Commentary Magazine


Lahore; or, the Islamic Gale

By some cosmic accident, I spent the most impressionable years of my early childhood in the city of Lahore, in what was then West Pakistan. This was at the end of the 1950’s and the beginning of the 60’s, when my father was a teacher in the College of Art, across from the Lahore Museum. (In the traffic circle that lay between them stood the gun, Zam-Zamah, familiar to readers of Rudyard Kipling’s wonderful tale, Kim) My father earned a Pakistani wage—later, when he worked for the United Nations, we were rich—and in my early childhood we could hardly afford to live the life associated with North American professionals abroad, who by legend recline in gated, air-conditioned isolation.

I begin this way because there is so much nonsense in the air about Islam that it is necessary to state one’s credentials, and to offer disclaimers. I am not an academically qualified person. Worse, a very quick check will establish that I am a hack journalist, filling space between the ads in Canada’s Southam chain of newspapers and throwing electrons out into the million-channel universe of the web. The best you could say is that as hacks go, I am inclined to broader reading and longer walks with my thoughts than some of my colleagues. I have studied Islam in my own, essentially autodidactic way, and have obtained a knowledge that is wider than it is deep. While I have met at some length with people who indeed speak and read the classical languages—especially Arabic, Persian, Turkish—they have always had to explain things to me in English.

But already I’m being defensive! So let me say this: the oceans are broad as well as deep. The Islam with which we have suddenly come in contact—many of us for the first time in our lives, starting on the morning of September 11, 2001—is one of the larger oceans. Soundings are important, but it is also important to sail upon this great ocean, to try to see it in its scale and move beyond our familiar horizons.

Let me also add, from the beginning, that I am consciously a Christian. This makes a huge difference in the way I tack. To start with, Islam and Christianity are two evangelical, proselytizing faiths that for nearly fourteen centuries have been rivals for the allegiance of the world. No one can believe that the Christian account of God and Jesus is essentially true and simultaneously believe that Islam’s account of Allah and Muhammad is essentially true. The contradictions are too large to be avoided, and they make for universal differences in outlook that our post-Enlightenment, “relativist” scholars have not begun to accommodate.

And yet being a Christian gives me a sympathy for believing Muslims that is not available to many secular humanists, or whatever we call them, who publicly dominate the Western world today and who lie especially thick over academia. For the believing Muslim may be a rival in the propagation of faith, but both of us are in a conscious relationship with God. Besides, Islam is something I have touched personally. Though I was never tempted to become a Muslim convert, I have some hint of the taste of it.

The sounds of the muezzin calling the hours of prayer; the daily rhythm that follows; the sight of humble men preparing their ablutions at the entrance to the mosque; the sense of the town shut up in the holy month of Ramadan; the blaze of stars as the day’s fast ends; the smell and sight of dainty foods at Eid; the feeling of belonging to a very large, extended family; even the knowledge of being contained within a world that is complete, and which can explain itself in every little detail—this is part of what it “means” to be a Muslim, and it is no small thing. To this day, when I catch my first glimpse of the fingernail moon in the western sky, there is excitement at the beginning of a new month. And by the symbol of this crescent, and the star imagined within the partial circle of an uncompleted life, I feel a child again in Pakistan.

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Lahore is a Sunni Muslim town, though even after partition from India it retained some religious minorities. They included, naturally, not a few Shiite Muslims; the odd quiet Hindu family; and a fairly substantial sprinkling of Sikhs. I was a Protestant Canadian kid attending a Jesuit school run by fairly brutal Irish brothers. The Roman Catholic minority in Lahore was and is a substantial one, estimated once at one-tenth of the city, many of them descended from converts made by the Portuguese when they arrived in India five centuries ago.

I must add here that India, in the large sense of South Asia, is very different from Arabia, or Persia, or Turkey, or even Egypt—the last of which provides an ambience that seems closest to it. India has been for many centuries a “multicultural” universe unto itself. Its religious diversity, even within the Hindu community, with its extraordinary variety in caste and cult, is unimaginable by European standards. And Muslim Pakistan is, after more than a half-century, still a new thing—not the idea of a Muslim state, but the idea of a state for Muslims only.

