Idea Festival had invited Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights lawyer, writer and Nobel Peace prize winner, to speak at the conference. Unfortunately, the Iranian government wasn’t willing to provide her with a visa to speak at this event, or other events in the US. With Ebadi not able to appear, Idea Festival has organized a conversation, titled “Peace”, which invites New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, University of Kentucky professor
John Stempel, and Global Voices Middle East and North Africa editor Amira Al Hussaini to discuss issues of peace, freedom and cultural understanding.
On the topic of Iran and their decision to prevent Ebadi from presenting at the festival, Kristof and Stempel both point out the complexities of the current situation in Iran, the idea that there’s a great deal of pro-American sentiment as well as a great deal of repression. Stempel mentions that some of his more conservative students promote the idea that we should bomb Iran into submission – “there’s a lot wrong with that idea, but beyond that, how can you bomb a country where 65 to 70% of the people support America?” Kristof expressed surprise at the willingness of Iranians to criticize the regime. Stempel reminisced about Iran when he worked there as a diplomat, during the Revolution. Iranians were very willing to engage with him personally, but conversations closed with a friendly “Death to America” – he makes the point that the greeting was warmly offered, just somewhat disconcerting to an American diplomat.
Amira takes a different tack on impressions of Iran and argues that Iran isn’t the only repressive nation in the Middle East or in the world as a whole. She points to attacks on free speech online and offline throughout the region, imprisoning bloggers for comments posted on their blogs. Pointing just to Iran, she suggests, makes a mistake – dozens of countries are looking for ways to control speech, some more violently and harshly than others.
As the conversation turned towards Kristof’s talk on Darfur, Amira offered an interesting perspective: “As an Arab, I feel strangely distant from the Darfur situation. Yet it’s happening right on our border. Do we blame the media – yes, it’s not in the local media, but it’s right there on the Internet. If we want to look around, we can find out easily what’s happening.”
Kris Kimel, the organizer of Idea Festival and moderator of this panel, pushes the panelists on the question of “freedom” – should the US be pushing freedom in the Middle East. Stempel wonders who gets to define freedom – if freedom is defined very differently in the Middle East, are we pushing for freedom or for some uniquely American view of freedom? Kristof gently argues that this is a bit of a cop out – since the Carter administration, US foreign policy hasn’t been afraid of supporting basic human rights, and we shouldn’t be afraid to push for these rights. He suggests that the problem isn’t that other countries misunderstand freedom, but that Americans generally fail to understand other countries. He urges more foreign travel, and argues that Americans are uniquely parochial and interested, primarily in their own culture. (I’d challenge this. Kristof specifically offers the example of best seller lists in the US and Europe – Europeans are more likely to read regionally than Americans. But my analysis of media coverage suggests that almost all counties are quite parochial, looking primarily at a small set of nations they consider highly relavent – usually nations they border, or that they have long-standing conflicts with.)
Amira dives right in and announces, “Your idea of freedom in America cannot work in the Middle East.” People in the region are bound by religion, tradition, values, and these manifest in different practices. “A daughter gives birth and spends 40 days with her mother, learning how to take care of the child.” The result is a very tight knit society, one that’s very prone to turn on outsiders, she argues.
Questions about terrorism from the audience provoke interesting responses. Stempel argues that we’re suffering from the “detritus of 9/11”, and that the consequences of that event are our view of a unipolar world, and a failure to look at the wider world with humility. Asked whether the US should consider engaging with “bad actors”, like human rights violator Burma, Kristof makes an argument that failing to engage with governments is a poor plan, and that events in North Korea demonstrate the value of talking with rogue regimes. Stempel offers his assurance that the US won’t invade Iran because we lack forces; Kristof suggests that we might bomb Iran in the waning days of the Bush presidency, but would not invade. Amira explains the sympathy that some Arabs feel for bin Laden, arguing that American behavior in Iraq has proved some of bin Laden’s accusations about America to be true.
Kristof’s urging of Americans to travel more gets a cool reception from some in the audience – one questioner argues that it might have been a good idea 20 years ago, but the world is too dangerous now. Amira demurs – she brought a group of US and UK journalists to Yemen and they were warmly received. Kristof points out that Yemen is such a sociable place, you hope to be kidnapped, because your captors treat you well. (We think he’s joking, but he makes the point that the kidnappers frequently have very modest goals, like a paved road to their village, and often release captives when demands appear to be met.) Stempel mourns the death of the US Information Agency, an organization resonsible for marketing America abroad by introducing the world to American scholarship and culture – as a recipient of USIA largess through the Fulbright program, I can only agree with him. And he closes with a hope that we will see “more humility at the senior levels” of government and that our next President will “do a better job of explaining ourselves to the rest of the world.
One of the reasons I like Idea Festival so much is that it’s very conscious of its embodiment in the Louisville community. The opening night event is a Taste of Louisville session, where a hall at the conference center is filled with tasting stations from two dozen local restaurants, breweries and distilleries. My friends and I graze on macaroni and cheese with truffles and lobster, beef in bourbon tarragon reduction, braised bison served with vegetable ragout and barley. There are lots worse ways to open a conference, and few better ways to get conferencegoers excited about heading out to dinner the following night.