Thursday, 1 October 2009

An underground railroad out of Iran

Photograph of Irshad Manji, author of "Th...Image via Wikipedia
Source: Irshad Manji

With Iran back in the news, this is the perfect time to tell you about a compelling post that’s featured on the Moral Courage Project’s website — a post bound to inspire hope, thanks to an unlikely hero.

Entitled “Moral courage champion fights for gay Iranians,” this blog entry profiles a young Iranian-Canadian named Arsham Parsi.  He’s risking his neck to run an underground railroad of sorts, helping other gay and lesbian Iranians flee their country’s oppressive regime. Consider it a 21st-century version of the underground railroad set up for American slaves so they could escape to freedom.

By the way, the blog is one of many features on the newly designed site of the Moral Courage Project. You’ll discover oodles of video — including moments from my own class, with one student complaining that he develops a headache after each moral dilemma posed.  (”No Tylenol allowed!” I warn him. Yep, you don’t want me as your prof.)

You’ll also find the curriculum of my course, Public Leadership and Moral Courage, so you can read the assigned texts on your own.

Above all, you’ll have opportunities to engage in meaningful conversation with me and many other advocates of moral courage.

Here’s just a sample of the discussion already generated:

“I was quite moved when reading about Mr. Parsi’s plight… Gay or not, I think every person can learn not only from his courage, but also from his perseverance… What I’m curious about is whether Mr. Parsi has expanded his underground railroad for aiding non-gays as well. I mention this because Iran is in dire condition. It’s difficult, especially for men, to seek refuge. As a first generation Iranian-American, I know this from the men in my family who still live in Iran.” — Shahrin

“Hi Shahrin – Irshad Manji here. In suggesting that Arsham Parsi could be helping heterosexual Iranians too, you raise a question for me: What do you say to those who argue that ‘Western’ Iranians like Arsham and you have no business aiding ‘authentic’ Iranians?”

“When a regime threatens basic human rights, it is a threat to the entire global community, regardless of nationality, religion, etc. Therefore, it is not my business to ally with indifference, ignorance, or denial. As Elie Wiesel once stated, ‘Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil.’” – Shahrin 

“There is a temptation to ask why strong people like Arsham don’t do more. However, the point of these posts is to demonstrate the power that we each have to make a difference. My hope is that this blog will encourage readers to see how they, themselves, can do the things we look to others for; how we can live moral courage.” :) Janice (campaign manager for the Moral Courage Project)

“Re: being ‘authentic’ versus ‘Western.’  It doesn’t matter what kind of person you identify as. We are all interlinked.  When a gay man suffers, the ability to love freely suffers. When an Iranian is told he is not authentic, the freedom to determine one’s sense of self suffers. Women’s rights affect men’s rights affect disabled rights affect LGBT rights affect immigrant rights… 

I was shocked to hear someone connect disability with environmental affairs, but 50% of children suffering malnutrition go blind! The more we learn how interlinked everything is, how we are not just labels given to us, but individuals with desires and needs, then may we find an end to prejudice.” – Tom

“I want to comment on Shahrin’s point about the need for humanitarian intervention overseas. This afternoon, as part of researching my next book, I’ve been reading Defying Hitler: A Memoir, written by Sebastian Haffner and published in 1933. Let me share a relevant excerpt from the introduction:

This is the story of a duel. It is a duel between two very unequal adversaries: an exceedingly powerful, formidable, and ruthless state and an insignificant, unknown private individual…
Throughout, the individual finds himself very much on the defensive.  He only wishes to preserve what he consider his integrity, his private life, and his personal honor. These are under constant attack by the government of the country he lives in, and by the most brutal, but also often clumsy, means…

The state is the German Reich and I am the individual… 

One might well consider my case as typical. From  it, you can easily judge the chances for mankind in Germany today. You will see that they are pretty slim. They need not have been quite so hopeless if the outside world had intervened. 

It is still in the world’s interest, I believe, for these chances to be improved. It is too late to avoid a war, but it might shorten the war by a year or two. Those Germans of goodwill who are fighting to defend their private peace and their private liberty are fighting, without knowing it, for the peace and liberty of the whole world.

Haffner’s words give me goosebumps, frankly. And they heartily attest to Shahrin’s point. Problem is, these days humanitarian intervention immediately invites accusations like, “you’re a neo-con.”
I couldn’t care less about the smears thrown at me — being used it by now — but I know that the fear of being tarred this way prevents plenty of good-hearted, open-minded people from expressing themselves. Anybody have ideas for how to combat that fear? This is the essence of moral courage…” – Irshad

“I think the fear can be combated by understanding the purpose of that type of rhetoric.  It is not innocent language but actually part of a discourse intended to keep people from engaging. It loses some of its power when recognized as such. At core, find what is worth the risk to you and make your acts of moral courage to be conscious choices that you willingly accept the fallout from — with ‘informed consent.’ I don’t think the fear ever fully goes away, but you can find causes that are more compelling than fear, and that is empowering.” – Amanda

“Fearing backlash or consequences from offending people does indeed appear ‘innocent,’ when really, it is a comfortable and convenient state for people to be in. Fear separates us from humanity…” – Karys

“Amanda, your answer to my question almost perfectly echoes the statement that graces the top of my personal website: ‘Courage is not the absence of fear; courage is the recognition that some things are more important than fear.’” – Irshad

Get the picture, folks?

But it’s not all warm and fuzzy. In fact, right now, a vocal debate is percolating about the hijab: Can wearing it really be an act of free will?  Boy, oh, boy. Oy, oh, oy.

I invite you to join our conversations on And if you’re motivated to become a regular blogger for the new site, let me know.  It’s a great way to develop your own platform without having to maintain a full blog. You also get to be part of a focused and passionate community.

Eager to see your comments posted on the new site. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter.
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