Monday, February 04, 2008

Review: Shirin Ebadi's Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope

Shirin Ebadi's Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope is a very easy, compelling read. Of course I heard about Khanum-e Ebadi, but I had never actually heard her speak or read any of her writings.

My big fear whenever I read a memoir is the possibility that it is pure propaganda and promotion.
(Witness the slew of memoirs from former officials of George W Bush's government who distance themselves from its policies. Where was your conscience when you were implementing them?) While no memoir will be free of these elements, I felt that Khanum-e Ebadi's shows a real human being who finds herself in events that teach her to stand up for justice and think about how oppressive governments, religious beliefs and cultural habits manipulate and coerce decent people into compliance.

Khanum-e Ebadi begins her career as a judge during the last years of the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlevi. Her naiveté at this stage of her career is surprising to me, since I would assume that a judge is by nature a political animal. (Perhaps I'm too wrapped up in George Bush judicial appointments.) At any rate, this naiveté prevents her and others from seeing that the Iranian revolution of 1979 would turn ugly. I think it's this regret over her mistake of uncritical support of the revolution which caused her to become a much more sophisticated student of government and revolution later in life.

The bulk of the remainder of the book describes her participation in various cases involving defense of the rights of women, children and political prisoners. I believe this narrative will help people answer the following questions (or at least guide them to better thinking about them):
  1. Is U.S. military intervention a good idea?
  2. Is a government based upon religion generally, Islam specifically, compatible with a just society?
  3. What should an individual do when faced with an oppressive society and government?
1. Is U.S. military intervention a good idea?
The short answer is "no." And Khanum-e Ebadi gives a lot of good reasons for this. I think one of the most important reasons is her conclusion about how to achieve positive change, which I address in point 3. The U.S. support for the 1953 coup and for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s means that most Iranians interpret covert and overt U.S. military intervention as attempts to control Iran, not free her people.
2. Is a government based upon religion generally, Islam specifically, compatible with a just society?
Without explicitly saying so, and I hope I'm not putting words in her mouth, I believe she would say, "Yes, it is possible for a religiously-based (including Islam) government to promote a just society, but there are so many ways it can go wrong that it is better to base the government on secular principles." I derive this conclusion based on her discussion of her attempts at reforming Iran's personal status laws and her impressions of the quality of people who rose in the government of the Islamic Republic.
She realizes that within the religious interpretive project, it is possible to support liberating and oppressive interpretations. So more important than the specific religious texts involved are the ethos and character of the people with the authority to impose their interpretation on society. In the case of Iran, the revolution elevated the most patriarchal elements of Iranian society to power, and their interpretations of Islam were imposed on all others, even those of recognized and authoritative religious scholars.
The second problem with religiously-based governments is that religion has instruction for both the outer and inner dimensions of a person, and the people on whom governments rely for support can more easily and quickly judge a person's outer dimension than inner dimension. This promotes hypocrites and social entreprenuers (in the most negative sense), who are able to make end runs around those who trouble themselves with the inner dimensions of religion.
I should add here that the United States certainly shows that you don't need a relgion-based government to promote hypocrites and social entrepreneurs.
3. What should an individual do when faced with an oppressive society and government?
Khanum-e Ebadi is against emmigration (although she eventually agrees that her daughter leave for Canada) and against violent revolution, such as the Mujahidiin-e Khalq Iran. I think she has a gift for recognizing the cracks and weakpoints of an oppressive system, and she believes focusing on those cracks causes effective, long-term change. For example, when an eighteen-year old woman lectures her about Islam in the Iranian countryside, she realizes that the same process which transformed this rural girl from a peasant to an idealogical functionary for the Islamic Republic will later turn her and her daughters into a thinking opposition. When people emmigrate, they turn their back on attacking these weakpoints in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and she cannot hide her disappointment.
Additional links:
Last updated 2008 Feb 14.

1 comment:

Ayman H Fadel said...

Professor Nafisi Azar spoke at St. Anselm College in September 2008.