Saturday, May 06, 2006

Shirin Ebadi: The Light At the End of the Tunnel

During the Cold War it was a dissident movement of human rights activists, writers and political agitators such as Andrei Sakharov, Vaclav Havel, Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn and Lech Walesa who were largely responsible for bringing down the Iron Curtain.

America’s steadfast counterweight to the Soviet Union certainly buttressed their efforts with the support of the western alliance. Yet for all of the Cold War intrigue, espionage, dramatic summits with men wearing high priced business suits, regional conflicts and billions spent on defense appropriations, it was the efforts of courageous souls who transcended superpower might on behalf of human dignity.

Such people are rare gems in humanity’s tapestry. They jeopardize their own lives to champion the cause of freedom and remind all of us that liberty is a privilege to be cherished and defended. Sakharov for example could have enjoyed a comfortable life as a nuclear physicist but instead became a dangerous irritant to the Kremlin. Shi Tao of China had the option of pursuing a career in poetry or simply being a careerist with the press. He chose to expose truth on behalf of a cause bigger than himself and is currently in jail.

Shirin Ebadi’s path to dissidence in Iran is unique. In March 1969 she became the first woman in Iranian history to serve as a judge. Under the Shah’s rule her career prospered and in 1975 Ebadi became the President of Teheran’s City Court. The rise of Khomeni and the Islamic Revolution in 1979 forever changed her life as women were no longer permitted to serve as judges.

“I and other female judges were dismissed from our posts and given clerical duties. They made me a clerk in the very court I once presided over. We all protested. As a result, they promoted all former female judges, including myself, to the position of ‘experts’ in the Justice Department. I could not tolerate the situation any longer, and so put in a request for early retirement. My request was accepted. Since the Bar Association had remained closed for some time since the revolution and was being managed by the Judiciary, my application for practicing law was turned down. I was, in effect, housebound for many years. Finally, in 1992 I succeeded in obtaining a lawyer's license and set up my own practice.”
In private practice she stood up for the rights of women in Iran’s theocracy, advocated on behalf of abused children, and dissidents from all corners of society. Embadi also unapologetically promoted human rights in her prodigious writings: The Rights of Refugees (Published by Ganj-e Danesh in 1993), History and Documentation of Human Rights in Iran, (Published by Roshangaran in 1993) and The Rights of Women, (Published by Ganj-e Danesh in 2002) are among her most important works.

In 2000, Ebadi received a suspended jail sentence for promoting evidence that conservative mullahs were instigating attacks on pro reform leaders. Ziba Mir Hosseini, of the School of Oriental Studies in London, and a friend of Ebadi’s noted that,

"She is a popular figure in Iran and also she's a key figure in reformist movement and like many other key figures in the movement she's been harassed by the conservative forces who control the judiciary."
Ebadi is currently in the United States to promote her new book, Iran Awakening (refer to the advertisements in the lower left sidebar from Amazon). Last night Margaret Warner on the PBS News Hour With Jim Lehrer interviewed Ebadi. As of this writing a transcript of the interview was not available online. However, click here and you can listen to the interview in its’ entirety. Below I transcribed as best I could a few of the more interesting quotes.

When Warner asked about the progress of democracy in Iran since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became President, Ebadi answered,

“Democracy in Iran is not moving forward because censorship is being applied in Iran more seriously.”
Ebadi further noted that human rights activists were imprisoned and during the interview it was revealed that she was targeted for assassination. When Warner inquired about how she could function in such a hostile environment, Ebadi’s dignified strength presented itself:

“It is in these bad situations that people like me have to work. If Iran was it’s own democracy or an advanced democracy than people like me don’t have to be active.”
Ebadi further noted that,

“Human rights activists regardless of where they are in our world will feel danger.”
Warner proceeded to ask a series of questions about American policy towards Iran and the diplomatic impasse regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Ebadi is not enamored of Bush’s policy to spend 75 million to promote democracy in Iran.

“No I don’t think that it benefits me or people like me because whoever speaks about democracy in Iran will be accused of having been paid by the United States.”
Warner followed up and asked what Ebadi thought about Bush calling for further democracy in the Muslim world:

“Can democracy be brought to a people by bombs? Democracy is a culture. It has to come from within a society. Not to be brought by America to society.”
Warner inquired how much Ebadi hoped to accomplish by herself in Iran:

“I do count on the help of the people of the world but not on the help of governments.”
Ebadi then returned to the topic of American policy:

“America’s approach on democracy is not a correct approach as I’ve told you. You cannot bring democracy through bombing people. The countries in the region that are allies of the United States do not enjoy an advanced democracy like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or Kuwait.”
Her observation about the current diplomatic crisis regarding nuclear energy was especially interesting:

