A Question of Interpretation

 Shireen Ebadi

Shirin Ebadi

“In the last 23 years, from the day I was stripped of my judgeship to the years of doing battle in the revolutionary courts of Tehran, I had repeated one refrain: an interpretation of Islam that is in harmony with equality and democracy is an authentic expression of faith. It is not religion that binds women, but the selective dictates of those who wish them cloistered. That belief, along with the conviction that change in Iran must come peacefully and from within, has underpinned my work."

The Majalla: In the context of this quote from your book Iran Awakening, in what light do you view the nascent supremacy of political Islam in North Africa?

I hope people of the Middle East have learned a lesson from Iran’s fate. A revolution is not all about toppling a dictator. Fulfilling a revolution’s democratic promises and the institutionalization of democracy are the main causes of a revolution. It's probably too early to tell what the result will be.

At this point we see the Islamic parties winning elections in North Africa. I believe no sects or religious ideologies should be mixed with politics. Those who gain power must be aware that they should listen to the people and their demands, which may change in the future. However, if an administration is based on religion, people cannot voice their various demands.

Within such a system, religion—including Islam—is turned into a tool to serve one’s own benefit; people in power can justify their violence under the name of religion. They are committed to a certain interpretation of a religion that guarantees their power. I believe the first condition of achieving a democratic system is to build principles of government free of all religious interpretations.

Islamists have won elections in Egypt and Tunisia. However, electoral success cannot be considered a permit for the majority that won the election to impose their beliefs on minorities. Democracy does not mean the government of the majority. Democracy means the government considers the rights of minorities.

Q: What do you think of the role of women activists in Arab Spring?

Women are one half of a society and without their participation no social change can take place. Women adopted roles of activists and no significant event could have happened without their participation and without their agreement. But I find it painful that women always play major roles in progress in Islamic countries, but they do not achieve their rights. I refer to the Iranian Revolution, when women stood shoulder to shoulder with men. Women were arrested, killed and imprisoned. However, after the revolution, many discriminative laws were ratified against women and violated their human rights.

Q: Do you fear for the infringement of women’s rights under newly conservative governments, or is an Islamist regime preferable to the thuggery displayed during the beating of women protesters who demonstrated against the SCAF in Egypt?

We have tried to offer various interpretations of Islam before ratifying laws in Iran. Although the Iranian government has refused to hear other voices, we can suggest that the North African countries consider various angles of one subject. For instance, Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri’s interpretation of Islam is thoroughly different from what the government formally practices. There have been severe disputes over rights of the Baha’i, and their case can be a good example. At the time that the government refused to grant rights of education to the Baha’i, the moderate Montazeri issued a verdict and announced that the Baha’i of Iran are entitled to civil and human rights.

My point here is that apart from separating religion from government, we must offer various interpretations of Islam. People should be able to choose among available interpretations according to their time and situation.

Such cultural approaches can help Muslims to be aware of their rights and realize that not everything that a government does under the name of Islam is Islamic and they do not own keys to heaven.

Q: The violent crisis in Syria is growing worse by the day; given your non-violent principles you must be alarmed by what is happening there. How might the toppling of the Assad regime affect Iran?

When people abandon a dictatorship and their country becomes democratic, they have influence on other countries as well. Everything is chained together in this world and turned into a global village. Building democracy in the region will definitely affect the process of democracy in Iran. Among the countries in the region, Syria enjoys a special position for Iranians. Not only is Syria a friend of the Islamic Republic of Iran, but it also is a puppet of the Iranian government. We often hear Iranian officials describing the Syrian government and the Lebanese Hezbollah as two red lines in the country’s foreign policy.

Iran supports Bashar Assad’s administration financially and the allotted budget is used to suppress people’s protests. YouTube videos show Syrian people burning the flag of Iran and chanting slogans against Iran. Iran is supporting Syria at a time that even the Arab League has turned its back on the country and told Assad to stop the ongoing massacre.

If Assad is toppled, and if a democratically elected government takes power in the country, that democratic government will not be willing to be the puppet of any other country. Iran will lose one of its closest allies in the region.

Q: Has your position changed regarding the pursuit of nuclear power in Iran? Beyond notions of national pride, is it not a national right?

Iran insists that its nuclear program is a civilian one, aimed at generating electricity for peaceful purposes. I cannot comment on how true this claim is. Policy-making within the Iranian government has always happened behind closed doors and away from citizens’ observation. As a result, I cannot comment on the credibility of such a claim. However, I believe that even if it is a peaceful program, it is still unnecessary. Iran enjoys high solar and wind energy potential, which are both cheaper than nuclear energy. Iran could build green energy plants with a lower cost. The launch of Bushehr Nuclear Plant seems to be the latest nuclear achievement of Iran. However, I find it dangerous because Iran is located on the Alpide belt—the second most seismic region in the world.

If a strong earthquake happens in southern Iran, we will face something worse than the Fukushima nuclear disaster. At this point, I raise this question: While countries that already have nuclear plants, namely Germany, decide to shut them down for good for environmental reasons; how come we decide to initiate our own nuclear plant under the same circumstances?

Q: This year’s legislative elections have been dismissed as illegitimate by reformist candidates. Is it wise for opponents of the establishment to play a calculated risk and boycott the polls—thereby withdrawing from the system?

I personally have not voted in any election since the parliamentary election in the year 2000 and I will not vote at this election either. But there is always a future and people should, peacefully, urge governments to include their demands.


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