Iran and Human Rights: Talk Is Cheap

Elahe Sharifpour-Hicks worked as the Iran researcher for Human Rights Watch from January 1994 to June 2003. The views here are her own.

Three years ago, when President Mohammad Khatami addressed the United Nations, many believed that this forward-looking reformist leader would restore Iran’s fractured relationships with the rest of the world and usher in a new era of understanding between the Muslim world and the West. Instead, he spoke in platitudes, calling Islam a religion of peace, reminding listeners of Iran’s great humanistic civilization and avoiding any acknowledgment that Iran had fallen far short of these high ideals in its recent history.

Since then, relations have only gotten worse. The expected “dialogue of civilizations” collapsed in the rubble of the World Trade Center, and not long afterward President Bush declared Iran part of the “axis of evil.”

Alarmed by the polarization between the West and the Muslim world, the judges of the Nobel Peace Prize chose Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights lawyer, as this year’s Nobel peace laureate because she represents what it called a “reformed Islam” that sees Islam and human rights in harmony.

The symbolic power of this choice cannot be denied. The struggles for human rights of courageous men and women in Muslim societies throughout the Middle East and Asia are worthy of recognition, and the fact that Ebadi is from Iran, where the radical force of modern political Islam first came to international attention during the 1979 revolution, only adds to its impact.

As a woman, Ebadi embodies a further important message: She is a symbol of liberation and hope to the oppressed, faceless half of so many Muslim societies in which the rights of women are systematically circumscribed.


Weighted with all this expectation, it is perhaps not surprising that Ebadi’s Nobel lecture was an anticlimax, but it was also another missed opportunity for those who long for the shadow of repression to be lifted from Iran. The lecture read as if it could have been delivered by an Iranian government official. While paying lip service to the values of human rights, she cited as examples of violations the detainees held by the United States in Guantanamo Bay and the plight of the Palestinians.

Listeners had no way of knowing that Ebadi was speaking as a representative of a human rights movement in a nation where tens of thousands were executed after grossly unfair political trials two decades ago, where arbitrary detention is commonplace and religious persecution is institutionalized.

Where were the references to the student demonstrators who disappeared in July 1999 and this summer? Why was there no reference to the imprisoned 70-year-old husband of her lifelong colleague, Mehrangiz Kar? Why no reference to Iranian Jews jailed for their religious beliefs or to the case of two Bahais sentenced in 1989, initially to death, and imprisoned since for practicing their faith?

Instead of a critique or an explanation of Iran’s human rights calamities, the lecture was a recitation of Iranian and Muslim human rights achievements, with some politically correct America- and Israel-bashing presumably thrown in for the benefit of the European audience. Without denying the value of Iran’s cultural heritage, one would have hoped for some frank acknowledgment that something has gone very wrong in Iran, and in many other parts of the Muslim world, in recent decades.

It misses the point to proclaim, as Ebadi and the Nobel judges did, that Islam is compatible with human rights. Of course it is, if Muslims choose to make it so. The problem is that the government of Iran cynically exploits Islam to legitimize its authoritarian rule and to discredit those who dare to challenge it.

By emphasizing text-based arguments for Islam’s compatibility with human rights, human rights advocates play into the hands of the conservative clerical leadership in Iran.

It is beyond question that certain legally sanctioned practices of the Iranian government, which it justifies by reference to Islamic law, are violations of international human rights law. Take, for example, the denial of the right to child custody for divorced Iranian women. Or the arbitrary detention of a prominent dissident, journalist Akbar Ganji, who is accused of “insulting Islam” for exposing the involvement of government leaders in political assassination plots.

If human rights and democracy are to flourish in Iran and the Muslim world, as Ebadi expressed the hope that they would, then Iranian reform leaders, be they presidents or human rights lawyers, must show greater candor when they are on the global stage and, indeed, wherever they go.

Merely repeating that Islam and human rights are not contradictory does not bring about progress. At worst, it provides another opportunity for Iran’s leaders to evade accountability for their violations of human rights by agreeing in theory while continuing to violate rights in practice.