United behind human rights

Posted: Aug 26, 2006 12:01 PM

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Irish statesman Edmund Burke's words still hold true three centuries later.

Right now, good men and women are doing something crucial: raising their voices in outrage, trying to save the lives of Nazanin Fateh, Malak Ghorbany and many other women just like them.

Fateh, as of this writing, awaits retrial for murder in Iran. Young Nazanin killed a man in self-defense as a group of men attacked and tried to rape her and her niece. During her first trial, she reportedly said: "I wanted to defend myself and my niece. I did not want to kill that boy. At the heat of the moment I did not know what to do because no one came to our help." (Presumably, because this is Iran, where Islamic sharia law rules, had she allowed the men to rape her and/or her niece -- the victims -- could both be facing possible execution as adulterers anyway -- in the name of a perverse conception of honor.)

When I first heard about Nazanin's horrific case, though, I knew that her execution could be thwarted. In 2003, a Nigerian woman named Amina Lawal faced a death sentence after a court convicted her of adultery, but an international coalition fought for her life -- and succeeded. And in this new case, too, good people have stepped up. Iranian-born Nazanin Afshin-Jam, a Canadian model and pop singer (and former Miss World runner-up), refuses to let the issue die and has the attention of celebrities and diplomats. When she heard about her namesake's case, she had the flash that it could have been her, had her own family not fled Iran after her father's torture there at the hands of the same regime. (He was tortured, she tells me, because -- as general manager of a Sheraton -- he allowed "music and mingling between men and women": "He almost died due to his injuries but thank God he is with us today.")

A coalition of folks spanning from my conservative National Review to liberal human-rights groups like Amnesty International have spoken out about Nazanin Fateh's case of self-defense. Most recently, her devoted advocate, Afshin-Jam, has been honored by a group called Artists for Human Rights, with an award presented by actresses Anne Archer and Jenna Elfman.

In May, Afshin-Jam interviewed her namesake by phone. Said Fateh: "Don't just help me, help all 'Nazanins' and help us to go back to a normal life." There is no shortage of Nazanins. In yet another case out of Iran -- another travesty of justice under sharia law -- Malak Ghorbany, mother of two convicted of adultery, has been sentenced to death by stoning. In Ghorbany's case, too, Left and Right are united. There are many disagreements on Iran-related issues -- the country's nuclear program, its involvement in terrorism, its Mike Wallace interviews -- but Legal Rights Institute president Lily Mazahery, who has set up a Web site on behalf of Ghorbany, says: "If there is one thing that I have learned from my human-rights work, particularly on behalf of women and girls in Iran, it is that everyone agrees and forms a united front against these atrocities, regardless of his/her political affiliation ... For a Washingtonian, such as myself, such a concept is a virtual miracle."

But the consensus must, in the end, go beyond advocacy for individual women's lives. Michael Rubin, editor of The Middle East Quarterly, is emphatic: "Incidents such as these should underscore just how antithetical it is to U.S. interests to legitimize the regime." But he charges that in Condoleezza Rice's State Department, while "there has been much talk of bribing Iran with incentives ... human-rights preconditions have been taken off the table."

In a piece in the upcoming issue of Rubin's journal, Islamic-studies scholar Denis MacEoin implores us to link human-rights issues more firmly to trade and other agreements: "Islamic countries and ordinary Muslims must be given incentives to observe human-rights norms within their borders and disincentives to apply the sharia in harsh and unjust ways."

He adds that "original Islamic jurisprudence ... does not necessarily mandate such severe punishments." That when Muslims violate human rights, they are not obeying Allah -- they are perpetrating an evil. And good people must continue to protest.