3 Questions for ...

Maryam Elahi
Director of the Human Rights Program

What is the role of a human rights program in the context of a liberal arts education?

"The best thing a program like ours can do is to help students raise critical questions about truly important issues. Our role is to help them develop critical thinking and analysis skills that are applicable in any context. We put the facts in front of them about certain human rights situations—whether philosophical or real-life, practical issues—and then ask them to think through the conflict of rights. I ask them to identify the victims and perpetrators, what kind of justice is appropriate and, ultimately, what is right? How do we define what is right? 

"During that process a variety of disciplines come into play. For example, we talk about physician complicity in human rights violations in places like Iraq and Turkey, but we also talk about the same types of concerns at Guantanamo Bay. Students get to think about issues in different ways, all of which are tangible to them because these are real-life scenarios—unfortunately. A different example is the overall discussion of security and liberty that is taking place in this country right now. Our students have to consider that issue in a lot of different contexts. It helps them to develop a much more sophisticated sense of analysis and, I think, a more accurate view of the world.

"At the same time, most of our classes include a community learning initiative. One of the projects that my class is working on right now involves giving presentations to students at the Learning Corridor on a variety of human rights issues. Some of these issues are very complicated—for example, the role of multinational corporations in promoting human rights—and their job is to make that information accessible to seventh graders. That’s not easy to do.

"So, at the very least, I hope that our program helps our students engage global issues, connect with them at a local level, and think through the complexities. This exercise helps them develop critical, analytic thinking skills. We question everything, even the very basic premises of human rights."

What should Americans be aware of relative to human rights and the war on terror?

"Preserving our security does not have to be at the cost of minimizing our freedoms or violating human rights. Torture and ill-treatment are illegal, immoral, and impractical no matter who exercises it and the circumstances. We give up our soul—what makes this country a sanctuary for those seeking freedom—when we violate human rights.

"In the fall semester, I invited a member of the judge advocate general’s office, whom I had taught at Oxford University last summer, to campus to give a talk on the issues of human rights violations by members of the U.S. armed forces in Iraq. His position is that when we give away even a scintilla of our rights we are giving a victory to the terrorists. He believes that nothing justifies torture, and we need to accept that certain acts of terror may happen, others will be prevented, and to go about our lives. There’s a place in the middle somewhere, an appropriate balance, where we can have security—we all want security—and we can live with maximum liberties.

"This is a very young country. People fought on this soil to secure these liberties, and it is almost an act of treason to give them away so easily. It’s very important that we find the right balance. For example, there needs to be much better clarity about the wiretapping situation. What are its limitations and criteria? Does everyone who immigrated to the U.S. from Iraq, Afghanistan, or Iran have a wiretap on their phone whenever they call their grandparents? 

"We need to work toward having less of a culture of fear. One of the things that worries me is the way we’ve turned inward in the last few years. We should create a much more open society where people are not afraid to say what they believe, while at the same time targeting the specific networks where the terrorists are active. I’ve heard people say, ‘I have nothing to hide, so the government can look in my house and tap my phone,’ but that’s how big brother cultures are formed. It is part of our culture to question authority—we should all be questioning our government all the time—it’s what a democracy is all about. Governments should be accountable to their constituents. Somehow, popular thinking has made that appear ‘unpatriotic.’ It’s very important for us to say that there are limitations, that there are courts of law, and that we want—no, we demand—that everything be done above board. We should be thinking about what the costs are when we give up liberties in the interest of security."

Who were some of your childhood heroes?

"My father was the biggest hero in my life. He was kind, non-judgmental, and fun.

"I can remember two heroes from when I was a kid—Albert Einstein and Albert Schweitzer. I had read a little bit about them, but I really didn’t know that much about them. I am sure that I must have been influenced by my father who was a scientist and a humanist. I know I liked the fact that Schweitzer was a humanitarian and that he was out helping people. I remember that I had an Einstein poster on the wall.  As I said, I didn’t know too much about them, but I thought they were just fantastic.

"My favorite author for the longest time was Dickens. When I was 12 or 13, I had read almost all of his books. I was very excited by them. I grew up in Iran and I went to an Iranian-American school. In college, Camus became (and still is) my hero. When I feel a sense of desperation at the state of the world, I think that those of us in the human rights struggle are all like Sisyphus and that we just keep pushing the boulder up the hill until there are more of us—and then the load will be less heavy. As an activist, I work hard at keeping pessimism and hopelessness out of my life."

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What they’re reading



What they’re reading…

Henry DePhillips,
Vernon K. Krieble Professor of Chemistry

"Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was arguably one of the greatest painters in history. He is certainly recognized as the master of the Italian Baroque. Of his many works, only 60 to 80 are recognized today. Hence, when a new Caravaggio is “found” it is a cause for great celebration. Jonathan Harr’s book, The Lost Caravaggio: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece details the drama behind such a search. The painting in question “The Taking of Christ” was supposedly completed by Caravaggio in 1602 and Harr follows the trail of present day graduate student, Francesca Capelletti, and an art restorer in Ireland, Sergio Benedetti, as they try to piece together the history of two paintings, one of which might just be a lost Caravaggio. This book is a real-life detective story with all the mystery, frustrations, joys, ups-and-downs, and unexpected turns of a well-written work of fiction. But the most compelling aspect of the book is that the story is true!

"My interest in the book stems from my interest in the scientific methods used to gain information from and about both paintings. Of course, Caravaggio’s life is woven throughout the text and that lends even greater interest to the reader. The combination of past enjoining present and history informing reality makes this book a must read.  I was so taken with it that I have since completed another, more biographical, account of Caravaggio’s life by Francine Prose titled Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles. I recommend both books. You will not be able to put either down once you read the first page." 

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