In my childhood in Lahore, this “spirit of diversity” was already reestablishing itself, even in the absence of large minorities. Lahore was Muslim, but in an Indian and thus ultimately rather easygoing and splendidly unorganized kind of way. The country had a very secular constitution; still in its first moments, it also had a Hindu minority almost as large, proportionally, as was the Muslim minority in neighboring India, and all minorities lived, at least in theory, within the full protection of the law. It was a secular Muslim state beside a secular Hindu one, and the division was more political than religious.

I know Lahore not only through the gauze of childhood memory but through a lifelong interest in the town, and through subsequent visits at various ages from my late teens onward. And I know that I am not dreaming about the Lahore that I fondly remember from childhood, because I have had ample opportunity to check my recollections against the memories and even the memoirs and histories of others. I have, however, come to suspect that the Lahore that existed around 1960 had more in common with all previous Lahores—the great cosmopolitan center that it was under the rule of the Mughal emperors, and that it remained under the Sikh maharajahs and the British viceroys, well into the first years of the secular nation conceived by the remarkable modern statesman, Muhammad Ali Jinnah—than it did with the Lahore that is emerging today.

Superficially, one sees only growth—more than six million people today where there were perhaps a million-and-a-quarter 40 years ago, or a couple of hundred thousand in the days of its Mughal glory. And the squalor that follows from this rapid growth must be seen to be appreciated, for the infrastructure of my childhood Lahore, already rather thin, has been unsuccessfully stretched to accommodate the extra millions.

The wealthy “New Class” inhabit the British-built parts of the city, and still employ gardeners. The Old City within its great walls, and the Anarkali district that spills out beyond them, remain largely as they were, a gorgeous maze of twisting lanes and sudden breathtaking architectural vistas, with sewers that often still work. But the rest—the “third city,” as I’m inclined to call it—is a mushrooming brick, stick, tin, and mud-walled explosion, almost a refugee camp for the masses arriving daily from the countryside and one that functions on self-help principles.

Three Lahores, which have nothing much to do with one another, have thus replaced two that were in a dialectical relationship. In this respect, Lahore has parallels throughout the Muslim world, and indeed throughout what Mao Tse-tung first described as the “third world” of impoverished countries. And it is this mushroom growth of “the masses” that creates something in common among cities once quite unalike. For, at least in the recent past, the world itself looked much different whether you were standing in Lahore, or Kabul, or Tehran, or Cairo, or Nablus, or Baghdad, or Djakarta—and depending also in what part of each town you stood. Each view changed slowly from one generation to another, as the world passed slowly through its succession of stories, but today it seems to pass quite quickly, and the stories themselves have grown over-large.

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As I have already hinted, in the Lahore of my childhood where I, a Protestant, attended a Catholic school along with many Muslim Pakistanis, it was very easy to be a Christian. Until recently, indeed, almost all of Pakistan’s Muslim prime ministers, as well as party and military and business leaders, came from schools like the one I attended, and not only in Pakistan. The case was somewhat similar through most of the Islamic world, and in fact wherever European imperialism left its mark.

As the Europeans left, they left behind emerging ruling classes who, largely because of this education, did their thinking more in English or French or even Dutch than in Urdu or Arabic or Malay. To be modern meant, in practice, to have been educated by Christians, chiefly by Roman Catholics, many of them missionary monks and nuns. Upper-class parents sent their children to these schools not because they were Christian but because they were the only places where a decent, modern education was available—one that would equip them to understand and thus to survive in the big new modern world.

Through schools like my own St. Anthony’s, the New Class was reproduced and sustained. This meant that at the top of society, there was an instinctive commitment to religious tolerance—for if you got rid of the Christians, where would your kids go to school? How would they learn to network? Correspondingly, at the bottom of society, among the common people, tolerance tended to be confirmed (whenever it was not disturbed) by the age-old human willingness to get along with your neighbors if only to avoid the loss of everything you have. From the bottom to the top, there were strong reinforcements for what I think of as the finest of political principles: live and let live.

