Sunday, March 12, 2017

When values lead to exile

This memoir, Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran, is the story of what a vicious, insecure, rather stupid, dictatorial state will do to break someone it decides is a threat. It's not fun. It is, however, human and instructive.

Shirin Ebadi was an educated Iranian nationalist, a judge in the Tehran city court, who welcomed the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah. When the new Islamic regime solidified its power, it fired her from her post, relegating her to the secretarial pool. For a decade, she could not work in her field, but was finally permitted to practice law again in 1993. For the next decade, she argued for human rights, most especially for improved legal status for women, children and refugees, all within an Islamic legal framework. She was jailed and heavily pressured. Ebadi gained so much international notice that she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. The prize afforded her work some degree of protection from a hostile state and enabled her to travel widely.

This volume describes the closing down of space for human rights work in Iran after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 and her involuntary exile after his disputed re-election in 2009.

Over and over, Ebadi tried to maintain that "human rights" efforts did not mean that she was a political dissident. Her cause was the rule of law within the Iranian nation. She certainly did not aim to be an agent of the Iran's Western enemies, but the government could see her through no other lens.

I was not an opponent of the state -- I was a human rights defender, and I based my criticisms of the state on legal grounds. But authoritarian governments are not fond of shades of gray; they cannot tolerate any criticism at all ...

... I had been a judge and was now a lawyer, and the law concerns itself with intent and the results of intent. If the state intended the best for its citizens, then it needed to demonstrate that in its behavior toward them. It could not arrest journalists, throw them in prison, inflict all manner of psychological torture and abuse on them, and then dispatch an agent to talk to me about America "exploiting" my objections to this.

And this determined woman would not give up. She defended members of the Bahai faith who the Iranian clerical state considers traitorous apostates from their version of Islam, worthy of prison or death. She exposed the death penalty for children; she protested torture and illegal imprisonment of people who the regime declared enemies. And she was hard to silence because the Nobel had given her international standing.

And so, the state looked for ways to reach into what she held dear, her family -- and thus to break her will to keep agitating for the rule of law. The story builds toward the Iranian intelligence service's great triumph: drawing her loved husband of three decades into a "honey trap" (an illicit liaison) and forcing him through shame and then torture to denounce her work on video. The ending is dramatic, but I found the one of the episodes on the way to that horrible end most illuminating.

The state had finally started going after my family. It wasn't just content with me anymore. I had witnessed this over the years with many of my clients, dissidents and activists, whose relatives suffered state intimidation, were hassled and threatened and sometimes blackmailed or imprisoned, all "collateral damage" in the quest to get the original target -- the dissident or activist or journalist in question -- to drop their activities. It was the dirtiest of the methods the security agencies used, exploiting these families and their emotional ties.

Ebadi recognized that she was the target when the authorities seized her daughter's passport and summoned the young woman for interrogation. She explained was happening to her daughter Nargess and husband Javad.

"This a test," I said as we sat down around the table. "It's a test to see if I'll cave, if they can use Nargess to get to me. If we react, they will try to use her forever. But if I stand firm and don't respond, they'll realize they'll need another tactic."

Nargess took up her mother's perspective; she was willing to fight. The test came when the authorities summoned the daughter for questioning on a day when Ebadi was supposed to fly to an overseas seminar.

... intelligence agents had timed their little game purposefully. Would I leave the country, knowing that my daughter was sitting in a government office with the officials of a ministry that just years prior had plotted my assassination? Would I board the plane and turn my back on my daughter .. would I blink?

... But I understood that if I postponed my trip by even a single day, in order to ensure that Nargess came home safely and that her passport would be returned, they would spot my weakness. That would be the real danger. They would know then that they could use Nargess against me, and it was that I feared more than anything. If they concluded that she was my weakness, there would be no telling what they might do to her next, or to me. ...

Ebadi flew; the officials handed her passport back to Nargess. And so the state eventually went after her husband, then her sister, and a through a legal pretext, the family's property, forcing Ebadi into lonely permanent exile in London. She's not crushed though; hence this terrible telling of their tale.
It felt problematic reading this memoir in the USofA, knowing that the Iranian state is supposed to be my Enemy Number One. (Or is it Number Two, after North Korea? Who knows, on any given day.) The Islamic Republic seems a despicable regime, but then, so is mine. This is the dilemma of western peaceniks. It's not as if our wars of this century amounted to a defense of the rule of law and humane values, for all the verbiage our rulers spew. The War on Terror has confused "the left" because there have been no "good guys" on some anti-imperial side to applaud. Can we make a consistent stand for peace without illusions? Hard, but needed.

All the more reason to listen sympathetically to others, like Shirin Ebadi, stuck in the same painful place, defending values that seem to have no home base.
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