A Cautious Man
October 10, 2003
The Lord Works in Mysterious Ways (Nobel Department)
This morning we are reading about the winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to Iranian activist Shirin Ebadi "for her efforts for democracy and human rights". As described by the Nobel Committee: "Her principal arena is the struggle for basic human rights, and no society deserves to be labelled civilized unless the rights of women and children are respected." However, what really stands out about her, and what makes her an inspired choice, is the following:
"Ebadi is a conscious Moslem. She sees no conflict between Islam and fundamental human rights. It is important to her that the dialogue between the different cultures and religions of the world should take as its point of departure their shared values. It is a pleasure for the Norwegian Nobel Committee to award the Peace Prize to a woman who is part of the Moslem world, and of whom that world can be proud - along with all who fight for human rights wherever they live. "With all of the fear and mistrust in the world today, not just in the Middle East but within our own country, someone such as Ms. Ebadi can be an inspiration to we in the (predominantly Christian) west, as well as in the Arab world.
For some reason, there are news reports of "disappointment" among Catholics that Pope John Paul II was not awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this year. For example, a Reuters article states: "Supporters felt that this should have been his year because he marks his 25th anniversary next week, he was instrumental in the fall of communism in 1989, opposed the Iraq war and recently his health has appeared to go into steep decline. The pope was runaway favourite to win the award before the announcement on Friday, according to Australian bookmaker Centrebet." (Side note: There's something about gambling and Catholics that always goes together in the minds of some people.) As a Catholic, I don't see why using the Peace Prize to honor the Pope for past accomplishments is essential, when there is so much work yet to be done. I should think that the Pope would prefer to see the Nobel Peace Prize help to advance understanding and peace among different peoples and faiths of the world.
The oddsmakers may have been limited by their own self-centeredness, because Ms. Ebadi is hardly an unknown in the human rights community, especially in Norway, where the prize is awarded. She previously won the 2001 Rafto Human Rights Prize in Norway. She has participated in symposia there, such as a Conference in 2000 in Norway on Gender, Religion and Change in the Middle East. In the abstract from that conference, she shows all of us that the image we may have of Islam, of being inherently backwards and hostile to our ideals of human rights, is due not to theology but to non-religious tradition:
"Traditionally, Arabs were nomadic tribal people who roamed the deserts as herders or traders. In this harsh environment, patriarchal and paternal family system dominated all human and social relationships in which the role of women was believed to be subservient to men. Their primary role was to serve men and to give birth to children, especially boys, who would the lineage and strength of the family and tribe. At this time, it was a shame to give birth to a daughter, and some even went far as to kill their daughters when they were born. These cultural belief and practice were challenged with the arrival of Prophet Muhammad and the adoption of Islam. He told his people to stop these unjust practices and to respect women. He had one only one daughter, and he would show his affection by publicly kissing her hand. He would say that only people who are ignorant would dishonor women. Islam was thus a liberating force, especially for women in the Middle East. After Muhammad’s death, Islam went through significant transformations largely dependent upon the local culture. The current Islamic laws are diverse all the way from Indonesia, to Saudi Arabia, to Pakistan, and to Iran. Although the basic tenets of Islam are laid out in the holy book of Koran, Islam prescribed that these laws should be interpreted and implemented according to each culture and they should be flexible to changing times. Koran ordered Muslim men to treat their wives according to their own customs. Thus, Islam is not a rigid, authoritarian and chauvinistic religion as have been depicted in the West."That was the message Ms. Ebadi was trying to get out, even before September 11. She was doing so in order to help her own people, but I think that if we hear it, we will be helping ourselves. If we can understand that Islam is not congenitally against us, but instead (in her words), "Islam itself challenges these discriminatory beliefs and practices and provides the necessary philosophical and ethical basis for treating women with dignity and equality", we can help ourselves to work towards peace.
So that sounds like a good use of a Peace Prize.