The Nobel Peace Prize award to the first Muslim woman for advocacy of human rights and women’s rights has come like a lightning bolt to the 10th OIC Summit which must refocus it agenda to address the compatibility of Islam with democracy, human rights and women’s rights or face irrelevance
by Lim Kit Siang
(Petaling Jaya, Sunday): The Nobel Peace Prize award to the first Muslim woman, Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi, for her advocacy of human rights and women’s rights has come like a lightning bolt to the 10th Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) Summit in Putrajaya, Malaysia which must refocus it agenda to address one of the most challenging issues of the times, the compatibility of Islam with democracy, human rights and women’s rights, or face relegation by history to irrelevance.
The deeply-divided response and the mixed feelings in Iran to the first Iranian and first Muslim woman as Nobel Peace Laureate, with the theocratic hardliners denouncing it as against the ideals of the 1979 Islamic revolution and a political tool of the West to interfere in the internal affairs of the country while Iranian reformers hailed it as a catalyst for change, is a microcosm of the reactions of the Muslim world, which is gathering in Malaysia for the 10th OIC Summit.
The question, spoken or unspoken, which will run as a dominant motif throughout the OIC Summit in Putrajaya is what is the stand of the OIC member-nations and the Summit on the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the first Muslim woman – and the third Muslim – in its 102-year history for her activism for democracy, human rights and women’s rights.
Ebadi’s Nobel Peace Prize award should inject greater poignancy and urgency to the need for the OIC to address the “Three Deficits” relating to (i) freedom; (ii) empowerment of women and (iii) knowledge, identified by the first Arab Human Development Report of the United Nation Development Program (UNDP) in July last year as the major causes for the shocking lack of human development in 22 countries in the Arab region – which also constitute the core segment of membership of the OIC.
The report, by Arab politicians and highly-reputed scholars and academics, pointed out that despite considerable progress in education and public health care, the group of 22 Arab states ranks near the very bottom in the world (in some instances even behind sub-Saharan Africa) when it comes to civil and economic freedoms, women’s participation in public life and production, and the acquisition of new knowledge and skills. In the economic realm, the document concludes that, despite all the oil wealth, the aggregate revenues output of all Arabs (530 billion dollars in the year 1999) is no greater than that of a single European country such as Spain.
The report says that Arab countries need to embark on rebuilding their societies on the basis of:
The “Three Deficit” indictment of the first Arab Human Development Report is also basically an indictment of the OIC countries – which has now been brought into sharper focus, especially the first two deficits on human rights and women’s rights, with the award of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize to Ebadi.
The saga of Ebadi as the 2003 Nobel Peace Laureate and her fight for major reforms in Iran within the Islamic tradition should be followed closely by all Malaysians, whether Muslims or non-Muslims, as it would also have a direct bearing on the future quality of life in plural Malaysia.
Yesterday, Ebadi told the French daily Le Monde that the first reform she wanted adopted in her homeland was the abolition of Islamic penalties and their replacement by judicial punishments with the ending to stoning and the amputation of limbs.
She stressed that there is no contradiction between Islam and human rights. If in many Islamic countries human rights are flouted, this is because of a wrong interpretation of Islam. All she had tried to do in the last 20 years was to prove that with another interpretation of Islam, it would be possible to introduce democracy to Muslim countries.
She said: “We need an interpretation of Islam that leaves much more space for women to take action. We need an Islam that is compatible with democracy and one that’s respectful of individual rights.
“My stand is not against Islam …Currently, there are major ayatollahs who are in favour of the separation of the state from religion.”
The expansion of democratic, human and women rights in Muslim societies have wide political implications and impact on the democratic impulses in the Muslim world where autocratic government is common and women can be harshly restricted in employment and dress by conservative religious laws, but also in countries like Malaysia which is trapped in an Islamisation contest between UMNO and PAS, with far-reaching repercussions to nation-building as well as the nature of the vibrant civil society that could emerge and develop in the country.
* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman