Shirin Ebadi, the OIC and human rights
by Dr. Mazeni Alwi
Having chosen to host the OIC meeting this year, we pulled all stops and embarked on a publicity blitz long before the event to impress upon the cynical muslims of the world that this time it was going to be different. But it all ended up as usual, like the NAM meeting previously, with accolades of Malaysia being a very hospitable host, generously treating delegates with pomp and extravaganza, as if to make up for the deficiency in substance and intellectual content. Like it or not, The world is already too familiar with the notion that the OIC is at best a weak, ineffectual and poorly regarded club of muslim leaders whose yearly jamboree is nothing more than diplomatic tourism and mutual congralutory back-slapping, or worse, a gathering of leaders, often unelected or whose representation of the popular will less than legitimate, of nations distinguished by various shades of bad-governance and corruption, economic mismanagement, political repression, poverty and backwardness, such that it would be easy for others to heap all that on a single factor: the religion of the muslims.
There is some basis that the OIC meeting in Malaysia promised to be different. It is after all the model of Islamic moderation, the most successful muslim nation that has leapfrogged into the twenty-first century while remaining faithful to its Islamic and Asian values and tradition. In these turbulent and challenging times, we are supposed to lead the muslim world to become respected players on the global stage, to stand up to the imperialistic designs of the world’s hyperpower, and to speak up for our oppressed brethren in Palestine.
We may have worked out everything to the finest details months ahead but events beyond our control and our own silliness have their own way of conspiring against our best laid plans. It was as if fate was planning its sweetest revenge on us. One could sense that the Kuala Lumpur OIC meeting was not going to be a ground breaking one that would take to organization to new heights, as we hoped it would, but instead stumbled from one disaster to another. For a start, it did not help that Kofi Annan failed to show up without giving a good reason. That must have struck a cruel blow to our collective self-esteem. Was that supposed to be a measure how much contempt the world harbours toward leaders of muslim nations? There was not much we could do about Kofi Annan not showing up, but can’t our judges wait to convict Irene Fernandez? The trial has been going on for years anyway, what harm does it do to come out with a verdict after the OIC bash? The whole world now knows that the most moderate and enlightened muslim nation convicted a rights activist who blowed the whistle on the brutal (with fatalities) and humiliating abuse of muslim illegal immigrants awaiting deportation in detention camps. How dare they lecture us on all this nonsense about human rights for illegal immigrants. And if that was not bad enough, our highly efficient police force gave us unwanted publicity at the worst possible time. For a number of years now the public and civil society NGOs have raised their concern over the inordinate number of deaths of suspected criminals in shootouts with the police our in lock-ups. But this time, it was a form six student whose disbelieving family was told that he was armed and dangerous, with 20 criminal records.
Whenever muslim leaders meet, they would not miss on the opportunity for grand-standing to the world’s muslims by championing the cause of Palestine which means also condemning Israel, zionism and jews, only that we are often confused about the distinctions between them. We thought the only way to appease the already too cynical muslims is to condemn the jews ever more strongly. But little do we realize that Jewish Conspiracy card has been played too many times, that they would immediately recognize its frayed edges and worn out appearance. The denunciations came fast and furious from all over, even from our friend Chirac. Damn. It was meant to be our finest hour and everything had to go wrong!
Depending on how one looks at it, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to a muslim woman, an Iranian lawyer and human rights activist, may be seen as recognition of efforts towards genuine reforms for democratization in the muslim world. Strangely, despite the flood of congratulatory messages from international human rights organizations and world leaders, the muslim world especially their governments have been rather mute. To the conservative fundamentalists who see a conspiracy lurking in every shadow, this is the west’s machination to destroy muslim societies and dominate them. Like the hard-line clerical factions in control of major institutions of government in Iran, they viewed the award to Shirin Ebadi as western intervention in Iranian politics, using human rights issues in Iran as a political tool in the pursuit of its own agenda. That the conservative fundamentalists remained in muted embarrassment is hardly surprising given their deep suspicion of every outside influence, especially the west, but that the champions of moderate and enlightened Islam were also silent seemed awkward, especially when we were in the midst of showcasing our enlightened Islam to world. Perhaps we were too conscious that Shirin Ebadi gave the lie to our claims to moderation and enlightenment. Yes, if she were Malaysian, she would have ended up with a fate not unlike Irene Fernandez’s. Beneath that veneer of Islamic moderateion, we have a catalogue of executive abuses, corporate corruption, inhumane laws, judicial improprieties etc.
Simplistic this might be, the Islamic world seems to be perpetually torn between the religious fundamentalism that wants to bring the muslim people under a theocratic authoritarianism hostile to everything that the west represents, and on the other hand “secular” nationalist forces with a warped understanding of secularism, anxious to import and copy the west’s material glitter but unwilling to submit to the more positive values that had helped shape western civilization, such that the muslim world today has become characterized by “first world infrastructure with third world mentality”, repressive, corrupt and intolerant of criticism.
Could the recognition accorded to Ebadi by the Nobel Committee symbolize a new force in muslim society, one that is genuinely concerned with democratic reforms free of the ideological baggage of secular nationalism or conservative fundamentalism whose popularity owed much to the failed experiments with modernization of the former? The abuse of human rights in muslim countries is a very valid issue. As long as we don’t seriously address them, western governments will continue to close their eyes to these abuses one day and use them against us for their own leverage the next, whenever it suits them.
