Magazine | June 6, 2011, Issue

Iran’s Lawyer and Laureate

Shirin Ebadi (Roman Genn)
A sit-down with Shirin Ebadi

Oslo, Norway — Shirin Ebadi has been here in Oslo before: for example, when she picked up her Nobel peace prize in 2003. She is back this year, participating in the Oslo Freedom Forum, the annual human-rights conference organized by Thor Halvorssen, a Norwegian-Venezuelan dynamo. He gathers people from all corners of the earth — especially the darkest corners — to talk about freedom and how to advance it.

Ebadi is an Iranian lawyer — indeed, she was a judge. Apparently, she was the first woman in Iranian history to serve as a judge. That is an amazing distinction. But her judgeship came to an end in 1979, when Khomeini and his gang seized power. In their opinion, Islam forbade women to serve as judges. For one thing, they were too emotional. So, Ebadi became a defense lawyer, a human-rights lawyer. She was particularly devoted to helping women and children.

Her Nobel prize in 2003 came as something of a surprise — to herself and others. The frontrunner that year, according to press speculation, was Pope John Paul II. Also in the running was the Czech Republic’s Václav Havel. Why did the Norwegian Nobel Committee select Ebadi? In its announcement, the committee made sure to say that Ebadi was a “conscious Muslim.” Moreover, she was one who saw “no conflict between Islam and fundamental human rights.”

Ebadi happened to be in Paris when the announcement was made, and she held an impromptu press conference. It was widely noted that she wore no headscarf. Her rule was, she wore one at home in Iran, to comply with the law. But outside the country, no. It ought to be a matter of choice, she said.

At her press conference, she delighted many when she denounced what the United States and its allies were doing in Afghanistan and Iraq. She also warned against any similar activity in her own country: “The fight for human rights is conducted in Iran by the Iranian people, and we are against any foreign intervention in Iran.” It was unclear exactly whom she meant by “we”: Iranian democrats have long disagreed on the matter of foreign intervention, or help.

On arrival back home in Iran, she was accorded a hero’s welcome — not by the government, but by the people. Thousands of them swarmed Tehran’s airport, hoping to get a glimpse of the new laureate, this symbol of hope. Here in Oslo, she will remind me that some flights had to be canceled: Travelers could not reach the airport, for the throngs.

In the Iranian dissident community, however, opinion was divided. Some found Ebadi too “soft,” too moderate, too willing to work within the system. They called her an apologist for “political Islam.” On the day of the Nobel ceremony in Oslo, some exiles even staged a protest against her. Of course, exiles were much freer to speak than those in Iran, where Ebadi still lived.

She delivered a Nobel lecture, in which she sounded her great theme: the compatibility between Islam and democracy. She also hit hard against the American prison at Guantanamo Bay, Israel, the Iraq War, and so on. In the years following her prize, she led in some ways a typical laureate’s life. She gave commencement addresses in the West. She joined campaigns against Israel. She collected still more prizes. At a “peace jam” in Denver in 2006, she was quoted as saying this, about Pres. 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.” You will get that kind of language — an absurd but harmful lie — from almost any Nobel laureate.

#page#But she was atypical in this way: She did not live and work in some comfy liberal democracy; she lived and worked in danger, in Iran. Some Iranians said that she doled out anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric to buy a little protection. In 2008, the authorities raided her office and shut it down. The next year, they went into her safe-deposit box and took her Nobel medal, along with other items (her Légion d’honneur, for example). Starting in 2009, she found it prudent to stay abroad.

I meet her in the lobby of the Grand Hotel, where the Nobel committee puts up its laureates, and holds its banquet. Ebadi is in her mid-sixties now. She is short, elegant, and well coiffed. And she speaks with the assurance and precision of an accomplished lawyer, or judge. I first ask her what the United States can do, right now, to help the Iranian cause (i.e., the Iranian people).

She points out that Washington has put eight individuals on a “blacklist.” These are Iranian officials who participated in the killing following the 2009 election in Iran. The U.S. has denied them visas and frozen their assets, where possible. Ebadi further points out that the European Union has a similar list — but it is longer, having 32 Iranians on it. The United States should “follow the example of Europe,” she says.