At the top, more likely than not, the future movers and shakers also went on to universities in the West, to clinch the effect. And while they remained Muslim, at least nominally, they were also secularized and imbued with the Western distinction between church and state—or, in their case, mosque and state. They tended, unconsciously or even consciously, to look upon their own religious inheritance as backward, inferior, incapable of competing. It was only as Westernized, modern, secular, educated people that they could feel equal with their “mentors” in the West.

This did not make them closet Christians. Far from it—to become Christian, even in the secrecy of their own minds, would be to lose their claim to govern in a predominantly Muslim society. Those who were Christian to start with stayed that way, and could mix freely in the ruling class. Those who were Muslim to start with also stayed that way, at least outwardly, though they began to lose their bearings inwardly.

Most often, they became socialists of one kind or another, for in the world of only a few decades ago, that very Western ideology could still be presented as the coming thing, the cutting edge of progress. Most came to believe that the best way to modernize their societies was through central planning, and that their own class was in effect the socialist vanguard, the people who had the education and ability to deliver their peoples into the modern world.

How could they think otherwise? The crème de la crème of the elite went to the Sorbonne in Paris, to the London School of Economics, to the Universiteit van Amsterdam, to Harvard and Yale and Berkeley. Almost everywhere they landed they were presented with socialist ideals, seamlessly conjoined with elitism. And as the 20th century moved along, they further imbibed the guilt-ridden theories of oppression that held the West to blame for the backwardness of their own societies. Socialism was the answer, the medicine for oppressor and victim alike. Had more Muslim students gone to the Soviet Union, more might have rebelled against socialist assumptions—but on the Left Bank in Paris, or in smug parties in West Kensington, one could dream on.

Naturally, they also bought into another Western idea that had no place in any traditional Muslim order. They became nationalists as well as socialists, for how could you advance socialism except within a coherent national order? No matter what other syncretistic ideas might be entertained, including occasional fleeting visions of pan-Islamic union, the consolidation of the new nation state was presented as the first order of business, the immediate field of opportunity.

Hence the ideological currents running through the Muslim world in the generation before Iran’s ayatollahs came to power: Nasserism, pan-Arabism, the Baathist parties of Syria and Iraq, the Bhutto faction in Pakistan, Sukarno in Indonesia, Algerian radicalism in the Maghreb. It was clear to all of them that this was the way forward—socialism “plus” this or that, and a kingdom of heaven on earth waiting around the corner.

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It was instead a catastrophe. Human nature being what it is, the laws of supply and demand being what they are, the gods punish grand ideological schemes. And just as the law of gravity operates against other forms of human flight, none of the socialist five-year plans ever worked; each invariably crash-landed. The only thing that did work, over time, was the elites clinging to power, trying to Westernize or modernize their societies in increasing frustration and confusion.

In some ways, Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Bashir al-Assad of Syria are the last survivors of that family of dinosaurs, the world that existed before the deluge of “Islamism”—the word we now use for fanatically politicized Islam. But elsewhere, too, the old elites, like beached whales, still nominally preside over the societies they helped destroy, economically, socially, religiously, and in every other practical way, so that there is nothing left for them but to find a new excuse for holding on to power, and someone else to blame for what happened.

In Pakistan, for instance, the elites are certainly still there, only beginning to be diluted by the arrivistes from the Islamist madrassas. The military, which, because it is crucial to national power, is about the only secular institution where advancement is sometimes possible on merit, has absorbed most of the first wave of the new arrivals—though the truth is that even the traditional, pre-“Islamist” madrassas made a fairly good sorting ground for military purposes. And if, from one side, the Islamists are arriving and advancing, from the other side the beleaguered elites are being bled by emigration. The engineers and accountants, the writers of regulations and other functionaries of the New Class, are leaving as fast as they can to the West, together with the more successful merchants and investors. It is an economic imperative, for where there is no oil to pump and refine, there tends to be precious little else in the way of an economy—and the prevailing mindset has been to live by tapping and entrapping and taxing rather than by enterprise.

With each passing year, more and more of the New Class wash their hands of all those five-year plans and get on planes for Europe and America. The New Class that remains, which by now has become rather an old class, finds itself mired in a more and more urgent search for some new silver bullet, some fine new theoretical scheme to replace the tried-and-failed socialism. The alternative is to slide down from eminence, into those mushrooming brick, stick, tin, and mud-walled suburbs that they must fear in a way that we, who have not seen them so close, can never fully understand or empathize with. It is no small thing to lose your place in the social order; and especially in an order with such deep shafts.

