Nobel Peace Prize and Piety

A Muslim woman leads Iran to a 'reformed' Islam

This year's Nobel Peace Prize went to a Muslim woman in Iran whose idea of Islam does not include forcing women to cover themselves head to toe in public or to accept laws that treat them as half- citizens. Most of all, Shirin Ebadi doesn't think Islam can be imposed by violence, especially not by terrorism.

"We need an interpretation of Islam that leaves much more space for women to take action," she told Newsweek after learning she had won the Peace Prize last week. "We need an Islam that is compatible with democracy and one that's respectful of individual rights."

While Ms. Ebadi has been a tireless and peaceful activist for democracy and the rule of law as well as a courageous human-rights lawyer in Iran's Islamic Republic - she's been jailed herself - the Nobel committee really endorsed her "reformed" interpretation of Islam.

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The Prize brings hope for Muslims who don't live in democracies, and especially for Muslim women in the Middle East who hold the unrealized potential to change the region and rid it of terrorism done in Islam's name.

Despite an increasingly secular mood in Europe that draws a line between rights and religion, between civic life and faith, the Nobel committee in Norway has surprisingly awarded many Peace Prizes to people whose noted spiritual qualities serve as their guide in working for peace and human rights.

The list of laureates includes the Buddhist Dalai Lama, Roman Catholic Bishop Carlos Belo in East Timor, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, and former US president Jimmy Carter. Those particular awards serve as a reminder that the concept of rights and nonviolent activism originated and flourish within communities of faith.

In Burma, 'engaged Buddhism'

One woman of faith who won the Prize in 1991 and still fights for democracy in her country (as Ebadi does in Iran) is Aung San Suu Kyi.

Since 1988, this daughter of modern Burma's founder has stood against a military junta with 400,000 soldiers and relied on Buddhist concepts to guide her actions. She speaks of feeling affection toward the dictators, and finding qualities in them that are good. Her "engaged Buddhism" compels her to apply "loving-kindness" in her nonviolent political work. She's earned the respect of Burma's much-cowed Buddhist monks whose leaders might someday find the courage themselves to withdraw their support of the regime.

An 8th-century view of women

Ebadi's challenge to her country's rulers is to show them that sharia (Islamic law) can be compatible with democracy and equal rights without undermining Islam. The religion must be interpreted for the modern age, she says, and women can't be subjected to roles they had 1,400 years ago.

She's personally experienced the ups and downs of women's rights in Iran. Under the shah, women gained freedoms that led Ebadi to become the nation's first female judge. But after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, women were barred from such posts because hard-line theocrats saw them as "too emotional."

In the 1990s, however, the revolution lost its zeal. Women like Ebadi and other dissidents took advantage of an interpretation of Islam by the clerics that called for equality in society. Many reforms began to take place. After long saying birth control was anti-Islamic, for instance, the clerics now campaign for population control.

Ironically, Iran's forced veiling has allowed many more women to enter university, business, and politics. Families are less worried their women will lose their honor. Still, women face many forms of discrimination and punishment from Iran's unpopular, conservative theocrats.

In trying to bargain with this pious patriarchy, Ebadi has used both Islam and women's rights in her arguments. This "conscious Muslim," as the Nobel committee called her, wants a separation between state and religion, but also wants Islam to support democracy and human rights. Iran can't have one small group of men assume power by a claim to divine authority and then "shove its patriarchal interpretations down our throats."

The dignity of each individual is the basis of every religion, and Ebadi deserves this honor for trying to genially persuade those in power that Islam gives that dignity to everyone.

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