Middle East

Ebadi: Throw books not bombs at ISIS

ROME: The U.S.-led coalition of countries involved in airstrikes against ISIS will never bomb the jihadi group out of existence, a Nobel peace prize winner warned Friday.

Shirin Ebadi was one of Iran’s first female judges. She was demoted after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and went on to become the country’s most prominent rights campaigner. She won the Nobel Prize in 2003 and was forced into exile in 2009.

After spending most of her adult life coping with and combating the impact a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam has had on herself, her family and her homeland, she is convinced that there is no military remedy to a problem that appears to intensify with every passing year.

In an interview with AFP, Ebadi said the experience of Afghanistan demonstrated that the U.S.-led campaign aimed at ousting ISIS from the areas of Iraq and Syria it now controls would not solve anything.

“Look at all the years and all the money that have been put into fighting the Taliban,” the 67-year-old said. “Have we eradicated them? Unfortunately not.

“ISIS is like a branch of the Taliban. It is not only a terrorist group, it is also an ideology and, like any ideology, you have to fight it at its roots. When you kill the roots it will not expand.

“For me those roots are two things – illiteracy and a lack of social justice,” she says.

“Instead of throwing bombs at them, we should be throwing books at them and building schools: Then you will see that fundamentalism will be eliminated.”

Ebadi, in Rome for a conference of Nobel winners, also added her name to those who argue that the West must accept some responsibility for a problem it is now confronting on multiple fronts: Iran’s alleged development of nuclear weapons, ISIS, Boko Haram in Nigeria, chaos in Libya and terror attacks on the streets of western cities.

A history of meddling in the Middle East, the propping up of corrupt dictatorships and the mistreatment and discrimination faced by Muslims in Europe and North America are all part of a resentment-breeding cocktail, she argues.

“You see today that even many European people have joined this fundamentalism,” she said. “What does that tell us? I think it says something about how many second-generation Muslims feel humiliated and discriminated against.”

That same point was made forcibly by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when Pope Francis visited Ankara earlier this month.

While her office is in London, Ebadi pays her taxes in the U.S., where she has permanent residency. But ask her where she now lives and she laughs: “In airports, because that is where I spend 10 months of the year. London is the place I wash my clothes.”

For the foreseeable future, she is resigned to a schedule that would make many a younger woman wilt: to raise awareness of a human rights situation in Iran, which she says has not improved since the Twitter-friendly, supposed modernizer Hassan Rouhani was elected president last year.

“Many people thought the situation would get better with his election but unfortunately that has not happened,” Ebadi said. “In some cases, such as the number of executions, they have got worse.”

According to Ebadi, there is a simple explanation: “All the power remains with the supreme leader Ayatollah [Ali] Khamenei.

“The problem with Rouhani was he made promises he really did not have the authority to implement.”

Her husband and sister have both been temporarily imprisoned during her time in exile and receive regular anonymous threats against her life.

All her properties, including a rights center funded by her Nobel award, were confiscated after she left Iran, and have since been auctioned off. Even her Nobel medal was taken by the Revolutionary Guard, although it has since been returned thanks to pressure from Norway.

While she cannot contemplate a return home now, she says she is stained by a belief that will one day be possible. “It is not possible for me to continue my activities outside of Iran [while living] inside of Iran. So I prefer to be out, where I can be more useful for my country.

“Over 80 percent of the population in Iran are unhappy with the government and the way things are, so certainly change will come. I just cannot predict when.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 13, 2014, on page 8.

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