Nobels With a Message
By David Ignatius
Tuesday, October 14, 2003; Page A23
You couldn't help wondering if the Norwegian committee that awards the Nobel Peace Prize was trying to make a political point with its selection this year of Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi.
Between the lines of the Nobel announcement was an implicit argument that human rights activists such as Ebadi represent a better way to change repressive regimes than the U.S. soldiers now hunkered down in Iraq.
The Nobel committee made a similar statement a year ago when it gave the prize to former president Jimmy Carter "for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts." That citation was widely seen as a shot at George W. Bush, whose approach to conflicts has been less pacific.
It's not an easy argument to dismiss: Political change often moves at its own mysterious pace. Rather than trying to jump-start it, as the Bush administration did by toppling Saddam Hussein, perhaps the world should let it proceed on its own -- prodded, to be sure, by fearless internal advocates such as Ebadi.
Looking at a picture of Ebadi's smiling, unveiled face after the prize was announced Friday, you wanted to believe her cause will eventually triumph in Iran. She has been imprisoned, and risked death, fighting for women's rights in an intolerant Islamic state. As the Nobel committee said, she is a "courageous person," and such people can change the world.
Ebadi herself chided any outsiders who might want to accelerate the process of political change. "The fight for human rights is conducted in Iran by the Iranian people, and we are against any foreign intervention in Iran," she said here Friday.
But I wonder if the Nobel committee's implicit argument is right. Of course we all want to live in a world where the Ebadis will triumph because of the justice of their cause. But how realistic is that belief? Left to themselves, will good people really find a way to topple bad governments? Or do they need help?
The record of recent Nobel laureates certainly gives one pause. Kim Dae Jung, who was then president of South Korea, won the peace prize in 2000. But Kim has since been rejected by his own electorate, and his peace policy with Pyongyang is in ruins. One reason for this failure is that North Korea, apparently unmoved by the Nobel committee, secretly continued with its nuclear weapons program despite Kim's Sunshine Policy.
A happier case might be the 1998 award to John Hume and David Trimble, Catholic and Protestant politicians in Northern Ireland. Peace does seem to have come at last -- albeit with a helping hand from the United States, and after decades of ruthless police and intelligence work from Britain.
But then, Nobel-watchers probably felt optimistic 21 years before, when the peace prize was given to two women from Northern Ireland who founded a group called Peace People. Was it the activists who made the difference, or the outsiders?
Perhaps the most disturbing rejoinder is Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi. When she received the peace prize in 1991 for her courageous human rights work, many believed that political change would soon follow in her native Burma. But her intermittent talks with the ruling military junta "have yet to bear fruit," according to the International Crisis Group.
How will political change come to Iran? Certainly it will begin with brave people such as Ebadi, and millions of less prominent Iranians who by their individual actions express their desire for a freer society. Sometimes, the act of defiance can be as simple as talking about novels with your friends, as Azar Nafisi explains in her recent book "Reading Lolita in Tehran."
Nafisi says of her reading group of seven Iranian women: "No matter how repressive the state became, no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom."
Little pockets of freedom are better than none. But we should be careful about assuming that the reform movement around Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, which Ebadi has embraced in her public statements, will bring real political change. Geneive Abdo and Jonathan Lyons argue persuasively in their new book, "Answering Only to God," that Khatami has failed. Despite his well-publicized talk of change, the ruling clerics remain as powerful as ever.
The bitter truth is that it took millions of Iranians in the streets, willing to die for their cause, to bring the conservative mullahs to power in 1979, and it will take millions more to bring about their downfall. If those Iranians asked for help, should the world turn its back? Surely it wouldn't make sense to wait a few years, and then give the Iranian freedom fighters a prize.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company