But here is the startling thing: in the last generation or two, many of these same people—not the arrivistes from the madrassas but the very New Class that I went to school with—have begun, either subtly or overtly, to buy into Islamism. For Islamism has been, since that heady moment when the clerics of Shiite Iran led the masses in disposing of the late Shah, the “coming thing” in the Muslim world: the new, essentially political ideology; the new patent medicine. I have been able to see this happening on the streets of Lahore, with my own eyes.

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My remembered Lahore, the city of 40 years ago, was, as I said, easy-going and accommodating towards its significant, mostly Catholic, religious minority; and I think even a Jew would have been acceptable, indeed welcomed as a curiosity. Shiite and Sunni Muslims tended to despise one another, but no more than Protestants and Catholics did in the good old days of Ontario. Shiites, realizing they were in the minority, merely tended to avoid exhibitionism. Hindus and Sikhs—the few who had not joined the exodus to India at the time of partition in the late 1940’s—had to be more positively discreet about themselves. If there was tension, it was more likely to be between Sunni Muslim Lahoris by birth and Sunni Muslims who had arrived from various parts of India in the counter-exodus—a cultural, linguistic, economic, and even a communal but not essentially a religious squabble. Christians and Muslims had mutually accommodated.

But the Lahore of the last few years is a different place, especially for Christians. They feel, and are made to feel, “the pinch,” as one would say in Lahori English. Pakistani Christians I have spoken with are haunted by fear of mobs, by fear of terror strikes against their homes or churches, by fear of sudden arrest on trumped-up charges of “blasphemy against Islam,” from some anonymous neighbor bearing a grudge. And people who once would have gone to great lengths to get their names into print in the West are now terrified that I might quote them.

On my last visit, a few years ago, I myself was stopped in the street several times, along and around the main boulevard through the British-built and still outwardly most modern part of the city: the Mall, as it used to be called. And I was asked rudely intrusive questions by official-looking persons who would not, in turn, identify themselves. This was once inconceivable.

Who were these impertinent persons, freshly laundered and pressed in white short sleeves and Western-cut trousers? In a word, civil-service types—the children of the New Class. People who spoke good English, and knew what they were about. The sort of people who, themselves, would never be stopped by policemen, or by anyone else for that matter. Elite people.

But in another part of the city, barely a mile away, within the ancient walls of the Old City, I felt back in the Lahore of my childhood, a place where strangers were not interrogated, where—for instance—women may shop without male “minders” and without covering themselves from head to toe in the subtropical heat. A place where the real traditions of the city, its native “atmosphere,” were still alive, and one felt free and secure.

This is a reversal, and it tells, I think, the whole story. In my childhood, if you wanted to see women in purdah, covered from head to toe, you went to the Old City. That was where things were “like in the old days,” where tradition was still in force, in all its variety, from the greatest religious austerity at one extreme to brothels at the other. Along the Mall, you saw women in colorful shalwar kameez and bindis, or in the latest fashions from Paris or Milan.

Today, it is the other way around. The women in the New City are more likely to be in purdah, following like chattel behind husband or brother or son. But the moment you step through the gates into the Old City, you may see the faces of the women again, and catch the scent of their perfume. How to explain this? The New Class never did control the Old City; it still does not. It used to control the New City, and it still does. No, the difference is in the ideology of the New Class, the norms of life it is now trying to establish. For that New Class has bought into shari’a law, and by increments into a less and less compromising Islamism.

What we have today is the progress of Islamism itself in two, progressively converging, forms. There is the so-called moderate form—Islamicization of the laws and bureaucracy, even in the old civil courts. And there is the so-called radical form, visible in the growth of a terrorist underground, feeding on trouble in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and feeding off the large sums of oil-money arriving courtesy of the puritanical, Wahhabi sheiks of Saudi Arabia. By both means, by both routes, and floating on the tide of oil money, the same, very international ideology is being imposed, overlaid, on a traditional and very particular society, already shaken from its tree by a catastrophically failed socialism.

