Last Friday I went to hear a keynote address from Iran's only Nobel Peace Laureate, Dr. Shirin Ebadi. I was blown away.
Dr. Ebadi is a human rights lawyer who used the 2003 Nobel Prize money to start the recently shut down Defenders of Human Rights Center in Tehran. She has worked tirelessly to promote the status of Iranian women, with the highly successful One Million Signatures Campaign, and to challenge the legitimacy of the 2009 Iranian election results and subsequent crackdown on protesters demanding political reform.
On October 9th Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, I sat amongst a sold-out crowd and, on the edge of my seat, listened to Iran's most prominent voice for peace.
Dr. Ebadi wasted no time, her message was clear: In order to achieve peace with the Middle East we must work toward cross-cultural understanding, prioritize the issue of human rights in formal negotiations, and most important, not be paralyzed by action from fear and hate.
With the poise of a university professor, Dr. Ebadi schooled the crowd on the emergence of modern anti-Islamic rhetoric, citing the misguided and politically influential essay "Clash of Civilizations" published in 1993 by the late Samuel Huntington. According to Huntington, human rights and democracy are fundamentally unattainable in Islamic states and therefore a clash between Islam and the West is inevitable.
It is no coincidence, said Ebadi, that with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War came the creation of a new enemy in Islam. She reminded us that before the early 90's, Islamic factions were militarily and financially propped up by the U.S. as allies in the fight against the spread of Communism (the Taliban, for example, were given resources and training to combat the Russian invasion of Afghanistan). Until recently, no one questioned whether or not human rights and democracy were compatible with Islam.
She brilliantly pointed out that in addition to Neo-Conservatives in the United States (Huntington's theories carried great weight with Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice), there is a second group that supports the claim that human rights and Islam are irreconcilable ... the Non-Democratic Islamic States themselves.
Ebadi bravely declared that such States, including Iran, "hide behind the shield of Islam to justify the repression of their people in the name of Islam, and that those in power interpret Islamic law in a manner that guarantees their continued power."
Dr. Ebadi made no secret of the fact that human rights violations in Iran are severe, citing examples of laws that place the value of a woman's life as half that of a man, as well as the persecution of Iranians that practice the Bahá'í faith.
In an uncompromising stance, Dr. Ebadi demonstrated how the divide between the West and Islam has been deliberately fueled to support interests on both sides: Western powers equating radical acts of terrorism by extremists such as Al-Qaeda with the beliefs of all Muslims; Non-Democratic Islamic States refusing to recognize The Universal Declaration of Human Rights or entertain progressive interpretations of Islamic Sharia law.
So how do we cross this seemingly impassable divide? With increased understanding and courage, says Ebadi.
We must look to the examples of Islamic States that have promoted rights and democracy, such as Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh who have all elected women to their highest political positions; or Morocco, Algeria and Malaysia (along with many other Islamic states) that have abolished harsh physical punishments such as stoning or amputation, still practiced in Iran. Such examples demonstrate that Islam does not have a single interpretation, nor can it be considered a single foe.
Simply rephrased by Ebadi, "it is the dictators that are opposed to human rights, not Islam."
One-sixth of the world's population is Muslim, belonging to a culture that is primarily based on the principles of peace and tranquility. As Dr. Ebadi spoke, I thought of all the human rights movements in history that have overcome great injustices (e.g. Anti-Apartheid, Satyagraha), and how we in the audience were witnessing one of history's bravest voices calling all of us to act. It sent chills up my spine.
As citizens of the West we must listen to and encourage progressive Muslim voices and not let fear-mongering from either side solidify our views on the ability for Islam and the West to find peace.
As Dr. Ebadi stated, "All religions practice and preach the same message, the message of peace. We have many commonalities, so let us begin with our commonalities. Wars and divisive actions only add to our problems. Psychology tells us that when we do not understand something, we become afraid of it...and once that fear is instilled in us, it develops into a hate for the source of that insecurity."
When asked if she is ever afraid, she responded honestly saying, "I am glad to be alive to speak to you all today. I have been threatened to death on numerous occasions and have come across evidence that my murder has been ordered by the Iranian Intelligence Minister. But fear is an instinct, just like hunger. Without desiring to, we become hungry. When in a dangerous situation, without willing it, we become afraid. So yes, I am afraid. But having worked for many years towards human rights, I have learned to control my fear and will not allow it to interfere with my work."
She left us with a special message for US President Barack Obama, awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize that same morning, saying "I hope that this award will increase his commitment to building international peace. With respect to my country, Iran, I hope that in negotiations he does not only focus on the nuclear issue, but also on the need for human rights and Democracy."
I walked away from Dr. Ebadi's speech, which opened a symposium on Women's Leadership and Activism in The Muslim World, emboldened and optimistic about the possibility of reform in Iran and the end of destructive wars between the West and the Middle East.
I hope President Obama is listening to his fellow Peace Laureate. I hope we can all take Shirin Ebadi's wisdom and apply it to our own analysis of the current discord between the West and the Islamic world ... refusing all the while to let our fears turn into hate and paralyze us from compassionate action.
Featured in Ed and Deb Shapiro's new book, BE THE CHANGE, How Meditation Can Transform You And The World, with forewords by HH Dalai Lama and Robert Thurman.