Shirin Ebadi accepts an honourary degree while President Stevenson of SFU applauds her. Courtesy of SFU.
Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel Peace Laureate, was in Vancouver, Canada this week for a series of events. She received, along with two other fellow Nobel Peace Laureates, the all famous Dalai Lama of Tibet and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, an honourary doctorate of laws from Simon Fraser University [archive: video]; the three laureates were then joined by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Prof. Jo-ann Archibald of University of British Columbia to take part in a round table discussion [archive: audio, video]; yesterday Ms. Ebadi also appeared at SFU's Morris Wosk Center for Dialogue to give a lecture as part of SFU Nobel Leactures series and answered questions from the audience afterwards [archive available soon].
I was lucky enough to win a lottery ticket to the last event, which was held in an impressive conference room. She spoke through Prof. Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak who provided a very good instant translation. She wore a stylish, patternful, blue dress and trousers that added to her gentility of movement and vivacity of speech.
In her lecture, Shirin Ebadi reiterated her belief in the compatibility of democracy and Islam. She advocated an interpretation of Islam that allows for the implementation of universal human rights. She went on to draw examples from the history of Islam, at some length, that support such an interpretation—from the appointment of the african muslim, Bilal of Abyssinia, as the chief caller to prayer by Prophet Mohammad, to his calling her daughter, Fatima, the mother of her father (Umm-e-Abiha), i.e. all muslims, to recalling that Mohammad had a jewish wife who remained jewsih all her life. (This refers to Rayhana Bint Zayd, one of Mohammad's concubines—not really a regular wife—who was a booty taken from the jewish tribe of Banu Qurayza after they lost a battle to the Prophet.)
She attacked the dictatorial Islamic governments that "use" the name of Islam to justify their own agenda. In those countries "religion has become governmental, not government religious," she said. "These governments take away the courage for fighting from their people," she said, "since people fight earthly rulers much more willingly than their ancestors religion. Against these dictators, religious intellectuals have made a united front independent of their nationalities. They take inspiration from the spirit of holy Quran. This is the Muslims' promise of freedom." She said this front does not have headquarters, organisation or leaders. "Its place," she noted, "is in the mind and heart of every muslim who wants to achieve democracy while keeping his/her ancestoral religion and does not accept suppression, nor any invalid word." "True Islam is a religion of peace," she said. She expressed a great need to cultural change, including political culture, and put emphasis on reteaching muslims on true Islam's instructions. "We muslims think once we can read over Quran's text, our knowledge of Islam is complete and we are a jurist [...] even muslims do not know what true Islam is," she claimed.
In the question-and-answer that followed her lecture, Dr. Ebadi answered, as briefly as possible, questions ranging from the current conditions in Iran, the situation in Iraq, the fate of the peace movement around the world to the prospect of her proposed road to freedom for muslims. She reminded us of the difficult task of a defender of human rights in Iran, pointing out the ananymous death threats she has received upon being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year, and revealed (for the first time to my knowledge) that she has miraculously escaped two assassinations so far.
When asked in a couple of questions how and whom by she wanted true Islam to be retaught in the Islamic world, while neither westerners nor even muslims themselves know what it is, when there is no freedom of expression or press, when the eduacation is controlled by a government that is not willing to listen to her or make any changes, she proposed to do so by travelling to libraries, at home, "in our own minds by thinking," and by scholars of Islam, "who by the way do not necessarily need to be muslims." She said she has learnt a lot about true Islam by reading books by non-muslim scholars.
She also commented on the French government ban on headscarf in educational institutions, calling it a violation of human rights, "since an 8-year-olf girl," who cannot imagine to stand up to her father and does not have enough financial resources to go to an expensive private muslim school, "will be denied her fundamental right to eduaction, only on the basis that she is born in a muslim [fundamentalist] family," the very eduacation that could free her from the darkness of fundamentalism.
I found her views of democracy and human rights very clear and in fact very close to my own [see Traps to Avoid in Improving Democracy, and a few (1, 2) of my comments under Ebadi Reconsidered]. When an attendee asked her not to advocate democracy so much, since for instance "democracy may come to Iran, but by then the US has already held Iraq [Iran?]," she responded: "There is a saying that democracy is the best and the worst thing. I believe it can be made into the best." She stated that she is an advocate of democracy and human rights, which have to be cocenetric; that the boundaries of democracy are defined by human rights.
In fact for the first time I started to understand why she is so strongly in favour of a new interpretation of Islam, why she starts all the time from Islam and tries to draw the conclusion that one could incorporate human rights and democracy within its settings, instead of a non-religious starting point: Although very problemic in facing mainstream hard-line versions of Islam currently dominant, which are also to a good extent violent just to add to these problems, this approach has the merit that it can speak directly to the masses of muslims. There is no realistic hope that the bulk of mulsim societies like the Iranian society, with a 98% muslim majority, will ever relate—or even respond poistively—to a non-religious approach. I think that she in fact embodies this reality in herself, as a self-declared "religious person" who advocates democracy and human rights.
All in all, the session went extremely well and although communication was a bit slowed due to the translation process, the occasional pauses allowed for a more effective way for the message of the Nobel Laureate and her audience to get across the borders of culture and language. While I was listening to Shirin Ebadi's proposed programme, it occured to me that such figures of hope, strength and sheer activism as herself are so much needed for Iran's future. So, although I found myself bewildered by her line of logic about Islam, and relatively doubtful of the sucsess of her proposals regarding the teaching of a peaceful, liberal interpretation of Islam, I admired her clarity and steadfast resolve. Perhaps what today's Iran most needs is not the best route to freedom, but an incursion of activism into all possible routes towards that glorious goal.