The same has been happening elsewhere in the Muslim world, and increasingly even within Muslim emigrant communities in the West, though the degree of Wahhabi penetration varies greatly from one country to another. (Pakistan got it full in the face, but on the other side of India, Bangladesh has largely escaped it.) It is not an evolutionary development, but a revolutionary one.

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Through e-mail with acquaintances elsewhere in the Muslim world, I have received similar observations about many other cities. In all of them, the safest place for a foreigner, or for a member of some religious minority, is now probably in the winding lanes of the oldest quarter. The unsafest place is on a wide boulevard, in the middle of the “European” part of town. The “third city”—the hovels that sprawl all around—is in most cases still up for grabs.

In Cairo, I gather, the most unpleasant place for the foreigner is in Tahrir Square, or east toward al-Azbakiya—unfortunately just where he will also find the hotels. If there is going to be a terrorist strike, that is where it is going to be—or has been, in the case of the Egyptian Museum. Yet I am fairly sure, from what I hear and have recently tested, that one may still walk the miles of Cairo’s medieval streets, and visit its ancient mosques and markets, without fear of molestation. The crookeder the streets, the straighter the people.

Ditto elsewhere throughout the Muslim world, wherever I have checked. Life goes on in the older parts of each city, a continuous, fairly leisurely development from what was there before. What we have come to call the “Arab street” is in the newer, European-built parts. What does this tell us about the great event—that gale of Islamism that is buffeting the present-day Muslim world?

The plausible explanation is that terrorists strike where the foreigners are, or where the local Christians or other minorities live. But Christians tend to stick to their own neighborhoods, for the very purpose of keeping their heads down and avoiding unnecessary trouble. And this plausible explanation does not account for that atmosphere of which I spoke above: the feeling of freedom you get as you pass through the gates into the Old City.

A better explanation is that where the foreigners stay is invariably also where the government is, its palaces and ministries. It is the most “official” part of any third-world capital. It is the best policed. It is where troops can most easily be dispatched against a riot, or to organize a riot “for show” when the television cameras from CNN or Al-Jazeera are in town. Like attracts like, and the political fanatic gravitates naturally to the political part of town: that is not really a paradox. Robbers choose banks, despite the inconvenience, because that is where the money is. Likewise, the power-hungry naturally gravitate to where the power is, even at the risk of a beating.

Yet the roil spreads, and eventually no part of the city is safe. Like a volatile gas, Islamism is being pumped into the building of Islam from both the top and the bottom. Through the spread of its so-called “moderate” form, it fills the void left by socialism at the top. And from the bottom, through the gradual permeation of the new Wahhabi-controlled madrassas, and through the pipes borne of the new pan-Islamic media, it arrives in like fashion.

I have mentioned that the madrassas were there before the Saudi sponsorship arrived, and, truth to tell, many strange things about the world were taught there, as I learned in my own travels through Pakistan in the last generation. I often heard outrageous statements about “the Jews” or “the Hindus”—statements that curled my post-Enlightenment ears. But I seldom heard them about Christians, no doubt out of courtesy to me—and once, when I pretended to be a Jew, I got only praise and welcome as “a brother” and fellow person-of-the-Book.

What was taught, then, was only potentially dangerous. A serene fatalism was also taught, and the habits of obedience to authority, and kindliness and hospitality toward any nonthreatening stranger. Jews might indeed be dismissed, in absentia, as “pigs and monkeys”; but it was nothing personal. (No one, after all, had ever met a Jew.) Toward Hindus, something a little more deadly was inculcated, but it traded on the memory of recent war. Toward Christians, and behind my back, there might well be rhetoric about “infidels”—and yet the very word was once used to my face with real affection.

Two things changed everything, in close interdependence. One was the new imams, breathing fire and brimstone and jihad out of Arabia. The other was the new media—in particular the new, international, Muslim mass media, another function of oil money.

