Iranian Nobel Laureate speaks at Bennington College

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(Host) For several weeks, Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, has been speaking in this country. Mrs. Ebadi represents a modern Islam that embraces gender equality and separation of church and state. During commencement at Bennington College, Ebadi offered a perspective Americans rarely hear.

VPR’s Susan Keese was there.

In her native Persian, the 57-year old lawyer and scholar spoke of a groundswell of freedom-loving, Reformed Muslims. She said this movement can and must unite against those who use religion to stifle democratic ideals.

But she also warned that western countries mustn’t let the fear of terrorism stifle civil liberties in the name of national security. Ebadi told the Bennington graduates that the way to fight fear is to fight misunderstanding, by seeking out many sources of information.

(Ebadi) “Do not accept political news that come only from a single source. The most effective way of brainwashing is monopolizing the sources of news. If we leave our minds at the mercy of this or that group, this or that party, this or that ideology, this or that religion, others will shape our minds and our thoughts without our knowledge.”

(Keese) If you are a member of a political party, Ebadi said, don’t just listen to that party’s ideas.

(Ebadi) “Becoming dogmatic about one’s belief or opinions is the first step toward fundamentalism and fanaticism. We must refrain from this threat.”

(Keese) Ebadi advised Americans in particular to seek out perspectives from other countries as well as from their own.

(Ebadi) “Compare the claims you receive from different sources and use logic and evidence if you wish to know what is actually happening in the world.”

(Keese) She recalled that a few decades ago, the U.S. encouraged Islamic fundamentalists to fight communism in Afghanistan. That support paved the way for the rise of the Taliban, she said. Ebadi said that aiding undemocratic governments is like pointing a gun at oneself and pulling the trigger. She also said that democracy is not a gift that one country can simply give another.

(Ebadi) “Democracy is a historical process which must follow its own path. If a country claims to defend democracy in a despotic society, even if we assume it to be honest in its intent, it has no right to use military force in the name of exporting democracy.”

(Keese) Ebadi said governments that violate human rights and democratic principals should be dealt with by the United Nations.

(Ebadi) “We are all passengers in the same ship and this ship, we hope, is headed towards a greater civilization. If any part of it is damaged, it will disturb the rest.”

(Keese) The 2003 Nobel Laureate returns to Iran later this week. Bennington College professor Mansour Farhang served as interpretter for Mrs. Ebadi’s speech.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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