Shirin Ebadi Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Struggle for Human Rights in Iran: Conversation with Shirin Ebadi, 2003 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate; May 10, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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Education and Democracy

In addition to the law, is it correct to say that you believe that education is an important element in changing Iran for the better?

Yes. Education is very important in helping promote a society to a higher level of understanding and awareness. For example, over 65 percent of Iranian students are female. As a result, there's great awareness about women's rights, and the feminist movement in Iran has become very strong -- much stronger than Iran's neighboring countries.

It is also student movements that appear again and again in your narrative as helping to try to push political change.

Yes. The student movement can always be a very important tool in bringing change and for putting pressure on the government to choose a new path.

And then the students become victims of the same police state and have become some of your more important cases.

Yes. Unfortunately, rather than listening to the positive criticisms of the people, undemocratic states send them to prison.

But you firmly believe that it's democratization in your own country that will make a difference and make possible these adjustments that the law tells you should be.

Yes, democracy will be very effective in changing the political and power structure in Iran. The first step towards democracy is [for] people to be able to vote for whomever they want, in parliament or as president. People in Iran currently don't have that political freedom. According to Iranian law, the qualifications of parliamentary and presidential candidates must be approved by the Guardian Council. In other words, people are not free to vote for whomever they want. They're only free to vote [for] whomever the Guardian Council approves.

So a key to democratization, as the writer Ganji has said, is the separation of church and state, ultimately.

Ganji is my client and he believes in the separation of religion from politics. I, too, believe in the same. I believe that in order to avoid taking advantage of the religious sentiments of the people, it is necessary to separate religion from politics. But the key point here is that when a society, in fact, does not want secularism or the separation of religion and politics, but rather [prefer] to have a religious government in place, like what has happened with the election of Hamas to power, do we as individuals, as a group sitting on the other side of the world, have the right to question why those people have chosen that government, or to say that they must not and that we must change the course of their decision? Undoubtedly we don't have such a right.

Therefore, in order to avoid such a deadlock we need a new definition of democracy. Democracy means the majority rule, but a majority that gains power does not have the permission to work in whatever manner it decides. Many dictators were actually elected to power as such, too, including Hitler. Democracy has a framework that must be observed, meaning that a government that reaches power through free elections cannot actually go beyond that framework in its political activities. And the framework for democracy are human rights laws and regulations.

There is a theme in this book about the failure of external intervention, which you just talked about in Iranian/U.S. relations. The U.S. has allegedly intervened to "further democracy," but that, through the CIA, led to the overthrow of Mossadeq, to the support of the Shah, to the support of Saddam Hussein in various ways when he attacked Iran, and so on. So as you say, Iran has a good memory and we in the United States are not conscious in the way in which our actions have negative consequences within Iran, even though we felt we were furthering democracy, or claimed to think that.

Democracy can never enter a country through a coup or through military tacks. Democracy is a culture that must be created in a society and then progress. As a result of the CIA coup, the Shah was encouraged to buy more and more arms from the United States, to serve the United States, and he took it to such far extremes that he finally was recognized as the policeman of the region. Through the support he saw coming from the United States for him, he started becoming more oppressive and taking away the rights of the people.

At the same time, nowadays regretfully we see that many of the United States' friends in the Middle East are undemocratic countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, elsewhere. These are very undemocratic systems.

If students were to watch this program, how would you advise them to prepare for the future and work toward a world in which we have good relations between our two countries?

The most important thing I will ask students is to not allow a military attack or a bombardment of Iran on the part of the United States, for if that were to happen it would reverse the democratic trend that has started inside the country. book coverLook at Iraq and the situation there. Well, sure enough, Saddam Hussein was overthrown, but what you have in Iraq is far worse than what it was under Saddam Hussein.

What in your career, in your life story, can inform our understanding of the way to create a dialogue that's reasoned and that seeks justice between our two countries?

The best, the most important thing, is for the people of the two countries to gain a better understanding of each other and of what they are and who they are. In fact, one of the motivations for writing this memoir was an attempt to introduce Iran to the American people.

Dr. Ebadi, on that note, I want to thank you very much for being with us today. It's been a great honor to have you on your program, and I want to thank Banafsheh for her wonderful interpreting. I'm going to show your book again and recommend to our audience that they buy it, because your purpose has been achieved and I can't think of a better time to read this book to understand Iran, to understand relations between our two countries, but also to understand where we might find hope for the future. Thank you very much for being here. And thank you.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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