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Al-Jazeera is by no means the only broadcast medium putting sometimes unforgettable images before people of things they never really thought about before. The broadcasters’ habit of being sensational, inflammatory, was itself adapted from Western commercial models. The fact that sex and soft pornography remain unacceptable to the non-Westernized Muslim audience, even in such “Indian” environments as Pakistan, means that proportionally much more attention is devoted to violence. It is a way of holding attention; and in the absence of the sublimated or playful violence of Western entertainment—there is no tradition of cops-and-robbers shows—the violence must be sought in current events.

The result is that while almost no one in a country like Pakistan has ever personally met a Jew, almost everyone now thinks he has. Every day, in communal settings, people gather to watch a television screen that shows them images of Israeli soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza “killing Muslim children,” as the voice-over is careful to explain. Increasingly they are also told that Christians are “just as bad as Jews”—and in that case, the radical imam may steer them toward the nearest church. What is amazing is that the audiences rise so infrequently to the bait.

The new media have conferred cult status upon characters like Osama bin Laden, who is presented as the Muslim world’s Che Guevara. Their portraits are sold for small change in the market, to decorate the empty mud walls of the poor; and the names of Osama and other terrorist leaders are extolled in Friday preaching from the pulpits in spanking-new and impressively lighted Saudi-financed mosques. Even when the official news script on public television condemns terrorism, producers will broadcast pictures of Osama, or Saddam Hussein, romantically dissolving into pictures of great Muslim and revolutionary heroes. The hints are everywhere, just as revolutionary hints ran through our own culture in the late 60’s and early 70’s. The impulse to play with such images is “radical chic”—a kind of fashion statement—the difference being that in the present circumstances, the images convey more than a fashion statement. They meld with a quasi-religious message, calling for actual holy war.

Moreover, through the misappropriation of zakat, or alms, even the widow’s mite finds itself passed toward the terrorist underground; and habits of duplicity, formed over ages in which government was usually vicious and arbitrary, are put almost unconsciously to the service of violent and armed jihadists sheltering openly in mosques and private homes. For the people who must live around them, it makes no sense to antagonize these well-armed guests, who can be seen every day, by reporting them to some distant authority that is hardly ever seen. One learns to accommodate them: to live and let live with the terrorists themselves.

By these and many other devilishly clever devices, some of them the product of no conscious planning, the dry tinder of great masses of people, habituated to living under the thumb, is being inflamed. And the people themselves respond from out of a squalor that has been made the more unbearable by explosive population growth and the failed experiments in socialism.

The government responds with its own duplicity. When pushed, General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s dictator and nominally among the United States’ more reliable allies in “the war against terror,” will do Washington’s bidding and round up known jihadists or those who have been foolish enough to make the Western news. But in the long intervals when no pressure is being applied, he must consider how his actions are playing out in the bazaar. Is he, for instance, showing enough passion for the cause of “liberating” Muslim Kashmir from India? Is he pushing the gathering Islamist underground so hard that it will bite him?

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In such an environment, or such environments—now that Lahore is like so many other cities, and vice-versa—things can only get progressively worse. For the rantings of mad mullahs are never going to feed anybody, or instill the entrepreneurial spirit that will help an impoverished and unconfident people raise themselves up. All it can do is to inculcate anger, and turn that anger against the rich, unsuffering West.

In this sense, President Bush is quite right that the enemy is not Islam. In fact, traditional Islam, long accustomed to making its various accommodations with the realities of the world, is the only possible ally still in the field. One way or another, it had been peacefully adapting to whatever challenges came its way, at its own speed. It was perfectly capable of assimilating, however gradually, to capitalist modernity—as I saw in my childhood along the Mall in Lahore, and even recently within the walls of the Old City. Little by little, the new could be embraced, without the slightest assistance from political power. But suddenly all the ground rules are changed. The Islam that was itself the means to continuity has been suddenly twisted into a force of discontinuity by essentially external causes.

I am inclined to describe the present situation by the simile of wind. In small increments, people set their sails to the prevailing breeze. But if the wind begins to blow at gale force, they are carried where it listeth. Few people in any society have the personal strength and character and weight to lean into such a wind. What strength they have, collectively, comes from the Old City, not the New—from the old Islam, for as long as it can withstand the gale.

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About the Author

David Warren, a columnist and commentator for the Ottawa Citizen, reviewed Iran Awakening by Shirin Ebadi in the October 2006 COMMENTARY.




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