It is time that human rights issues are seen as what they really are. We as muslim nations have the dubious distinction of having among the worst human rights records, integral to the package of bad-governance, corruption and intolerance of dissent. The time has come for us to stop accusing the west of trying to impose their ideas of human rights and democracy on us on the grounds that those “western” values are alien to our culture and religion. The notion that our Islamic or asian values are more suited if not superior for our own people may have sounded sweetly persuasive and self-reassuring at first, but many of us now are beginning to wise up to the deceit that they are mere pretext for the elite to maintain a ruthless control over the people and exclude them from participating in the political and nation-building process.
The announcement that the Nobel Peace Prize winner for 2003 is a muslim human rights activist who is also a woman must have caused many embarrassed faces among leaders of muslim nations. Not only did it remind the world of the sorry state of human rights in muslim nations, but it also undermined all pretensions that we have about ensuring human rights in the way that suits us best, the muslim way, or the OIC way. To show that the west are not the only ones concerned about human rights, the OIC approved the Islamic Human Rights Declaration at its foreign ministers meeting in Cairo in 1981, something that is perhaps little known to the muslim bureaucrats themselves who were busily checking on the last details of the Kuala Lumpur meeting before the arrival of “the big guns”. Ironically the Islamic Human Rights Declaration was Iran’s initiative, which was quite understandable as it was then receiving criticisms from the international community for its summary justice against opponents of the Islamic Revolution. 20 years on, nobody talks anymore of the re-invented Human Rights wheel as muslim governments are the among the worst abusers of the basic rights of their own people.
Today, free of the ideological constraints of the Cold War, the world is more rational in discussing human rights issues and into accepting one common standard. After all, the 1948 Universal Declaration, even if the majority of muslim and 3rd world nations were not yet inexistence when this was framed, when viewed objectively, the basic principles of the Declaration are truly universal, acceptable to the moral teachings of all the great religions and secular humanism. Furthermore human rights discourse has evolved very significantly especially after the Cold War and to say that it is the preserve of western governments is inaccurate. That western governments are hypocritical and selective in their judgement of human rights practices in third world and muslim nations is no basis for re-inventing the wheel, for there’s no reason why they too should not be judged by the same standard.
Finally, at the level of individuals, many among the educated middle class are still not comfortable, may even harbour a strong distrust towards the idea of a universal standard for human rights, swayed no doubt by the argument that it is an alien western concept with too much emphasis of individual rights. Most are probably unaware of the existence of the Islamic Declaration, which on the core issues do not differ with the Universal Declaration in spirit. Conferring the Nobel Peace Prize to a muslim woman is viewed as a devious and deliberate attempt at secularizing an insular traditional muslim society. Here too, we should set aside our religious – ideological baggage and view things objectively-human rights as human rights. The Norwegian Award Committee said it chose her because of her focus on promoting human rights and democracy in her country. Shirin Ebadi is not the typical muslim feminist whose idea of liberation for muslim women is transplanting western social norms into muslim societies. In an interview with the German daily, Tageszeitung, she pointed out that muslim women who wear religious headscarves do not see it as a sign of submission and often feel stronger than men, dismissing the muslim feminists’ popular contention that the muslim woman’s hijab is a symbol of religious oppression. Although media reports tended to place emphasis on her struggle for the rights of women in Iran, to stress the feminist aspect of the award does not do justice to the breadth of her work as a lawyer. Other than her focus on promoting the rights of women, she helped found the Society for Protecting the Child’s Rights in Iran and she was also actively involved in the struggle for refugee rights. But her best known engagement which led to her subsequent brief imprisonment was working as the lawyer representing the families of writers and intellectuals who were victims of the 1998 – 1999 “serial murders”, where officials of the government of conservative clerics were implicated. However, being an opponent of the repressive policies of the hard-line religious government does not mean that she would welcome western, especially US intervention for regime change in Iran.
It is refreshing to hear a voice like Ebadi’s that strives for justice and democracy, but still working within the tradition of Islam. The Norwegian Nobel committee citation states that “with Islam as her starting point, Ebadi campaigns for peaceful solution to social problems, and promotes new thinking on Islamic terms. She has displayed great personal courage as a lawyer defending individuals and groups who have fallen victim to a powerful political and legal system that is legitimized through an inhumane interpretation of Islam. Ebadi has shown her willingness and ability to cooperate with representatives of secular as well as religious view”.
She is certainly not the first Iranian to advocate such reforms. Intellectuals like Abdul Karim Shoroush and reformist President Khatami have long echoed similar views, at times at some personal cost. In the 70’s Ali Shariati’s impassioned speeches awakened the consciousness of Iranian youths for an Islam that places great emphasis on social justice and democratic principles, throwing their weight behind the revolution, only to be hijacked later by the conservative clerics. The experience of post-revolution Iran and Afghanistan under the Taliban are lessons enough that the sway of conservative fundamentalism will unlikely hold on for very long in muslim societies.
Dr. Mazeni Alwi