against humanity, particularly against children.
Dr. Mohammad Ala, is Professor of Production and Operations Management both in Iran and the U.S. He is an Executive Board member and founder of iran-heritage.org, persiangulfonline.org and iranalliance.org. See features in iranian.com.
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