Akbar Ganji, a prominent Iranian political dissident, argued for human rights at International House on Thursday night in a conversational interview with Martha Nussbaum, professor in the Law School.
Susan Gzesh, director of the Human Rights Program, introduced Ganji as “a man of ideas and a man of action.” From 2000 until March of this year, Ganji was imprisoned for criticizing the Iranian state while writing for reformist newspapers.
He continued to write and protest while in jail, producing two letters addressed to the free people of the world. Humanitarian groups rallied against Ganji’s imprisonment, and in 2005 the White House issued a statement calling for Ganji’s release.
The public presentation, which was facilitated by two translators, was the extension of a private conference between Nussbaum and Ganji earlier in the day. For the public, Nussbaum asked the Iranian journalist several broad questions about his perspectives on universal human rights, women’s rights, Islam, and the Iranian political situation.
Ganji defended the concept of universal human rights. He explained that a set of universal rights should not be based on cultural values or standards of morality, but the universality of suffering and pain.
“I should not have to suffer. That is what gives me human rights,” he said.
Responding to a question from an audience member, Ganji criticized religious fundamentalism in all its incarnations.
“In no condition do I accept fundamentalism,” he said. He criticized the Western media’s biased portrayal of a blindly fundamentalist Islamic world. He also mentioned that in the Middle East, media portrayal of the United States is similar, showing a fanatical Christian population.
“It doesn’t make a difference,” Ganji said. “Everywhere in the world, people’s religious beliefs are taken advantage of…. In the U.S. and in Iran, modern progressive voices from the other side are not reflected because fundamentalists need each other.”
The event was jointly sponsored by several on- and off-campus organizations, including the Human Rights Program, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the Norman Wait Harris Fund of the Center for International Studies, the Committee on Creative Writing, the Global Voices Program of the International House, the Divinity School, and the magazine openDemocracy.
A podcast of the event will be available today at chiasmos.uchicago.edu. It was also broadcast on Chicago Public Radio.