The Future of Iran

For Americans, an Iranian human rights activist seems like the greatest oxymoron since military intelligence. However, Shirin Ebadi was awarded the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize precisely due to her unflinching and indefatigable commitment in advocating human rights and progressive reform on behalf of women, children and political dissidents. The 61-year-old Ebadi was the first Muslim woman and first Iranian to be honored with the prestigious prize. Recently, she was named one of the top 100 public intellectuals alive by Foreign Policy, and their reader poll, which brought in nearly 500,000 global votes, placed her at number 10 on the same list.  Despite her international influence and highly effective advocacy, Ebadi remains a controversial figure in Iran, primarily earning the ire of the current government due to her human rights complaints on behalf of political dissidents and minorities, such as members of the Ba’hai faith.

Despite threats and some hostile opposition, Ebadi soldiers on. Interestingly, she fiercely retains her identity and remains proudly “Iranian” and “Muslim” suggesting the proper interpretation and application of Islam is compatible with human rights, and that the Iranian people, unlike some notable personalities in the government, are yearning for progressive reform and enlightened change. In this exclusive interview, we discuss her most recent work with refugees in Iran, her reaction to hostile rhetoric against Iran by the United States, her uneasy relationship with the Iranian government, and how a correct interpretation of Islam can usher forth both democracy and human rights.

You just published a new book about the rights of refugees in Iran. Can you talk about the main issues discussed in your book?

Refugee Rights in Iran is a book that I had written in Persian and that had already been published in Iran.  The book was brought to the attention of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).   In particular, this is the first book written in Persian dealing with the rights of the refugees, a comparative study of the rights in Islam with individual human rights, and the legacy of refugees in Islam.   It is the first and only book in the Middle East written on this topic.  The UN High Commission for Refugees had this book translated into English and published it.

A celebration for the release of this volume was held in London, under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and I was there to introduce this volume.

The problem of the refugees, which I have discussed in the book, is that Iran has a large number of refugees.    The bulk of our refugees are Afghan, and to a smaller extent Iraqi.  The Afghan refugees are more numerous.  The reason for the large number goes back to the beginning of the Iranian revolution (1979), which was at the same time that the former Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan.  A large number of Afghans sought refuge in Iran.   Since the Iranian government was of the opinion that Islam recognizes no [national] borders, and that Iran is an Islamic homeland, it decided that we should open our borders to Muslims.    Therefore, the Iranian government permitted many Afghans to come to Iran.

In a short amount of time, many Afghans, about 4 million, came to Iran.    The Iranian government had in reality given them permission to enter the country, but issued immigration cards to only a very, very small number of them.    As a result, a large number of refugees lived in Iran, and continue to live in Iran, but without having all the legal papers and identity cards as refugees or legal residents of the country.   This has resulted in a large number of legal problems for these refugees—refugees that had come to Iran with the knowledge and implicit permission of the Iranian government.

However, since they had no residency cards or legal documentations related to their refugee status, they could not obtain any legal, wage-paying jobs.   For example, they could not open a bank account to deposit their money.  They would get married, but had no way of officially registering their marriages.   They were living in the country, but in an illegal way, which has caused them a great deal of problems.

In the United States we also face similar issues, particularly with Mexican and other Chicano refugees to the U.S., who have often bore the additional burden of racial prejudices directed at them.    Is there a similar challenge of racial prejudice faced by Afghan refugees?  How would you characterize the treatment Afghan refugees have received from the Iranian government and the Iranian people?

As I mentioned, the problems that confront the Afghan refugees arise from the improper behavior of the Iranian government.  For example, they could not enroll their children in Iranian schools.  This has resulted in the growth of poverty—both economic and cultural—among the Afghans who reside in Iran.

However, the sentiments of the Iranian people towards the Afghans are different:  they have sought to be of assistance to the Afghans.  There are a number of NGOs in Iran which try to defend the rights of the Afghan refugees.   For example, after the Iranian government had started to exile Afghans, the Iranian people and the defenders of human rights in Iran held large-scale demonstrations against this policy.

It seems like we are in a delicate situation:  on one hand when we look at the problems of the refugees, or consider the many criticisms that you yourself have made of the Iranian government, there are real challenges there to deal with.  On the other hand, we see that the American government continues to speak of “regime change” in Iran.  How do you think cultural, political, and social changes and transformations in Iran can take place in the midst of these opposing discourses?

Before I look at the type of the government and the name of the government, I examine how it treats people.  The correct treatment of a country’s citizen is conveyed through the upholding of human rights norms.

Therefore, from my perspective, any government that seeks to uphold the norms of human rights in terms of its dealing with people meets the criteria of being legal and acceptable.  And likewise, if any government, whatever it calls itself, whether secular or religious, seeks to trample human rights, then that regime does not meet the criterion of being legal or acceptable in my eyes.   The name of the government is not important for me:  the government’s upholding of the standards of human rights is.

In the recent United States presidential nomination campaigns, some, such as Senator Clinton, have spoken harshly against Iran, stating that if Iran continues to develop atomic energy, she would seek to “completely obliterate” Iran.   At the same time, we saw the military operations on behalf of Israel preparing for a strike against Iran.  In the meantime, we have also heard the comments of Elbaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, stating if the military plans from Israel move forward, it would be catastrophic for the whole region. 

