A Laureate in Exile


In Oslo last month, on the “sidelines” of the Oslo Freedom Forum, I had an interview with Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer who won the 2003 Nobel peace prize. A piece appeared in the June 6 National Review: “Iran’s Lawyer and Laureate.” I thought I would do something additional in today’s Impromptus: print some extracts from our interview.

First, a speck more biography.

Ebadi was born in 1947, the daughter of an expert on commercial law (Mohammad Ali Ebadi). According to most accounts, she became the first female judge in the entire history of Iran. An amazing distinction, given the age of the country. But when the Khomeinists seized power, she had to quit being a judge. They said that Islam forbade women to serve as judges — for one thing, they were too emotional. So, Ebadi devoted herself to work as a human-rights lawyer.

She has been living in exile since 2009, when Iran experienced a great amount of turmoil. It is my understanding that she still has family in Iran. (I did not ask this in my time with her, which was a generous amount of time, but not unlimited.) One question has been, How free is Shirin Ebadi to speak her mind, given what the regime can do to her loved ones?

Over the years, she has spouted her fair share of anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric (or rhetoric that can be interpreted that way). Some Iranians have suspected that she does this in order to buy a little protection from the regime — to keep it from her own and others’ throats.

As we talked in the lobby of Oslo’s Grand Hotel, it seemed to me that she was speaking exactly what was on her mind, with no hesitancy or caution or hedging whatsoever: only full conviction.

Here, then, some extracts.

I asked, “What can the United States do, right now, to help the Iranian people?”

She pointed out that Washington had put eight individuals on a “blacklist.” These were Iranian officials who had participated in the killing following the 2009 election. The U.S. has denied them visas and frozen their assets, where possible. “I think that’s a good measure that the United States has taken,” Ebadi said.

“But the European Union has come up with a similar list,” one “with the names of 32 individuals on it. It would be a good idea if the United States expanded its list and followed the example of Europe.”

(I might mention here that Ebadi spoke through an interpreter. She speaks some English and understands more, but she regularly relies on an interpreter.)

She then said that the U.S. should do everything it can to help Iranians gain access to the Internet — free and unfettered access. The Iranian authorities frustrate Internet usage in multifarious ways.

“Of course,” said Ebadi, “the government recently announced plans to launch a ‘halal’ Internet, which is totally ridiculous.” Halal is the Islamic equivalent of kosher (more or less), and the government actually used this word, to describe the Internet it has in mind. “As a Muslim,” Ebadi cracked, “I always thought it was only meat that had to be halal.”

So, “if the United States and the West in general helped the Iranian people to have access to the Internet,” the kind of Internet “not controlled by the government,” that “would be a great help.”

Question: “Did the U.S. let down the Iranian people during the summer of 2009?” (We Americans were basically bystanders, with the White House silent, as democracy protesters were killed in the streets.)

Answer: “No. That is not what I think, because I don’t think America should intervene in the domestic affairs of another country. The fight to realize democracy is the task of us Iranians, and assistance from the United States should be at the levels I’ve mentioned.”

(Of course, the Iranian dissident community, and democracy movement, is divided on this question. You will hear different answers from different individuals and factions.)

Some of Ebadi’s critics — critics in the democracy movement — say that she is an “apologist for political Islam.” She wants to tinker around the edges, they say, rather than replace the Iranian dictatorship with a democratic government. She is content to have “Islamic republics,” they say. Some exiles picketed her Nobel ceremony.

To me last month, Ebadi said this: “If I were to rewrite the constitution, you can be sure I would write something different from what we have at the moment. Personally, I believe in a secular republic. However, as a human-rights activist, I believe we should pursue a path that does not lead to bloodshed.”

In 2006, Ebadi was quoted as saying the following about George W. Bush: “When someone claims that he has a mission from God to bring war to Iraq and kill the people of Iraq, this is a kind of terrorism and a kind of fundamentalism.” Did she say it? And, if so, did she mean it?

In brief, yes and yes. “I think whoever thinks that God has given him permission to take arms and kill people, in order to make them happy, is a fundamentalist.” An Islamist country “wants to take everyone to heaven by force.” The Soviet Union “wanted to make everyone happy by force.” These are all “kinds of fundamentalism.”

More Ebadi: “The people of every country must determine their own fate. America had no right to attack Iraq. I continue to be against the invasion of Iraq, and I was of course vindicated. I was proven right. Can you see how fundamentalism has actually increased in Iraq? The same applies to terrorism. It has also increased in Iraq.”

Note well, readers, that I am not challenging Shirin Ebadi (now). I am quoting her, letting her speak.

“Yes, Saddam Hussein was truly bad and evil. But you Americans” — at this point she tapped me on the arm — “must bear in mind that, when Saddam Hussein waged war on Iran — we had an eight-year war with Iraq — America considered Saddam Hussein its close ally. At a time when the Iraqi government was bombarding Iran with chemical weapons, Donald Rumsfeld was in Iraq shaking hands with Saddam Hussein.

“Yet a few years after that [20], under the pretext of democracy, they invaded Iraq. Democracy is not just a commodity that you can export to another country, especially if you do this through dropping bombs on people. That is why I continue to oppose the invasion of Iraq.”