Payam Akhavan asks why the world stands by
Payam Akhavan knows the power of words: those that separate us and those that unite us.
When I speak to him over the phone on a Wednesday morning, he’s busy preparing to deliver the fifth and final part of the 2017 Massey Lectures. Akhavan’s lectures, In Search of a Better World: A Human Rights Odyssey, are out now in book form via Anansi Press. Akhavan has been giving the lectures in person in five different cities across the country throughout the past month. The CBC will broadcast recordings of those appearances in November.
The opportunity to give the Massey Lectures is a big one for Akhavan, who considers the CBC a national treasure. In giving these lectures, Akhavan joins the company of celebrated thinkers and speakers like Martin Luther King Jr., Noam Chomsky, Jane Jacobs, and U of G’s own Lawrence Hill.
Not too shabby for someone who came to Canada as a nine-year-old, escaping religious persecution in revolutionary Iran, with only a handful of rote phrases in his English vocabulary.
In April of 1993, the young Akhavan, then a junior advisor on a diplomatic mission to war-torn Yugoslavia, travelled with a group of UN soldiers to the village of Ahmići to investigate reported atrocities. They found the homes of the local Muslim population levelled and smoking, bodies twisted in the wreckage.
Overcome with emotion, Akhavan demanded to see the person responsible.
In his lectures, he describes what followed as a moment of “utter suicidal stupidity.”
It was not justice, not anything close. But, as Akhavan puts it, “The only thing I knew for certain was that silence was not a choice.”
The Akhavan that greets me over the phone seems far removed from that reckless, furious young man. For someone who has seen the devastation of genocide, worked extensively with those who survived it, and fought to bring the perpetrators to justice, he seems oddly relaxed, humorous, even happy. He answers my questions thoughtfully, appreciatively, and generously — sometimes apologizing, with a laugh, for his long, professorial responses.
The Massey Lectures offer Akhavan a beguiling opportunity and challenge: that of addressing Canada as a whole. The lectures, after all, aim to confront Canadians with “the ideas that make us who we are and […] the questions that make us better human beings,” according to the CBC website.
“It’s been a real challenge,” Akhavan tells me, “especially coming from academic writing, to write this book in a language which is accessible to a wider national audience — and also to write it in a way that will touch people and inspire them to become engaged in fighting the injustices of the world.”
For Akhavan, that means discussing one of the concepts that has guided him through courtrooms, classrooms, and sniper fire: universal human rights.
In 1948, the fledgling United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which pronounced the “inherent dignity” of the human character. It did so in defiance of the evidence of the first half of the century, characterized by the scientific refinement of mass violence.
“Human rights, in the wake of the Second World War, in the wake of the unprecedented horrors of the Holocaust, was a return to a kind of mystical faith. It’s a kind of secular sacred,” says Akhavan.
But in the so-called First World today, the language of human rights and global justice often rings false. “Everyone says the right things,” says Akhavan. “But we fail to act when the time comes.” The United Nations’ capacity to protect fundamental human rights has come a long way since the Declaration’s adoption, as Akhavan’s lectures detail in depth. But the time to act comes over and over again — as in the ongoing Syrian Civil War, or the ongoing displacement of Muslims in Myanmar — and as often as not, the international community stands by.
Canada, says Akhavan, needs a “national conversation … that goes beyond the recycling of liberal cliches.” It’s just this kind of conversation that Akhavan hopes to start with his Massey Lectures.
“[It] has to do with awakening a deeper motivation, a deeper commitment, a kind of authentic relation to human suffering, which teaches us why human dignity matters: why we cannot remain indifferent to the injustices of the world.”
So why do so many in the West, myself included, indulge in what Akhavan calls an “effortless despair?” It is a question almost as baffling as the question of why people commit atrocities in the first place.
According to Akhavan — and this is the crux of his argument — these questions are one and the same. The answer comes down to the language we use, and the way we consequently perceive ourselves and others.
“My thesis is that the way in which we speak about human rights itself is either part of the problem or the solution,” says Akhavan.
These myths always describe essential, irreconcilable differences between ethnic, national, and religious groups. They channel uncertainty, fear, and anger toward a common enemy. They invent or exaggerate past injustices to create a pretence for violence.
From the Third Reich to the Islamic Republic, from Yugoslavia to Myanmar, tyrannical leaders carefully cultivate these myths to consolidate power. Akhavan devotes a large part of one of his lectures to describing how this process unfolded in Rwanda, laying the groundwork for genocide.
In the Western academy, seemingly innocuous notions of cultural differences — like Samuel Huntington’s famous “Clash of Civilizations” — serve a similar function, painting atrocities as inevitable, conveniently absolving politicians and intellectuals of the responsibility to intervene.
As Akhavan puts it in his lectures, “There is nothing random or spontaneous about radical evil; it is a conspiracy of prodigious proportions.”
What is the antidote to the poisonous ideology of irreconcilable cultural difference? Human rights offers a counter-mythology, but Akhavan has a more concrete solution: the way to dispel the notion of the differences between us is to establish real human connections beyond the surface of a smartphone.
It was a similar thought that led Akhavan, in his role as chair of the 2007 Global Conference on Prevention of Genocide, to orchestrate a conversation between global leaders and genocide survivors.
Such conversations are not easy, but that might be the point. Through this painful struggle to connect, we reach our greatest potential. We make life worth living. Maybe that’s why this man who has seen so much war seems so at peace.
If, as the mythology of human rights has it, all of humanity is one, then, as Akhavan tells me,
“By giving to others, we are retrieving our own authenticity. We are nobody’s saviour,” he says, his voice rising to deliver the point, “except our own.”
Payam Akhavan appears in Guelph at Knox Presbyterian Church on Oct. 17, 2017.
In Search of a Better World: A Human Rights Odyssey airs on CBC Nov. 6-10, 2017.
Illustration by Frances Esenwa/The Ontarion