Iranian Nobel Laureate Outlines Challenges in the Middle East

In describing a Middle East ruled by undemocratic governments that violate human rights, Iranian Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi told a Saint Mary's College audience that U.S. foreign policy often contributes to the region's negative status quo.

"Many of the undemocratic countries of the Middle East are old allies of the United States," said Ebadi, a human rights lawyer who won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of women and children in Iran.

"People in the region who are dissatisfied with their own governments understand that if it were not for U.S. support, those governments would collapse."

More than 100 students, faculty and guests attended Ebadi's speech in the Soda Center on Oct. 14, which was part of the College's Social Justice Speaker Series. Ebadi's remarks in Farsi were translated by SMC political science instructor Banafsheh Keynoush.

Ebadi challenged a central tenet of recent U.S. Middle East policy: the notion that democracy can be promoted through military means. She said the approach has failed in Iraq and is bound to fail in other countries.

"Democracy is not a gift to be given out to a nation. Democracy cannot be dropped through cluster bombs over nations," she said. "Democracy is a historical process that must mature."

That process has stalled in the Middle East, Ebadi said. Iran's theocratic government bars all reform politicians from running for office, while in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates parliaments are controlled by royal families.

"Governments in the region do not really uphold national interest and do not pay attention to political criticism," she said. "As a result, some people who find no other avenue turn to terrorism or acts of violence."

The Israel-Palestinian impasse represents one of the worst manifestations of this violence, and Ebadi noted that the conflict has contributed to instability throughout the region. She called for a two-state solution and said women's organizations are playing a major role in pressing for peace.

"Israeli and Palestinian mothers ask their governments, ‘How long must we endure the loss of our children?' Together, these mothers hold joint conferences to extend cooperation and to connect to civil society groups in the Muslim and Judaic worlds and seek peace in the region."

The first Muslim woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, Ebadi noted that women's organizations are making major contributions to progressive reforms throughout the Middle East, including in Iraq and Iran.

"The role of women in promoting peace and democracy in region is arguably more important than the role played by men because of their influence over their children in teaching benefits of human rights for future generations," she said.

Ebadi continues to work in Tehran, where she represents women and religious minorities in cases against the government.

She says Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinijad, who has drawn criticism in the West for his statements about Israel and the United States, has little popular support within Iran. She cited his mismanagement of the economy, with inflation running at more than 30 percent and 1 in 7 Iranians living in poverty, as a major source of Iranians' frustration with him.

Ebadi said Iranians want to "fix their country," but insisted that change needs to come from the Iranian people and not through a U.S. invasion.

"We love Iran and will not allow Iran to be attacked or bombarded. We will not allow it to turn into a second Iraq. I certainly hope that the next U.S. president will hear this message from the Iranian people."

--John Grennan

Office of College Communications

Photo by Gorbachev Lingad '10