Last month (June 14) I heard Shirin Ebadi speak at Europe's oldest university, the University of Bologna, where political activism thrives among the young intellects, some of who sport dreadlocks and multiple body piercings. The students here are politically conscious, delving into newspapers to read up on candidates running for public offices while others dress as clowns to perform anti-war skits in center squares and even in the middle of crosswalks. It was in this atmosphere that Ms. Ebadi delivered her speech on Islam, democracy and human rights. But the event was not at all what I expected…
A month earlier I had attended Ms. Ebadi's lecture in Los Angeles, the home to the largest hub of Iranians living outside Iran. This event exploded into a conflagration, a spectacle of amusing sorts. And for some silly reason, I anticipated a similar atmosphere in Bologna. I expected to see masses of exiled Iranians heckling a Nobel Peace Prize Winner and getting booed out of the auditorium. But to my dismay, a mere trifle of perhaps 15 Iranians had the room starving for the kind of volatility and intensity I observed at the University of California at Los Angeles lecture a little while ago.
Absent in Bologna were the dynamic and emotional power plays between Iranian monarchists, nationalists and other expatriates. The only outburst this time around did come from one of the fifteen or so Iranians present, but the little rant, uttered apparently in mangled Italian, left the crowd quiet and confused. But overall the one thousand Italians and a few other people in the audience sat quietly and attentively, bearing their ears and engaging their minds.
After the university head's long introduction, which bestowed upon Ms. Ebadi the highest Italian honor of primadonna (first lady), this Nobel Peace Prize Winner appeared on stage smiling and triumphant. The audience rose to their feet for yet another one of her standing ovations from around the globe. Then they listened respectfully as she spoke. They stopped her only to clap after every bold statement: how we must be careful to separate human error from religion, that democracy is not a gift you can give to people and that bombs do not enforce human rights. She culminated her speech with powerful imagery, likening democracy to a flower. She emphasized that one cannot overfeed a flower for one day and return a year later expecting it to still be alive. Ms. Ebadi also took the time to demand women's equality under Islam and to make a plea for the release of Mr. Aghajari in Iran.
Ms. Ebadi had just delivered another passionate speech defending Islam, championing democracy and demanding respect for human rights. I must say, however, that this Italian audience, albeit, curious, respectful and attentive, lacked the kind of connection with her that evoked so much emotion in Los Angeles. Most of these people here today were at home in Italy; they didn't have to leave their country after a religious revolution, in the middle of a war, or for fear of political persecution. These people didn't have a sense of national pride in Ms. Ebadi. They were outsiders, I realized, and this wasn't Los Angeles. For these people in Bologna, listening to today's lecture may have just been one their many routine intellectual activities of the week. After all, this is the politically active city of Bologna.
During the Los Angeles lecture, a lady broke down and cried ten feet away from me, screaming about how the Islamic Republic had “murdered her sons.” I watched as a security guard towered over her flailing body and gave her a warm hug instead of an escort to the exit. Although I didn't witness such things in Bologna as I originally expected, I appreciate that so many people showed up even though most of them didn't have these strong bonds that Iranians do for Ms. Ebadi or for Iran. Bravo! And to the fifteen or so Iranians who came to see a hamvatan speak in Bologna, Bravo to you, too.
About Roxanne Moin has a B.A. in political science from University of California, Los Angeles.