“The government of Iran claims that it has peaceful purposes for nuclear energy. But the world does not buy that claim. The solution to this problem is bringing an advanced democracy in Iran. In a democracy people have a say in the government and they will not permit the government to abuse its power. For example France has a nuclear bomb but the world is not scared of France because France is a democracy and people supervise what their government is doing. And if the government of Iran wants the world to buy their word and accept their claim they have to move towards an advanced democracy in Iran.”
Sadly, I don’t agree with Ebadi that in a democracy the people “will not permit the government to abuse its power.” I used to feel that way but five years of Bush rule has disabused me of that notion because the American people were content to remain comatose while we invaded another country that did not threaten us abroad and curtailed personal freedoms at home. Nevertheless, an “advanced democracy” in Iran with nuclear weapons would be far easier to stomach.

Warner asked Ebadi what she thought America and the world should be doing about Iran’s nuclear program:

“Instead of putting pressure on Iran to terminate its’ nuclear program the pressure must be put to the government of Iran to bring democracy to Iran this is what I say to America and the world have forgotten about the human rights situation in Iran. Now that they feel they’re in danger they bring up the issue of human rights in Iran. And we should not accept that there is only one police for the whole world and that police can decide on everything.”
Warner inquired as to whether the majority of Iranians believe they should have a nuclear weapon:

“No. They don’t think so.”
I wonder about that response. She’s an Iranian citizen and would know better than any of us but that doesn’t sound likely to me. The people of China for example are very nationalistic. It would be understandable if most Iranians believed nuclear weapons might enhance their international prestige.

Ebadi warned that,

“An attack on Iran can have bad implications on the whole region. And can cause riots in the region.”
When asked how the Iranian people would respond to being attacked:

“The people of Iran criticize their government. Political criticism. However, not withstanding the criticisms the people of Iran will defend their country and will not let the aliens prevail.”
In the ‘70s, President Carter used his office to empower Andrei Sakharov because he recognized that the human spirit was the best weapon America had against totalitarianism. Years later Carter’s putting human rights on the international map paid dividends. Islamic fascism is unmitigated evil and we will not defeat it with gratuitous violence and pre-emptive war. Our best hope is to prevail by empowering an army of Shirin Ebadis.

A real President would empower Ebadi’s status by meeting with her publicly in a Rose Garden ceremony. A real President would also genuinely listen to what she has to say and not simply use her as a photo op for the evening news.

Our best asset is a commonality of values with heroic figures such as Shirin Ebadi. In a crazy world in which reactionary men such as Bush and Ahmadinejad became national leaders, she is the light at the end of a long dark tunnel.

SIDEBAR: It took a couple of days but cross postings for this topic in the community blogs did finally generate some interest. On European Tribune it was front paged by their resident sage, "Whataboutbob." It was also a "rescued diary" on Daily Kos by their CPR expert, "Susan G." and received some feedback in My Left Wing. My thanks to Whataboutbob and Susan G. for the exposure.


pansophia said...

Thank you for telling Shirin Ebadi's story in such detail. I didn't know anything about her, and her story conveys a lot about the growing pains of Iran and international Islam. I'm definitely going to go out and look for more.

liberal journal man said...

You sum it up best in your line, "Islamic fascism is unmitigated evil and we will not defeat it with gratuitous violence and pre-emptive war."

This is what liberals knew before the Iraq war and what many other less visionary Americans are beginning to realize now.

Our Administration's extreme good vs. evil view of the world will only further inflame anti-American sentiment, thereby empowering the Iranian regime.

This Administration has and continues to choose the certainty of war over the possibility of peae.

thepoetryman said...

Fine post! Shirin Ebadi stands out as a beacon of hope. I found some of the things she said like installing democracy to those countries as somewhat naive sounding, but as you point out, she lives there, so maybe it is more than that...? Nice job...

Bill said...

Thanks for this post. I've added ILJ to my blogroll and linked to your Shirin Ebadi story. It's unfortunate that we in the US aren't led by people who focus more on encouraging human rights activists like Ebadi than on banging the drums of war with their religious opponents.

I just interviewed an Iranian-American woman yesterday who's father was a contemporary of Ebadi's. There are so many people who share her struggle and whose voices are better heard when the hysteria of the fundamentalists isn't being fed from abroad.

LondonCaspian said...

Great post and equally good comments.

I saw Shirin Ebadi last night in London and she said all the above. She should be an inspiration for Iranians everywhere. Also, you're quite right that there are thousands of people like Ms. Ebadi, so lets give people like this a platform to speak and be heard. Thanks!