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Payam Akhavan

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Printed Date: 19 July 2019 at 4:44am
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Topic: Payam Akhavan
Posted By: Non Believer
Subject: Payam Akhavan
Date Posted: 07 November 2017 at 10:41am - Struggling for justice

"I was told that Canada is the promised land, but I pined for Iran. From the vantage point of schoolyard politics, I was a despised minority in Canada. I was not yet aware that I was a much more despised minority in Iran. There was seemingly no escape from this prison of identity. Confined by its oppressive walls, the best I could do was to retreat inside of myself and find comfort in romanticized memories, a stubborn clinging to an increasingly perfect past."

"I had a stark choice: to exercise my freedom to become a bystander, or to commit my life to struggling for justice."

That's the difficult decision Payam Akhavan this year's CBC Massey Lecturer had to make after fleeing the Iran of Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1970s for Canada, where he had his awakening to human rights.

That awakening came when he was a teenager, and heard what happened to Mona Mahmudnizhad, a young woman around his age from the Iranian Bahai community in Tehran.

Mahmudnizhad had been assigned in school to write an essay about religious freedom. She was expected to praise the government, but instead used the essay to speak out about her lack of freedom.

"After she wrote that essay, the authorities raided her home," Akhavan explains in the first of his lectures. "They arrested her and her father. Her mother begged them not to take her daughter, saying she is just a child. And they produced the essay and they said the person who wrote this essay is not a child."

Mahmudnizhad and her father were put in prison, where they were tortured for several months. In June 1983, she was killed alongside nine other Iranian Bahai women. Mahmudnizhad was hung on a polo field, the same place where her father had been executed.

Yet even in those final moments, she showed courage and rebellion.

"We know that when Mona was on the gallows that she, with the noose around her neck, smiled at her executioner in a final act of defiance," Akhavan said. "This just shattered my world. It completely changed the course of my life."

Men do you harm either because they fear you or because they hate you.

Posted By: Non Believer
Date Posted: 14 November 2017 at 12:57pm
Did anyone listen to this?

It was the first of five parts. Part 5 links to the first four parts: - Hijacking human rights

CBC Massey Lecture 5: The Spirit of Human Rights

After watching world leaders, bigwig CEOs and pop stars schmooze over drinks at the 2006 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Payam Akhavan wondered just how these elites were actually "improving the state of the world."

After all, that's the motto he saw emblazoned on a banner at the forum.

Listen to the first lecture about Akhavan's exile from Iran, the second lecture about his work in Bosnia, the third lecture on the Rwandan genocide and the fourth lecture about 9/11's impact

Instead, in a star-studded sea of personalities, Akhavan found "a decided lack of humility."

"The idea that was absent at Davos was how the rich and famous could help change the same neo-liberal order that had allowed them to amass obscene fortunes to the exclusion of the 99 per cent," Akhavan said, who is this year's Massey lecturer.

He goes on to argue that the rich and famous are "hijacking human rights for their own purposes."

"While self-righteous elites point accusatory fingers from thirty thousand feet, the extremists have tapped into public rage and alienation with considerable success."

Akhavan, a human rights lawyer and McGill professor, saw those qualities in Ahmed Qasim al-Khateb, a young suicide bomber whom he met in an Iraqi prison.

"He spoke with unwavering confidence about his sacred mission," said Akhavan, who was in Iraq to examine ISIS atrocities and try to find ways to bring about justice.

"A train-wreck of shame, humiliation and trauma, Ahmed had nothing to lose. In joining ISIS, he had suddenly found an identity, an illusion of power." But he also revealed to Akhavan that he missed his mother and wanted to go to school.

It's a problem in Canada, too

It's just one of the examples of the collapse of "basic human dignity" that Akhavan gives in his final lecture, recorded last month in Toronto.

And we're not immune.

Akhavan concludes the series by bringing up the plight of Canada's Indigenous people. As an immigrant to Canada, he pictured the country as a "human rights paradise." Discovering our troubled Indigenous history made him rethink that.

"If we want to move beyond feel-good platitudes, if we want something better than cynical despair, we need a brutally honest conversation about the greed, hypocrisy, corruption and arrogance that has brought us to this difficult place," he said.

"None of us, no matter how accomplished, is on top of the world; we are all a part of it, every single one of us."

Key quotes in Akhavan's fifth and final lecture

"It seemed utterly foolish for people to think that somehow the unholy trinity of the mega-rich, political opportunists, and fashionable entertainers would do the right thing; that they would act with selflessness to achieve meaningful change. Compassion kitsch by the one per cent was surely not the way to build a better world."

"Just as we worship the secular sacred, just as we celebrate our inherent dignity, we also indulge in the crass materialism and self-absorption of our consumerist culture. The glorification of greed breeds apathy to the suffering of others; it breeds both cultural and structural violence. It is fundamentally incompatible with the spiritual reality that the depths of our humanity can only be discovered through altruism. The light of our soul is best mirrored in how we help the suffering, not in how much we consume."

Men do you harm either because they fear you or because they hate you.

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