What do you think is the best possible set of relationships between Iran and United States at this time, being an election year in the United States?  As a representative of the Iranian people, how do you respond to words such as the ones from Senator Clinton or the actions of Israel?

I am of the opinion that war solves no problem and can solve no problem.   War, on the contrary, creates many new problems for the Middle East.  It also creates new problems for the American economy.    I am hopeful that the political differences between Iran and the United States can be solved through the path of dialogue and negotiations, and that this can lead to the normalization of our political relations.

In my opinion, dialogue has to be direct, transparent, and at three levels:  civil society, parliamentary, and between heads of government.  In these dialogues, we have to be able to discuss issues of atomic energy, past political tensions between the two countries, but we also have to talk about the issues of human rights and democracy in Iran.

How do you see your own role as a person who has become an icon for supporters of human rights and women’s rights for many around the world, for many Muslims, and for many Iranians?  There are so many who project onto you their own hopes and aspirations.   What is the best way for the NGOs that are involved in issues of human rights and women’s rights to have a positive impact on Iran?   How do you see your own role in Iran today, and your own relations with the Iranian government?

Western NGOs can play a positive role in terms of democracy and human rights in Iran.   For coming together in terms of human rights, we don’t look to foreign governments.  But we do welcome intellectual assistance from NGOs and civil society from the West.   We are convinced that collaboration with Western civil societies can be very helpful.

How can they help us?  By conveying the real news from Iran, not any rosier than it is, and not more bleak than it is, but what it actually is, to the people of the world.   That way popular opinion of the world community can be an ally for us.  We need moral and spiritual support.    Cultural exchange between civil societies of Iran and West, at the level of NGOs and universities, definitely needs to take place.

As to my own relationship with the Iranian government… I regret to say that it is not a positive relationship.  The Iranian government was not even willing to announce the news of me having received [the 2003] Nobel peace prize from the public TV and radio stations, which are government-owned.  After 24 hours, when all of the news sources had announced it and everyone knew about it, and people were complaining (about the lack of broadcast of this news on government owned media), the government relegated the news to a brief announcement on the 11 pm edition, and that was the end of that.

Nevertheless, in spite of this censorship against me and my work, the Iranian people came to welcome me in a warm and generous way in the Iranian airport.  Up to today, many continue to volunteer in the NGOs I work with for the causes of human rights, and for this I am always grateful.

In many places, particularly in the West, there are many questions about women’s emancipation and whether it is possible to reach these freedoms from within an Islamic framework. In many of your own speeches, you yourself have spoken about the intertwined nature of women’s rights and human rights.   You have repeatedly stated that it is impossible and meaningless to speak of human rights that don’t already include women’s rights.

Many seek to arrive at a reading and interpretation of Islam that is compatible with women’s rights and human rights.  But there are two ways of discussing this: The first is that there is a “real and authentic” reading and interpretation of Islam that leads us to that. The second is that there is need for a new understanding, a new interpretation, of Islam that can be compatible with these notions.   Which one do you support?

Lastly, we would be interested in hearing your final thoughts on the future of human rights and reform movement in Iran.

Islam, like every religion, and for that matter any ideology, has multiple interpretations.  In the West we see that there are Christian denominations which support a woman’s right to abortion, whereas other denominations are opposed to it—even though both follow the religion of Christ.   Or, to take another example, one church supports the right to same-sex marriage, whereas another denomination opposes this—even though they both follow the religion of Christ.

Therefore, it is not such a strange thing for me to say that Islam too contains multiple interpretations.   The situation of women’s rights in different countries proves this very reality.  In a country like Saudi Arabia, women cannot even drive a car.   On the other hand, we see that in other Muslim countries like Indonesia, Bangladesh and Malaysia, women have become prime ministers and presidents over the course of the last twenty years.  In the U.A.E., there is no real parliament. But in another Islamic country like Malaysia, there is a relatively more advanced notion of democracy.

The real question is this:  what does Islam have to say about democracy and human rights?

In my opinion, with a proper understanding and interpretation of Islam, it is possible to honor and acknowledge democracy and human rights.   One cannot use cultural relativism as an excuse to overlook the norms of human rights.    In Iran, the people desire a more advanced democracy.

Over the course of the last 29 years, we have experienced a revolution, and an 8-year war with Iraq.   We are tired of violence and bloodshed.  We, the people of Iran, have chosen the path of reform, and are walking on this path.

We want to get to our goal without violence.   Reform is a long path.    But in the end we will arrive at our destination, and we will not resort to violence.  So long as the people of Iran chose reform, the future of reform in Iran is bright.  You can count on it.

[Special thanks to Omid Safi for Farsi translations]

Wajahat Ali is Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and Attorney at Law, whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders” is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at He can be reached at

Omid Safi is one of the leading public intellectuals for contemporary Islam. He is a Professor of Islamic Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

He edited the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism. His Memories of Muhammad is forthcoming from HarperCollins, as well as forthcoming book on the reform movement in contemporary Iran from Harvard University Press.

English translation to be published September 1, 2008 by Saqi Books (UK).