Politics & Policy

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.”

‐She opposed, and has opposed, the Afghan War, too, correct?

“Yes . . . There are better ways of eradicating terrorism. I am deeply sorry about 9/11. But personally, I believe that, instead of invading Afghanistan . . . I think if the U.S. had built 4,000 schools in Afghanistan, in memory of the 4,000 or so people who were killed on 9/11 [she means 3,000, of course], it would have been a better way of fighting terrorism.”

She further said that the schools could have been named for the victims of 9/11. “Let’s imagine that one of the victims was called George. If America built a school called George, in the name of that victim, [an] Afghan child would grow up knowing how George was killed on 9/11, and that would be a better lesson to that Afghan child.”

‐Shirin Ebadi believes that every people should determine its own fate. Fine. But how can people who live under a totalitarian dictatorship — as Iraqis did — determine their own fate? Aren’t they powerless to do so?

“Once people have information and awareness, they will be able to make decisions. For example, why do you think the people of the Arab awakening rose up, which they did not do 15 years ago? It was thanks to the Internet. It raised awareness. So, thanks to the Internet, they managed to build networks and interact with one another.

“Which is exactly why I said earlier that, if you want to help our people, you have to help them have access to the free flow of information, to a free Internet, not controlled by the dictatorship. That is the way to help democracy, not a military invasion.”

‐Ebadi opposes the Iraq and Afghan wars, mightily. But, as a human-rights personality and Nobel peace laureate, can she at least be happy that people no longer have to suffer the monstrous cruelties of rule by Saddam Hussein or the Taliban?

“Yes, of course. It was a positive phenomenon that they managed to topple Saddam Hussein and fight the Taliban. But at what price? There were less costly and better ways of achieving the same results, while avoiding the killing of all those innocent people.”

‐Do you support the right of Israel to exist, as a Jewish state?

“I believe there should be two states, Israel and Palestine.”

‐Care to say anything more about President Bush? What about President Obama?

“As regards the former president, Bush, I think that what I’ve told you so far about what he did in Iraq and Afghanistan will suffice. Regarding President Obama, I would like to say that I’m in favor of his policy for the Middle East. I think it was very important that he gave his support to the people of Tunisia and Egypt, and called on their dictators to leave. It’s very important that he supported the people of Libya. I think that the United States must no longer defend dictators.”

(Evidently, Ebadi does not oppose military action in Libya, despite her stated rule against foreign intervention.)

‐I had read that she was in favor of the Iranian nuclear program for peaceful purposes, but against Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.

“No,” she told me, sharply. “I never supported the nuclear program, and I’ve always believed that they must halt uranium enrichment. Iran must listen to the United Nations Security Council.”

Ebadi believes that nuclear energy “is not good for the environment.” Iran is vulnerable to earthquakes. So “there is a great possibility” of the kind of tragedy that has occurred in Japan. And what are Iranians “going to do with the atomic waste?”

Moreover, says Ebadi, “we have great reserves of gas. We have the second-biggest gas reserves in the world. We have a lot of sunshine, so we can have solar panels. So, it is not in the national interest for us to continue with the enrichment of uranium.

“Not to mention the restrictions that have been created, because of the uranium enrichment, for our country. Iran has become isolated.”

‐On the impact of her Nobel peace prize on the cause of human rights and democracy in Iran:

“It has had an extremely positive effect. Up to that time [the awarding of her prize in 2003], only the NGO that I had set up was working on the subject of human rights. But now, fortunately, there are numerous people in the country who are focusing on human rights, and in my view that is one of the impacts of my winning the Nobel peace prize.”

And, “the Nobel peace prize demonstrated to the Iranian people that human rights are the best way of realizing democracy.”

One more related comment: “The Nobel peace prize enabled me to raise my voice and make sure that more people around the globe hear me, which was naturally conducive to my work.”

‐Before we parted, Ebadi told me about her new book, The Golden Cage: Three Brothers, Three Choices, One Destiny. She uses as her epigram a comment from Ali Shariati, a famous Iranian sociologist who lived from 1933 to 1975. He may appear an unusual person for Ebadi to be quoting: a revolutionary ideologue, part Khomeinist and part Marxist. He promoted something he called “red Shiism.”

Anyway, Ebadi recited the epigram to me: “If you cannot eliminate injustice, at least tell everyone about it.”

‐In my National Review piece on her, I explained that her country’s authorities went into her safe-deposit box and stole her Nobel medal, along with other items (including her Légion d’honneur). That was in 2009.

I concluded my piece this way:

I bump into her at dinner, a few hours after her speech [to the Oslo Freedom Forum], and ask about her medal. She has it back. They have given it back to her. But they have kept her money, her house, and other things. We express together a simple thought: what a happy day it will be when she can go back and reclaim them.




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