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Constitution is a key category, one of the most important, of modern political and legal theory.

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A month of ideas.
Giancarlo Bosetti Editor-in-chief
Association for dialogue and intercultural understanding
Philosophy and Religion
IT Friday, 9 March 2007

“Intellectuals like Hirsi Ali play into the mullahs’ hands”

Shirin Ebadi, winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, interviewed by Daniele Castellani Perelli

Those who maintain that Islam is not compatible with democracy and the respect of women’s rights, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the former Somali refugee, now resident in the US, and writer of the Theo Van Gogh film Submission “simply give justification to non-democratic Islamic governments”. So says Shirin Ebadi, Iranian lawyer and 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner, who, on a visit to Italy, and following the arrest of 32 demonstrators in Tehran on the 4th March, has called for Italian feminists to help Iranian women (“Helping women to assert their rights is the best system for helping democracy to assert itself”).

Imprisonment and threats have failed to stop this diminutive mother who does not wear the veil when abroad, but rather wears Merkel-style trousers, and who will not be interrupted – not even during this interview. Ebadi attacks those who Timothy Garton Ash has defined as ‘the fundamentalists of the Enlightenment’, and makes the surprising proposal of a people’s referendum to decide the fate of the Iranian nuclear programme. “I believe in secularism, because I don’t want governments to take advantage of the people’s religious beliefs,” she tells us at San Sebastiano al Vesuvio where she is a guest of the Fondazione Mediterraneo, an association of which she is a member, and with whom she has launched a powerful appeal against war. “But many secular governments are dictatorships. Only when democracy goes hand-in-hand with respect for human rights can there be a true democratic government.” 

Intellectuals such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali maintain that Islam is incompatible with the respect of women’s rights. And it is true that the present Iranian regime has, on the basis of religious justifications, prohibited you from becoming a judge.

The Iranian government, along with the Saudi government and all the other non-democratic governments, maintain that Islam is not compatible with human rights and that their people, as Muslims, must follow only Islam. But by ‘Islam’ they mean that which serves to justify their own tyranny. It disappoints me that certain intellectuals, without thinking of the consequences of their reasoning, end up seconding the very same opinions of these tyrants.

And what are the consequences of these extreme views?

They end up presenting Muslims with an ultimatum: either accept Islam, and with it all the injustices which you are suffering, or abandon the religion of your fathers in favour of democracy. It is not fair to force such a decision. I propose another way - that Islam be interpreted in a way which allows for democracy. Within Christianity, too, there are some churches which condemn homosexuals, and others which accept them. They are all Christian, but they interpret their religion in different ways. The same can be true for Islam. In a country like Saudi Arabia there is not even a parliament, whilst Malaysia has a fairly advanced democracy. Which Islam are we talking about? Islam is completely compatible with women’s rights. Those who maintain otherwise simply give justification to non-democratic Islamic governments.

Would you prefer to live in a secular Iran, in which religion and the state were separated?

I believe in secularism because I don’t want governments to take advantage of the people’s religious beliefs. However, I wonder whether we have the right to declare that the whole world see things only our way. When, in whatever region of the world, a people elects a radical cleric, do we have the right to say that the elections which brought him to power are invalid? Of course not. At the same time, it is also true that many secular governments are dictatorships. It’s clear then that secularism is not the only solution to these problems. We need to look for a more modern definition of democracy. Democracy is the government of the majority, yet that majority which comes to power does not then have the right to do whatever it likes. Governments are not legitimised solely by the ballot box, since it’s true that many dictators have come to power via elections. Only when democracy goes hand-in-hand with the respect for human rights can there be a true democratic government. With this new definition of democracy in mind, it is no longer important to decide whether secularism is a good or bad thing.

In an interview with the on-line magazine Roozonline, you stated that nuclear energy is Iran’s right. Is it also a priority?

The priority of any project must be decided by the people. The Iranian government claims that its people wants nuclear power. I propose that the issue of uranium enrichment, or of its suspension, be decided by a popular referendum. If the people make it clear that they take the risks linked to the enrichment of uranium seriously, then the project must be halted. The enrichment of uranium may lead to war, and therefore it must be the Iranian people who decide. Via a referendum.

The US presidential candidate Barack Obama has said that President Bush’s policies have strengthened the Iranian leadership. Is this true?

The American government has already made it known that it doesn’t exclude the possibility of a military attack on Iran. When a society is in danger of attack, its government feels itself authorized to limit civil liberties in order to strengthen national security. This has always been true, and the case of Iran is no exception.

Do you that with a Democrat president in the White House, relations between Washington and Tehran would improve?

But do the Democrat candidates really want to improve relations between the two countries? I haven’t forgotten that the Democrat party, too, voted in favour of military intervention in Iraq.

The New York Times has written that the Supreme Guide Khamenei would have ceased to support President Ahmadinejad. Do you agree?

If you listen to the speeches of Ayatollah Khamenei, it is clear that he speaks like Ahmadinejad on the issue of uranium. I’ll say no more.

Is there something that you would criticize the West for?

When we had the reformists in power, the West did not support them. Today, ten years later, we are seeing the results of that policy.

Translation by Liz Longden


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