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Should the Peace Prize Have Gone to Neda?

5 years ago
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Whatever the fate of religion in the modern world -- a bane on the wane or a resurgent force for good -- the power of martyrdom will likely endure for the secular and faithful alike. The phenomenon was apparent in our recent story about Matthew Shepard, the hate crimes victim and icon of the gays rights struggle.

But the martyrdom meme is emerging again in the ongoing debate over the surprise award of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama.

With anger over the award from many of the usual suspects, and discomfiture, to say the least, even among Obama supporters (and the president himself), there has been a sort of online star search for a suitable candidate.

One popular choice has been Neda Agha-Soltan, the 26-year-old Iranian woman whose agonizing shooting death during post-election protest demonstrations in Tehran in June was captured on video and flashed around the world, fueling demonstrations and international outrage at the regime.Neda -- in Persian her name can mean "voice" or "calling" -- was immediately hailed as the "voice of Iran" and a martyr to the cause of freedom under an increasingly oppressive Iranian government. Her horrifying final moments, coupled with her appealing life story, were irresistible, and continue to be so.

The Washington Post editorialized on Sunday that Neda Agha-Soltan deserved the prize because a "posthumous award for Neda, as the avatar of a democratic movement in Iran, would have recognized the sacrifices that movement has made and encouraged its struggle in a dark hour."

Andrew Sullivan echoed that view by writing that his "obvious" choice would also have been Neda, "who died defending her own freedom and democracy." And if not Neda, he said, then the Iranian reformist politicians Mehdi Karroubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi Khamenei. "Obama has set the stage for peace, and changed the global dynamic," Sullivan wrote. "But these people are heroes, displaying the courage of their convictions, putting their lives on the line for freedom." Others seconded the motion.

Yet giving the award to Neda (her appeal is implicit in the fact that we need only use her first name) would raise several other complications.

One is that by longstanding rules, a Nobel Prize cannot go to a dead person. That adds a bit of drama to the committee's deliberations in that if they are intent on awarding the prize to recognize a lifetime of achievement, that means they are likely considering older nominees who could pass on before they are recognized. There was some grumbling when Pope John Paul II died (his appeal is implicit in the fact that he need only have a first name) that he could never be recognized by the Nobel committee, especially for his role in helping to topple Soviet communism.

The threshold is an understandable one, if often frustrating. Dead people have long afterlives in the public's heart, and with no cutoff time the Nobel could be reduced to annual arguments over whether Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Mahatma Gandhi is a more worthy recipient. Or take your pick. The death of a well-known person could lead to a surge of sentiment-based voting that year, for example. (Anyone want to see Michael Jackson as a Nobel laureate?)

Another point is that awarding a Nobel Peace Prize to an Iranian martyr could upset American foreign policy as much as giving it to Obama upset American domestic politics. Not that such considerations have stopped the Nobel Committee in the past, nor should they.

Besides, the eminently worthy Shirin Ebadi, the longtime Iranian human rights activist, won the peace prize in 2003 -- the first Muslim woman so honored. Wouldn't giving it to another Iranian so soon thereafter diminish Ebadi's accomplishments somewhat and perhaps reveal a focus on Iran at the expense of other regions or issues that are often overlooked in our monofocus on the Middle East?

Even Neda's religion could be at issue, as pictures from before her death of her wearing what appears to be a cross around her neck have inflamed many folks who argue that she is a Christian martyr -- a claim not likely to be welcomed among the Iranian reformers themselves.

But the greatest concern is whether Neda "deserved" the prize any more than Obama does. That may seem like a harsh judgment on an innocent victim (I'm referring to Neda, not Obama), but I don't mean any offense -- nor do I mean that she wouldn't have deserved it.

Rather, what is clear is that Neda was in many respects a bystander to the events unfolding around her, and was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Around 6:30 on the evening of June 20, Neda was heading to the protests in a car with four others. She was never politically active, and like many of the protesters had just started attending demonstrations. The heat was stifling inside the car, so four of them got out and were observing the protests when Neda was shot in the chest. She died a short time later, and instantly became a "martyr," though perhaps not in the classic sense of someone who voluntarily gives up his or her life for refusing to renounce a belief or for the sake of a principle.

It was a terrible tragedy all the same -- much as the suppression of the protests and the hijacking of the elections were the larger tragedy.

But if the Nobel Committee had given the prize to Neda Agha-Soltan, it would have been as aspirational as it was to award the prize to Obama -- though perhaps more inspirational, at least domestically. The award would have been not so much about what she did, but about what she -- or the memory of her -- might accomplish in the future. As Sullivan wrote, with characteristic passion: "Can you imagine how much more impact it would have had to have given them this prize?" referring to Neda and the reformists. "How big a blow it would have delivered to those vile torturers and thugs, Ahmadinejad and Khamenei?"

Neda is thus a symbol every bit as much as Obama, standing in for the larger and grander hopes of others, be they Europeans or Americans, liberals or conservatives.

Nobel Peace Prizes are often this way, just as political movements often use religious language and imagery --like martyrdom -- to "sacralize" their agendas. In the end, giving Neda the Nobel would have been "wrong" in the same way it was wrong to give it to Barack Obama. Or "right" in the same way it was "right" to give it to Obama.

It really depends on what you think the Nobel Peace Prize is for, and whether it is about the recipient, or about what he or she represents -- or whether it is about what we want.

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