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Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Doesn't Mince Words About War and Justice

Olga Bonfiglio

Shirin Ebadi wants Americans to do what they can to stop the Bush administration's threats to bomb Iran as punishment for presumably making nuclear weapons.

"Nuclear weapons are not a daily concern of the people," said Ebadi. "They want jobs; they want houses; they want health; they want more freedom."

However, she predicted that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would whip up nationalistic support if Iran were forced into a face-off with the United States, just as it did when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980. The invasion resulted in an eight-year war between the two countries.

"Iranians may criticize their government, but if there is a military attack on Iran, they will defend their own country," she said. "A government that is in danger from the outside will take any chance to accelerate nationalism inside the country."

The lawyer, writer, teacher and former judge, became the first Muslim woman and first Iranian to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her efforts to promote democracy and human rights in Iran.

She spoke recently at the annual Great Lakes PeaceJam held at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

PeaceJam's ( mission is to work with Nobel Peace Laureates to help create a new generation of young leaders committed to peace through positive change in themselves, their communities and the world.

Instead of preparing for war, Ebadi wants to see Iran, the United States and every nation make education a top priority by taking 10 percent out of the military budget and re-directing it to education.

The cost of the military overwhelms government budgets, she said, and only a few countries in the world are "lucky" enough NOT to have this expense drain their resources.

"Governments tend to act in violent ways," she said. "So the people must build an awareness that every violent act begets more violence."

In other words, citizens should not wait for their government to promote peace and justice. The people must demand and fight for it themselves.

"I believe we must introduce peace and peaceful co-existence to children when they are young," in programs like PeaceJam, she said.

In general, Ebadi doesn't trust government and judging from her experience, she has good reason.

At age 23 she became the first woman judge in Iran (1975-79) serving as head of the city court of Tehran. However, she lost her judgeship because the post-Revolution government, the Islamic Republic, deemed women too "incompetent" to serve as judges.

Not to let a few mullahs to disturb her, Ebadi continued to defend women and children as well as government dissidents. She also distributed evidence implicating government officials in the murders of students at the University of Tehran in 1999. That landed her in jail for three weeks in 2000 and resulted in her disbarment.

Through all of this turmoil she taught law at the University of Tehran, tended to her family and wrote books.

One of her books, Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope, was banned in Iran because it criticizes the 1979 Revolution and the Islamic Republic. She published it in the USA and it was subsequently translated into several languages.

Currently, Ebadi is accused of having taken money from the U.S. to give to Akbar Ganji, an international award-winning journalist who has called for a switch from Iran's theocratic system to "a secular democracy." She regularly receives death threats for "working against Islam and Iran."

So how and why does she continue in this maelstrom of political and religious tyranny?

Ebadi describes herself as stubborn. Others describe her as courageous, tough, and possessing a funny, earthy sense of humor. There is no mistaking her seriousness of purpose, however, and her willingness to put herself on the line to advocate for those least protected by government.

What also drives her is the belief that the strength of a chain lies in its smallest link, therefore, it is essential for the strong to protect the weak and marginal people of society.

Iran is rich in natural resources, she said, however, more and more children are leaving school to sell flowers or beg in order to help their impoverished families. In fact, the number of street children has increased in the larger cities at alarming rates.

"For a wealthy country this is embarrassing, said Ebadi.

Fourteen years ago she and her colleagues established an association to protect street children by providing them health care and teaching them to read. Since then a dozen other associations have been founded.

Women in Iran don't have it much better even though they obtained the vote 50 years ago, became professionals and skilled trades workers and outnumber men in the universities as students and professors.

The Islamic Republic passed many discriminatory laws denying women their rights, which is one of the reasons why the feminist movement in Iran is very strong. Ebadi believes women will eventually prevail in making Iran more democratic.

Although Iran has experienced much internal strife over the past few decades, Ebadi insists that Iranians should solve their own problems without outsiders trying to solve them, especially the United States.

"It's not about U.S. troops coming to Iran," she said. "A military attack or threat on Iran will worsen democracy and human rights. The government will use national security as an excuse to suppress our freedoms. And an attack will create further chaos in the region."

She also said an attack on Iran would be as misguided as America's invasion of Iraq.

"Saddam was a dictator, there is no doubt. Unfortunately, the world is filled with dictators. The only difference with Saddam was that he sat on a lot of oil."

She questioned aims of the Iraq War that has now squandered half a trillion dollars and killed over 4,000 young Americans and one million Iraqis.

"It's high time to ask what the purpose of this is and to remind the U.S. not to make another mistake by attacking Iran....Never have the problems of any country been solved through war," said Ebadi.

So, she said, the American people-and people all over the world-must make their voices heard and do whatever they can to promote justice to end this war and war altogether.

"The opportunities to be creative and make a difference in the world are endless. A person has only to decide what s/he wants to do for peace and then do it."

Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is Contact her at

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