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Ebadi calls for Muslim intellectuals to teach the ‘real’ Islam

Shirin Ebadi has seen atrocities carried out against women and children by undemocratic governments in the Middle East, particularly her native Iran, in the name of Islam.

However, as the Nobel laureate said during a lecture Jan. 29 at the College, these radical groups do not represent the true Islamic faith and are hiding behind the mask of religion to impose their own opinions and ideals.

“These people think of themselves as God’s representatives on Earth and introduce their own ideas as that of Islam’s,” Ebadi said through a Farsi translator. “Any opposition to them is as if you are criticizing Islam, and this is a good way to silence freedom lovers.”
Ebadi’s lecture was co-sponsored by the College, the Human Rights and National Security Law Program at the Marshall-Wythe School of Law and the Persian Student Organization. More than 700 people packed into Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall to listen to Ebadi, who won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for her work toward democracy and human rights in the Middle East.

“Informed Muslims believe that the essence of Islam has to be understood,” she said. “In truth, the real problem is not Islam, but more importantly, due to different reasons, the Islamic regimes who are reluctant to present aspects of Islam that are compatible with democracy and human rights and individual freedoms.”

Despite the fact that voicing her views puts her life in danger, Ebadi, an attorney in Iran, has been an outspoken proponent of democracy and freedom. In 1969, she became the first woman in the history of Iran to serve as a judge, and in 1975, she became the president of Bench 24 of the Tehran City Court. She was dismissed from the post as a result of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and was not allowed to practice law again until 1992. Today, she represents Iranian citizens who have been jailed as political prisoners.
“The most important job today in Iran is to defend political prisoners,” said Ebadi, adding that undemocratic Islamic countries also control the schools and censor the newspapers. “The first step to democracy is freedom of speech. We have to start with small steps.”

Ebadi said one of those steps to freedom is teaching Islam based on the correct curriculum. True Islam respects women’s rights and the rights of children, and that is not the case in many undemocratic Islamic countries, she added. The interpretation of a religion also can change over the course of 500 years, she said.

“These ruling regimes need to change and, with open eyes, see the realities of society and issue laws which reflect both Islamic spirit and the times,” she said. “Muslim intellectuals must try in any way they can to penetrate the masses and teach the real Islam.”

After her lecture, Ebadi took questions from students in the audience. When asked what people in the United States can do to improve the situation in Iran, she said the most important thing to do was to “voice your opposition to war.” After decades of wars and revolutions, the Iranian people are tired of bloodshed, Ebadi added. Nobody wins in a war and democracy is the path to freedom, she said.

“I accept the fact that Iranian people are being violated and it is not a democracy,” she said. “But it’s up to the Iranian people to take care of it … not foreign governments. They will make it known peacefully that they want change.”

The younger generation of Iranians, Ebadi added, are very informed and want to help influence change. Many university students have been jailed for fighting for democracy. Their biggest issue with the government is democracy, she said.

Another student asked Ebadi how she could find common ground with other Muslims who do interpret the Islamic faith in a way that opposes human rights.

“Fortunately, there are other Muslims who do think like me—not just in Tehran but they are all over Islamic countries,” Ebadi said. “The important thing is that people have the force to accept democracy and reject undemocratic rule.”

© 2014 The College of William & Mary