She also says that the U.S. should do everything it can to help Iranians gain access to the Internet: free and unfettered. “Of course, the government,” meaning the Iranian 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 quips, “I always thought it was only meat that had to be halal.” She is one who believes that the Internet has been hugely important in what she calls “the Arab awakening.”

Did the United States let Iranians down in 2009, when it basically stood on the sidelines as they were protesting, and dying? Oh, no, says Ebadi: “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.”

I ask whether she was quoted accurately at the Denver peace jam, and, if so, whether she really meant what she said about Bush. Her answer, in sum, is yes and yes. “America had no right to attack Iraq,” she says. (Neither did Saddam Hussein, I would add.) She believes that intervention has made Iraq worse. She proceeds to talk about the Iran–Iraq War, with some heat. “At a time when the Iraqi government was bombarding Iran with chemical weapons, Donald Rumsfeld was in Iraq shaking hands with Saddam Hussein.” Twenty years later, she says, the U.S. was invading Iraq “under the pretext of democracy.”

She is no friendlier to the Afghan War. “I am deeply sorry about 9/11.” But “there are better ways of eradicating terrorism.” She thinks that, “instead of invading Afghanistan,” the U.S. should have built 3,000 schools there, in memory of the 3,000 who were killed on 9/11. She further suggests that the schools could have been named after the victims. She does not say that, in the midst of all their nation building, the Americans and their allies have done much school building.

For Bush’s successor, President Obama, she has nothing but praise. She applauds, for example, his support of “the people of Libya.” We can see that Ebadi’s opposition to American intervention is not uniform.

#page#I find that, contrary to what some of her critics say, she does not favor Islamic republics or “political Islam.” About her own country, she says, “If I were to rewrite the constitution, you can be sure I would write something different from what we have at the moment. I believe in a secular republic.” Also, she makes clear her opposition to the Iranian nuclear program. Some press reports have said that she favors it, for peaceful purposes. She does not: She opposes it for purposes both peaceful and unpeaceful. And she thinks that Tehran should heed the U.N. Security Council.

Later in the day, she addresses the Oslo Freedom Forum in the Christiania Theater. She is the last of the conference’s speakers, the grand finale. In her speech, she sings a hymn to “freedom of thought and expression.” This freedom is critical to everything, she says. By the way, I spot Geir Lundestad in the audience. He is the longtime secretary to the Nobel committee, and the director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute. I think, “In a sense, he’s checking up on the committee’s investment.”

At the rostrum, Ebadi switches gears, taking up the question of “the boundaries of freedom of speech.” She cites the U.N.’s “Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” for which she obviously has a lot of respect. Article 20 reads, “Any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law.” And, “Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.” Then she alludes to some controversies of recent years.

She says that, “in a country where a majority are Muslims, and there is just a minority of Christians, such as Iran or Pakistan, one should not have the right to draw cartoons of Jesus or burn copies of the Bible. Why? Because, in doing so, you are humiliating the minority population of your country,” in addition to “inciting hatred.” Likewise, “in a country such as Denmark,” one should not have the right to draw cartoons of Mohammed or burn the Koran. Such activities “are not freedom of expression,” as Article 20 makes clear, she says. “Let us instead use freedom of expression for literary and scientific creativity.”

This view of civil liberties does not sit well with everyone in the theater. Conversations afterward leave no doubt of that. But her view of Iran sits well with everybody: that it should be free and democratic, that the curtain of totalitarianism must lift. I myself have often been frustrated with Ebadi. I especially think she has slighted the victims of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein — and of the PLO and Hamas. But I also know that she has stuck her neck out, risking much, for the sake of her fellow Iranians. The rulers of her country hate and fear her for good reason. Their hatred and fear are as much a commendation as the Nobel prize.

I bump into her at dinner, a few hours after her speech, 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.

– Mr. Nordlinger, an NR senior editor, has written a history of the Nobel peace prize, to be published next year by Encounter.

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