by Thasneem Ahmed, 5/10/08 • Engage Minnesota • On Friday, April 25, Hamline University had a wonderful event featuring Iranian lawyer, human rights activist and 2003 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr. Shirin Ebadi. Her lecture centered on the “Roots of Chaos in the Middle East,” and she gave an honest, frank assessment of the region’s problems as well as of potential solutions.
Minnesota Muslims are finding themselves voiceless, discussed, defined, categorized, psychoanalyzed, talked at and talked about without a serious attempt at inclusion. Muslims, and friends of Muslims, would like to change this climate. Engage Minnesota is a blog that begins that effort.
Dr. Ebadi also spoke passionately about women and youth, and their struggles to achieve equality and peace. She exuded confidence, courage and compassion as she touched upon the pain and difficulties of the Iranian people—but it was when she spoke of their amazing strengths and accomplishments that her spirit and pride radiated. By the end of the hour, it was clear why this amazing woman had won the Nobel Peace Prize. She truly is a powerful force for peace and a tribute to the women of the Middle East.
Ebadi’s Three Reasons for Political Instability
During her talk, Dr. Ebadi offered three main reasons for the region’s current political instability. First, she pointed out that although the U.S. is a democratic government and preaches democracy, in actuality it is supporting many non-democratic countries in the Middle East (for example: Saudi Arabia). This hypocrisy frustrates many in the region. In Iran, it has led to the youth’s support of the Iranian government, not so much because the government is good, but because they see the ruling party as having the courage to stand up to the hypocrisy.
The second reason she gave was the Israeli-Palestinian issue, which she called a complex and difficult situation. However, she said, mothers on both sides are working together to help their children. Many Israeli mothers understand the harsh, oppressive and painful difficulties facing the Palestinians. And many Palestinian mothers tell their children that violence only begets violence. On both sides, Ebadi said, it is the women who are making great strides to find peace.
For centuries, Ebadi noted, Jews and Muslims had lived together peacefully. In many places in the Middle East, they still do. It was only after World War II that the current conflict began. In truth, it is a political conflict, she said, not a religious one. She added that there is no need for anyone in the Middle East region—such as Pakistan, India, or Israel—to have nuclear weapons.
The third reason Ebadi gave for the current chaos is the American-led invasion of Iraq. Every day, tens to hundreds of Iraqi civilians are killed, many of them innocent women and children. Before this terrible war, the Iraqi people had to deal only with Saddam Hussein, who the world agrees was a ruthless dictator. But at least then, the people had only one fight to focus on. Now, Ebadi contended, the Iraqi people not only must still fight dictatorship, but they also must also fight against hunger and starvation, fundamentalism, terrorism, violence and death on a daily basis.
People in the Middle East, Ebadi said, often ask: “Why Iraq?” Yes, Saddam Hussein was a dictator—but was he the only dictator in the world? It seems that the answer to this question is that in Iraq, there is a lot of oil, and, in the other countries, there is none.
In Iran, Democracy Must Come from the People
In Iran, Ebadi said, there is much that is good, but there are also many problems. The people are very educated and more than sixty-five percent of the students in its universities are women. Many jobs are held by women: occupations such as lawyers, professors, doctors, teachers and engineers. However, there are also many problems within the current government and Iran has its share of human rights violations and oppression of its women.
There is also the issue of poverty. One in seven Iranians is living below the poverty line, which translates to living on less on less than a dollar a day. This is shameful, Ebadi said, because Iran is a country with many natural resources (oil, copper, and mines are just a few) and yet nearly 15 percent of its people live in poverty. There are many challenges and problems in Iran, but the people love their country. They are strong and are working to improve the conditions, and, Ebadi said, it is the women who are leading the way and making great strides.
According to Dr. Ebadi, the Iranian people oppose any foreign interference, and she added that “democracy is not a good to be sold into a country.” Democratic reform is a process and must be done in incremental steps. If it is a sudden event, then it is not a reform, but a revolution. Democracy is something that must come from the people themselves and, in fact, Iran has a history of democracy. In 1905, when the Russians had the Czars and the Turks had the Ottomans, it was in Iran that the first democratic revolution in the world took place.
Dr. Ebadi also noted that most of the Iranian people are not happy with their current government and that they want democracy–but at the same time, they oppose foreign interference. She stated that not only do the Iranian people oppose military attacks, they also oppose the threat of a military attack. Violence only begets violence, she asserted, and no one will benefit.
Ebadi then addressed Iran’s nuclear capacity, saying that, to date, there has not been a single violation. The Iranian people often wonder why the United States doesn’t seem to worry about the countries with actual nuclear weapons or of those in violation of nuclear-development rules, and yet instead focuses on speculation that at some time in the future, there may be a possible violation in Iran. These types of hypocrisies and double standards upset the Iranian people as well as others in the Middle East.
In Iran, Dr. Ebadi said, there are many problems. But these, she said, are our [Iranians’] problems and we [Iranians] will solve them.
Dr. Ebadi proved to be an amazing woman, and her lecture drew cheers, applause and a standing ovation. Her words were inspiring, and even more impressive considering the fact that her talk was completely given through a translator.
Thank you, Hamline, for this wonderful treat. And thank you, Dr. Shirin Ebadi, for living a life of service with courage and honesty. May God bless you.
Thasneem Ahmed is a mother, business owner, and pre-law student who lives in Woodbury, Minn.