If you read this book it may be the best book you read this year. It is written by a Canadian lawyer, but don’t let that stop you from reading it. Or go to the CBC Radio archive and listen to the CBC’s 2017 Massey Lectures. The book contains those lectures. It is a delightful combination of personal reminiscences of himself and his family and his life as a UN human rights prosecutor and reflections on his experiences.
The book starts out with a wonderful and humorous description of how his family fled Iran as religious exiles fleeing persecution after their revolution. He was a young lad and did not realize why they were leaving the country he loved, but he was excited to go to Canada. His first impression was from 30,000 ft. in a jet.
Sadly, he found that Canada was not the country of unabashed welcoming of refugees. Instead in the schoolyard he was bullied as a “Paki.” Ignorant Canadian school children did not know better. He was different; so he was mocked. He spoke funny, that meant he must be ready to be made fun of. He thought the Hockey Night in Canada song was our national anthem. Maybe he was right.
Later the bigotry of Canadians morphed. He described it this way, “As my school days came to a close, the all-purpose pejorative “Paki” label was given way to a more sophisticated taxonomy of bigotry. Thanks to the simplistic sound bites and sensational images that passed as evening news, Arabs and Iranians were merging in the popular imagination as a barbaric race of crazed terrorists. Instead of getting better the ordeal by association was getting worse. It didn’t matter that we were actually the biggest victims of those same bearded fanatics appearing on their television screens, or that Western leaders had sabotaged secular democracy in our countries. Our story was irrelevant. We were merely a blank screen on which others projected their psychological needs, of either scorn or of pity.
Whether in the schoolyard or in global politics the clash of civilizations is a convenient escape from the visceral fear of embracing others. The bully and the bigot, the tyrant and the terrorist need to inflict pain on others to escape their own pain. Connecting with others renders us vulnerable; accepting differences challenges our way of life. The cowardly way out is to make enemies rather than doing the hard work of learning and growing. Why struggle to discover a deeper identity when hatred is within easy reach?”
In the book Akhavan meanders through many examples of a failure to empathize. Arabs and Israelis. Serbs and Croats. Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda. Western European settlers and North American indigenous peoples. And many more. Invariably he adds value to the discussion of these conflicts. But he always comes back to the central concept of empathy. He quotes Persian philosopher Rumi: “the wound is the place where light enters.”
Here is what he says about the West and Islam,
“For much of history, Islamic civilization has been the enduring “other” of the Western world, and Western civilization the enduring “other” of the Islamic world. But the reality today is that the irresistible forces of globalization, the inexorable expansion of our collective unconscious, is infusing diverse peoples with an ever-broader sense of belonging. That is exactly why the extremists are panicking. In these times of accelerating change, they need each other more than ever. The white crusaders and the wicked jihadists are inseparable dancing partners, entangled in an awkward tango of mutual disgust. Whether they like it or not, identities are not fossils in a museum. They are inherently dynamic constantly shaping and being shaped by others in a never-ending exchange of perspectives. Amidst intensifying interdependence, parochial identities will invariably give way to a wider loyalty. Then better to negotiate the inevitable by dialogue rather than violence. The xenophobic hissy fit of identity warriors is futile avoidance of a shared future.”
Akhavan finds empathy as the basis of human rights. As an immigrant to Canada, during a time when brown people were rare and exotic, he understands from deep personal experience, that “multiculturalism is a messy affair.” It is often difficult and challenging. But is there any reason to believe that we are not up for the challenge? Akhavan points out,
“We each have a unique path, but when our journeys occasionally converge, we may discover that we also have a shared humanity; that we all suffer; whatever our identity may be. The universality of human rights means that despite our differences, we all deserve to be treated with the same dignity. We should not project demeaning stereotypes on others, portraying them as savages to justify our bigotry. But in celebrating diversity, we should also not become apologists for those that abuse others in the name of tradition.”
It is a fundamental theme of the book that we must recognize that other people suffer, just like we do. He knows, as Shakespeare’s Shylock did, that each of us bleeds in the same way. When we recognize that, we empathize. As the original meaning of the word “sympathy” indicates, “we suffer with.”
That is precisely why we have to be skeptical of claims from our leaders that “we” are different from “them”. No matter how much they want it otherwise, this is not a matter of “us” against “them.” This is a matter of “we.” We are in this together. We really are one human race, no matter where we come from, no matter what the color of our skin, and no matter how we worship (or not) our gods. We are fellows.
Akhavan says that our encounters with human rights atrocities have a lot to say about who we actually are, as opposed to who we pretend to be. That is why Akhavan explores how the pursuit of a virtuous self-image affects our perceptions of suffering at the periphery of our society. This is a version of the thought, now often accepted, that a civilization is judged by how it treats the most vulnerable–i.e. those who suffer at the periphery.
Akhavan points out that many of us are no longer able to define the sublime by reference to the divine. Therefore, to many, they are unable to find moral certainty. As Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov said, “If God is dead then all is permitted.” To such thinking Akhavan responds as follows:
“Disabused of the catastrophic illusions of the past, in our post-modern search for transcendence we have embraced human rights as the secular sacred. Having shunned absolute truths, we navigate the stormy seas of moral relativism, weary of foundering on the forbidden rocks of individual autonomy and cultural diversity. In this disenchanted universe, belief in the inherent dignity of humankind is the magical island where we can still find refuge amidst moral uncertainty.”
This book is certainly worth the trip.