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.
Culture changes! Rather rapidly. I have been lucky enough to see how it happens in my immediate environment.
A. "Do you know Mitra has a boyfriend?"
B. "No kidding, Mitra?"
A. "Yep. Isn't that cool?"
B. "How do you know?"
A. "She introduced him to me at the Northeastern PSA's Norouz party."
B. "Was he a fun guy?"
A. "I didn't get a chance to interact with him, but it looked as if Mitra really likes him."
This is a conversation that might take place now between two Iranian students in the area. If it had taken place five years ago, it would have been:
A. "Did you notice Mitra was standing by Reza entire the event?"
B. "Yep, do you think he is her boyfriend?"
A. "How would I know?"
B. "Well, don’t you go to the gym with Mitra every other day?"
A. "You know; she is very secretive. She wouldn’t tell me."
B. "Why is she so secretive?"
A. "Well, I guess she doesn’t like people to gossip about her."
What has changed is not the gossiping part, because once you have a community, you have the gossip, too. What has changed is the way relationships are perceived by the community and also the perception of people in the relationships about how the community perceives them.
Five years ago, dating and having a boyfriend or girlfriend was acceptable on a personal level among the people I knew, but it was not an established norm in the community. That means that in one-to-one interactions, people didn't have any problem with it, but once you had more than five people together the pattern of their interaction would change. It was very common to see a guy and a girl at an event spending a lot of time exclusively together without it being clear to the rest of people at the event how those two were connected. It was very rare to hear someone introduce his girlfriend as a girlfriend! People who would start dating often would separate from the community, or if they would come to the events, they would present themselves as two separate people who met the day before. The community was not very open to non-Iranians neither. People who had a non-Iranian boyfriend or girl-friend often would leave their partner at home before going to the event.
This is changing. More and more people discover that being in a relationship is nothing to be embarrassed about. Just because people might be curious to know whether their friend dating doesn't mean they are making a judgement.
Iranians come from a fairly different culture in regard to the interaction between women and men. When they come to the West, they have to make re-adjustments. The solutions that they come up with are not unique and fairly diverse. There isn’t much right and wrong about these personal solutions. The situation for each person is unique, and he or she has to come up with his/her own solution. However, this doesn’t mean that we can not discuss the issues on the community level.
A year ago, my friend, Hazhir, set up a great workshop on relationships. About twenty people met on a Saturday afternoon to discuss relationships. There were singles, married people, people in relationships, religious, and non-religious Iranians. It was a good mix. Hazhir solicited different scenarios and questions and put them together in a handout. I encourage you to take a look at the handout. During the workshop, it was clear that many of us were dealing with questions and dilemmas that many others in our community deal with, and that discussing them helps to resolve them.
It was kind of nice to see how the community that I was part of changed to become more receptive of new types of relationships and lifestyles. I think the change happened because some of the clichés have been challenged intellectually among the Iranians either through discussions among friends or in writing, for example in websites such as Iranian.com. Change also came because of the individuals who courageously opted for new ways of life without breaking away from their own community and as a result succeeded in changing the norms of their local environment.
How is your local community?
The recent parliament election was boycotted by most of the reformist groups in Iran, and the results clearly showed that it was boycotted by most of the people of Iran as well. The actions of "Jebhe Mosharekat" (the Participation Front) as one of the most influential political parties and the one with the majority in the parliament is quite questionable.
There were two ideas before the elections:
1) "To vote, with the possibility of getting a portion of your rights!"
This was a quite useless task. It was very clear that the guardian council simply would disapprove and reject all or most of the so-called independent or reformist candidates that one would have voted for, as they do most of the time.
So the only choice would be to:
It seemed reasonable and the most popular outcome, despite "Jebhe Mosharekat" and some other reformist groups that failed in their approach and disappointed most of the people. They also did not introduce any strategy after boycotting elections. It seemed they wanted to just bring the attention of the world to the miserable political situation in Iran. Yes, of course newspapers love to write these stories to fill up their pages and after a while everybody forgets. The question is, should we really wait until other countries do something for us?
Do they really even care? Why reformist parties in Iran do not really show their programme and strategies if they have any? Why just sit in the parliament and do nothing for weeks? Don't we have the experience of years and years and don't we know that it really doesn't work? Having a lot of association parties and groups is very important but the most important point is how they collaborate. It doesn't matter whether they are religious or non-religious, the point is that they have the same goal which is freedom in Iran and the rule of law and democracy in a very established way, based on our culture, and gauged upon our needs and the human rights. It is really a massive work and we need to know the free parameters, to have the option to be able to change to another if one approach didn't work.
Does it really make sense that the Iranian associations outside the country write: "We are a non-political association," with the goal of helping the Iranian people? Your life, my life, and every Iranian life is connected with politics; your qualified friend can't get job, visa, grant; It's all because [and part] of the politics. Of course on the other hand the economic improvement should be supported as a parallel approach and other activities should be used to bring the communities closer.
Khatami and his followers' diplomacy has failed. Do you think now it is better to elect the bad rather than the worst or elect none at all? if the latter is correct so what should be the plan? It is a tough question but it better be answered once!
Although the popular MohammadReza Shah's opposition initiated and succeeded to rule out the monarchy in 1979 with a doctrine based on Freedom and Independence, it was not more than a few month after when "protecting Islam" became the main discourse of the leadership of Iran's government and its charismatic figure, Ayatollah Khomeini. During the first decade of IRI the most important characteristics of this political system were justified by the ideology of "protecting Islam".
The acceptance of UN Resolution 598 was the very first public sign of a fundamental change in this discourse. However, it was too late for Ayatollah Khomeini to establish this change in the whole structure of the Islamic Republic, and Hojatoleslam Khamenei took the responsibility right after when he assumed the role of supreme spiritual leader. In the first step he called himself "the leader of the Islamic Republic" and not "the leader of the Islamic Revolution". It was an important point since the Islamic Revolution was considered a movement which has to be strengthen and ideally "exported". The "leader of the Islamic Republic" was an end to an ideology whose real father (USSR) was about to collapse. It was the era of the new discourse: the sake of the
Recently, under intense international pressure, IRI has signed an agreement on allowing the U.N. nuclear watchdog to conduct snap inspections across its territory. It was not clear at the beginning but now there is no doubt that IRI will succumb to every desire of Security Council or its individual members. It is not hard to assume that the supreme leader of IRI will soon be following Colonel Gadaffi's approach toward west and international community.
There are many ways to extend this though. My own picture of this new order seems not be clear enough to state my own position but let's open the debate with the following questions:
For many of us, direct intervention has reminded us of, most of the time, a war. Apparently that is not the case necessarily. Where do we stand on the responsibility (or right) of the international community to directly intervene in individual countries? It is not only the wisdom of intervening, but the ultimate right to do so.
We may consider the international pressure mounted on Iran to reveal its nuclear activities a right of the international community. The same intense pressure can be used in favor of democracy and human rights. Where is the line where we have to say "That's it. This is something to be dealt with among ourselves?".