14 May 2004

University of Maryland Establishes Persian Studies Center

Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi talks about Islam at ceremony for new Center

By Phyllis McIntosh
Washington File Staff Writer

College Park, Maryland -- University of Maryland President C.D. Mote, Jr. announced the creation of a Persian Studies Center at the university, noting that it is the first such program in the Washington, D.C. area, as well as in the entire Northeast of the United States. The center will be headed by Professor Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, a noted expert in Persian literature and president of the 700-member International Society for Iranian Studies (ISIS), the largest association of Persian scholars in the world. He also has arranged the North American tour of the Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi and is accompanying her to many of the venues during her two month speaking tour of the U.S. and Canada.

The center will begin offering an undergraduate degree program in Persian language, literature, and culture next fall, Karimi-Hakkak told the Washington File. Graduate degree programs and scholarly exchanges with Iran and other Persian speaking countries are expected to follow within two to three years.

The program, he said, is designed to attract three groups of students: the "large and growing" Iranian-American population whose parents are linked to the Persian culture of Iran and other Asian countries; Americans who intend to become scholars of Middle Eastern languages and literatures; and students of comparative literature who want to study Persian literature from either a native or non-Persian perspective.

The Maryland center will focus on a broader range of study than most Persian studies departments, Karimi-Hakkak said. For example, students might conduct a comparative study of Islamic Sufism and Jewish and Christian religious mysticism or examine why the 13th century Persian poet Rumi's notion of spirituality has made him so popular today.

It is important to establish Persian Studies Centers in the United States, "because cultures of the Middle East, including Persian culture, are woefully under-studied in this country," Karimi-Hakkak said. But it is especially important to have one in the "political center of gravity, the nation's capital," he added.

"We are blessed to have so many Iranians, or experts on Iran, among ourselves," he said. "This city should contribute to a far greater understanding between the two peoples at a cultural level."

Iranian lawyer and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, gave the keynote speech. She is on an eight-week tour, advocating an interpretation of Islamic law that is in accordance with principles of human rights, such as democracy, equality, and freedom of speech and religion at each stop.

Ebadi arrived in Canada April 17, and by the time she departs the United States June 11, she will have made some 25 appearances, lecturing at universities and addressing graduating classes, think tanks, nonprofit organizations, and United Nations agencies.

In the lecture May 12 at the University of Maryland in suburban Washington, D.C., Ebadi declared, "Islam is not a religion of terror or violence. Islam is in its essence a religion of equality."

She criticized those who "associate the wrong deeds and actions of one individual or a few Muslims with Islam as a religion" and who argue that Islam is incompatible with Western civilization.

"We must separate the mistakes of men from their religion," she told the audience of some 5,000 students, faculty, and community members.

Addressing the problem of "authoritarian regimes that manage to hide behind the shield of Islam and continue to repress their citizens," Ebadi called on Muslim intellectuals to "try to connect with the Muslim masses through any methods and means available and familiarize people with the dynamic spirit of Islam."

"We need to make Muslims aware that Islamic states, or for that matter Islamic groups, do not have the key to paradise and that taking action in the name of Islam does not necessarily make the act Islamic," she said. "Only when this mode of thinking becomes prevalent will we see the emergence of a modern Islamic movement rather than terrorist organizations."

"Democracy and human rights are the common needs of all cultures and societies," she declared. "Respecting life, property, and human dignity is sacred in all cultures and religions. By the same token, terror, violence, torture, and humiliation of human beings are considered [abhorrent] in any society or religion."

The world will achieve peace only when the enforcement of human rights becomes universal," she added. "Whether we like it or not, the general phenomenon of globalization has globalized war and peace. If we desire a peaceful world, we have to struggle for it, both in our own countries and elsewhere. The fate of humanity is so intertwined that one can no longer consider the blessings of this world his own and deny them to others at the same time."

Even in the midst of turmoil in the Islamic world, "I dream and I imagine a dynamic Islam that not only is compatible with democracy and human rights but can be made to carry the banner of advancing these causes throughout the world," Ebadi said.
"I am a dreamer when I see a globalized humanity of the heart where every human being feels the pain of the other as if it were his or her own."

"The challenge is to think like a dreamer but to act pragmatically," she concluded. "And let us remember that many of humanity's accomplishments began as a dream."

At the conclusion of the lecture, Maryland University President Mote, presented Ebadi with the honorary degree of Doctor of Public Service in recognition of her achievements in using law to fight for justice and human rights.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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