There was much to like in this event. In particular, I appreciated the observations of Samantha Power, a Pulitzer Prize winner with her first book — “‘ A Problem From Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide” — a professor of human rights at Harvard, and a leading authority on issues of international humanitarianism and the struggle for human rights. She is currently writing a biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (“the best the UN had to offer”) who was killed in a pivotal attack by “Al Qaeda In Iraq,” three years ago.
It was illuminating to hear how she had regarded the invasion of Iraq during the debate leading up to the war. Admitting today to having been only “half right,” she had thought that overthrowing Saddam would benefit the Iraqis, but opposed it on the grounds that the illegality of the invasion would make the world a less safe place. She contrasted this with her former Harvard colleague and fellow writer on international human rights, Michael Ignatieff, who still wholeheartedly supports the decision to go to war.
Interestingly, Ignatieff has left the ivory tower of academia to be elected to parliament in his native Canada and was a major contender for the leadership of the Liberal party. Ms. Power was constantly checking her laptop for word from the Liberal party convention, happening even as she spoke. (It turned out that Ignatieff was the leading candidate who peaked at 45 percent and then lost when the second and third-place contenders joined forces on the next ballot.)
Because of their difference on Iraq, Ms. Power hoped that he would lose, but marvelled that an international human rights activist had turned to “real” politics and was coming close to being the main opposition leader, an election away from becoming the prime minister of a country. She, herself, has been serving as an advisor to Sen. Barack Obama on international humanitarian issues.
We also heard from Kanan Makiya, the Iraqi-born writer who now teaches at Brandeis University, speaking on a phone link from London. His “Republic of Fear,” published in 1989, remains the classic text on the nature of the Saddamist regime. Makiya had been a Marxist in his youth who knew nothing of Arendt but later found much in her work to assist his evolution as a liberal thinker. He does not regret his early support for the invasion and still wishes that the international coalition had destroyed the Saddam regime in 1991. He contends that the draconian UN sanctions after 1991 had much to do with the present failure of Iraq to change itself for the better. Makiya’s despair at the current situation was quite evident.
Makiya’s respondent was the left-liberal journalist, Jonathan Schell. He backed up Makiya’s somber assessment with the observation that “What is very black about Iraq is that the insurgency has no political agenda.”
Earlier, in his turn as featured speaker, Jonathan Schell had made the counter-intuitive observation that Ronald Reagan had moved closer to the “Arendtian” ideal that superpowers are obsolete than Bill Clinton. Schell discussed how Reagan and Gorbachev had come tantalizingly close to eliminating nuclear weapons at the Reykjavik Summit of 1986.
I was charmed by Azar Nafisi, author of the acclaimed “Reading Lolita in Teheran,” who spoke on the crimes of the Islamic Republic of Iran, viewed through the lessons taught by Hannah Arendt in “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” Iran is a difficult subject to analyze from the point of view of totalitarian theory. She emphasized that “Iran is a self-critical and vibrant society… there is a vibrant civil society,” but the regime itself has a totalitarian impulse. The totalitarian state “makes victims complicit in their victimization,” compelling people to parrot its view of the world.
As she sees it, just as critics have “fabricated a picture of Arendt and constructed stories around it,” so have they taken the notion of the Iranian revolution and ignorantly accepted it as “Islamic.” “How dare we not protest evils against girls and women,” because of the contention that it’s “their culture.”
Along with China, Iran executes many more people than any other country. One horror she described relates to the practice of raping virgins before execution, because virgins are believed to go to heaven. She recounted such a situation with the rapist even visiting the parents of the executed victim, declaring himself to be their daughter’s “bridegroom.” Routinely, this regime would send fanatical supporters to the homes of “martyrs” killed in the war with Iraq, celebrating their “martyrdom” and denying the family their right to grieve.
Ms. Nafisi made it clear that she is not right-wing, announcing her opposition to the Iraq war and her hope that Ignatieff loses his political contest. She mentioned that some people are so stereotypic in their thinking that she, herself, has been accused of starting the war; one such critic felt vindicated upon finding Bernard Lewis included among her acknowledgments. “They read acknowledgments, not books,” she exclaimed in exasperation.
Nafisi is a gentle iconoclast unusual for our polarized time. It’s a shame that so many people need to be reminded that, “Just because you see Bush as bad, this doesn’t make Ahmadinejad good.” She warned also of the “belittling of thought” — of “knowledge being replaced by facts.”
I remember Ms. Nafisi fondly from her speech at the YIVO and New Republic-sponsored conference on antisemitism, three years ago; she is someone whose liberal passion and humane judgment are beyond question. She also admitted very warmly after, how she, a Muslim, feels so comfortable being surrounded by Jews as her friends and colleagues. She is affiliated with Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, where she teaches and is director of the Dialogue Project at the Foreign Policy Institute.