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The Stoning of Soraya M. -- A Must-See Film About Moral Courage

This week, among the most important movies of my generation, The Stoning of Soraya M., comes out in DVD and Blu-Ray.

The Stoning, starring recent Emmy-award winner Shohreh Aghdashloo, dramatizes the true story of an Iranian village wife whose deceitful husband sets her up for execution so that he can marry an unsuspecting girl in the city.

Ultimately, though, this isn't a tale of female victimhood. Instead, it's about moral courage. The target of the stoning -- Soraya -- has an aunt who shows us that even when you can't stop the crime unfolding before you, there's always an opportunity to use your mind, conscience and voice for longer-term good. That's what Aunt Zahra does in this film. I won't tell you how she does it, you'll just have to watch the film and see for yourself!

Beyond buying it, I hope you'll screen it in your homes, churches, temples, mosques, classrooms and community centers. The questions unleashed by The Stoning will generate amazing conversations.

I should know. My NYU leadership program, the Moral Courage Project, launched a human rights campaign around the film. Thanks to the participation of people worldwide, we won the 2009 Visionary Award from the Women's International Film and Television Showcase. This couldn't have happened without student bloggers, Facebookers, Tweeps and others engaging about what it means to be a global citizen today.

For example, are non-Muslims "allowed" to comment on issues that affect Muslim women -- such as the so-called honor killing of Soraya? If you watch a movie like The Stoning, are you sticking your nose in "other" people's business? In an interdependent world, is there such a thing as "other" people?

To get you into the spirit of hi-octane discussion, here's what I would say if I were part of the film club that I want you to create once you see the movie:

As a Muslim reformer, I routinely receive heart-wrenching emails from fellow Muslims whose basic human rights are being violated -- not by "outsiders" but by members of their own communities. Equally saddening is that self-professed human rights activists in the West often play the purity game, suggesting that you can't comment if you don't represent.

Their misguided conviction: Anyone living in the West can't legitimately expose oppressive practices in cultures elsewhere. Hm... Would they say the same to Muslims in the traditional Islamic world who expose America's human rights abuses at Gitmo or Abu Ghraib? Of course not.

Nor should they. Human rights, being human, are above the politics of identity. As Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out in his Letter from a Birmingham City Jail, "Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, parochial, 'outside agitator' idea."

But it seems that Elise Auerbach, Iran specialist for Amnesty International USA, can more than live with the narrow and parochial. She practices it in her baffling denunciation of The Stoning of Soraya M.

Tellingly, Amnesty itself released a January 2008 report that described stonings as "grotesque and unacceptable". In its press release about the report, Amnesty called on "the Iranian authorities to abolish death by stoning and impose an immediate moratorium on this horrific practice, specifically designed to increase the suffering of victims."

In her remarkably contradictory review of The Stoning -- a review in which she acknowledges the report -- Auerbach emphasizes that "Iranians don't need people from outside Iran telling them what is good for them..."

Really? Then why did her own organization dare to tell Iranian authorities what to do in its report against stoning?

And why did Amnesty feature The Stoning at its 2009 annual film festival?

Above all, why did Amnesty invite Cyrus Nowrasteh, the Iranian-American director of The Stoning, to introduce the film at its festival? Is it because he's Iranian? If so, then what makes him someone "from outside" according to Auerbach?

Of course, Nowrasteh is American too. In which case, isn't Auerbach's employer -- UK-based Amnesty -- complicit in promoting interference by outsiders? Why does she continue to work for them and make herself part of the interference that she believes is a problem?

Within its own ranks, Amnesty International needs an intellectually honesty debate about how to realize its motto, 'Defending Human Rights Worldwide.' Personally, I can attest that more than a few Amnesty activists worry about the scourge of moral and cultural relativism in their midst. That's the single biggest concern confided to me when I presented at Amnesty's 2006 conference in Mexico City.

Delegates told me that Amnesty International has no clear message about honor-based crimes, including stoning, because nobody wants to be deemed a bigot. As if defending human rights worldwide has ever been a matter of politeness.

It's 2010 and apparently Amnesty has not resolved its dilemma. Auerbach condemns a movie that spotlights an Iranian heroine -- Soraya's aunt, Zahra -- who tries to stop the stoning. Zahra is a Muslim who realizes her faith by speaking truth to power about the non-negotiable need for human dignity.

And yet, according to Auerbach, hapless audience dupes will respond with "disgust and revulsion at Iranians themselves, who are portrayed as primitive and bloodthirsty savages." Thus, "we" -- idiotic Westerners who can't be trusted to reach independent conclusions -- "still have to wait" for a "thoughtful" film about executions in Iran.

I hope we don't have to wait for thoughtful human rights activists to speak truth to power in their organizations. Dissidents do exist, as I learned at the Amnesty conference that I attended. Will they exercise their own freedom of conscience? Of this, I can't be sure. Moral courage is always more difficult than self-censorship.