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New faith column: Faith helps jailed journalist endure in Iran

October 16, 2010

In my latest column, I profile the lovely and inspiring Roxana Saberi.

Here’ the link.

And the full text.

Religion helped journalist endure imprisonment in Iran


Roxana Saberi is a stunning brunette. Her beauty and musical talent won her the Miss North Dakota crown in 1997. She is also a hard-nosed journalist who for years pursued the unglamorous, sometimes dangerous life of a foreign correspondent in Iran.

But as she recounts her arrest in Tehran in January 2009 and monthslong imprisonment in her book “Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran,” Saberi, who will speak in Austin on Oct. 23, shows us she is neither a delicate beauty queen nor a fearless reporter. And this is why her story is so powerful. Saberi is flawed. Hers is not the tale of a great martyr who sacrifices her life for a cause, but the experience of an ordinary woman who finds herself in an extraordinary situation and struggles to make the right choices.

And through this complex self-portrait, she hopes more of the world will demand an end to the human rights catastrophe in Iran.

After arresting her, Saberi’s interrogators accused her of spying for the U.S. After several sessions of questioning, days of solitary confinement and threats of a decades-long prison term, Saberi agreed to confess to crimes she hadn’t committed.

She lied. And she hated herself.

But this is also a story of faith. Certainly, the dark forces of religion loomed large for Saberi. The Islamic Republic of Iran implemented repressive rules after taking power in 1979, requiring women to wear hijab, prohibiting alcohol and outlawing the Baha’i faith, a minority religion of some 300,000 Iranians.

But religion also brought light and comfort during her imprisonment. Through the faith of her fellow prisoners, including Baha’i and Muslim women, Saberi says she found courage and began to understand the meaning of truth, justice and freedom.

She knew freedom had little meaning if she had to lie to get it. But the idea of losing years of her life in a brutal prison left her despondent. Saberi, 33, said she explored various religions growing up. “I believe that all major religions point to an infinite and gracious God, which different people refer to by a variety of names,” she said in an e-mail. “I believe we are all united through this God, which I like to think of as a Universal Soul.”

She said she envied the women whose trust in God enabled them to endure their ordeal without breaking. Eventually, a fellow prisoner helped strengthen Saberi’s resolve to recant her confession by sharing a passage from the Quran. “Even if you suffer,” her friend said, “in the end you will prevail.”

In May 2009, Saberi’s eight-year sentence was reduced, and she was released.

“For me, prison was the biggest challenge of my life,” Saberi said. “But in a way, it turned into an opportunity for me to learn and grow. I learned more about the dark and bright sides of human nature, including my own. I learned from my cellmates about the power of believing in something beyond oneself, whether it is a cause, a faith, a belief, or a community.”

Saberi’s talk at the AT&T Center at the University of Texas holds special significance for many in the Austin area who have suffered similar experiences in Iran or whose family members have been imprisoned and tortured. One of the Baha’i women with whom Saberi shared a cell has relatives in Austin. The father of a local Baha’i leader was imprisoned just after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and executed. Nastaran Kherad, a Muslim woman in Austin, recounted her imprisonment and torture at age 18 and the execution of her 24-year-old brother in her book “In the House of my Bibi.” And there are many more local connections.

The Baha’i community in Austin has tried to shine a light on the human rights violations in Iran. And though no one can claim ignorance of Iran’s repressive regime — we have only to open a newspaper or turn on TV news to hear about the atrocities — I wonder if many of us intentionally maintain only a vague awareness. We hear these awful stories and shake our heads and file it away with all the other upsetting news items we encounter daily. What, after all, can we do? This destructive alliance between religion and power has reigned in Iran more than three decades.

Saberi, who lives in North Dakota, does not succumb to such pessimism, though. Having endured the nightmare, Saberi clings to the courage and hope she encountered among her fellow prisoners.

“I think that in general, the more that people around the world become aware of human rights violations, whether they happen in Iran or elsewhere, the better,” she said. “At the very least, it can help those who are facing injustices and mistreatment to feel that they are no longer alone. They can feel empowered, as I did.”

And Americans can take action, she added.

“To help address the human rights situation in Iran, we can sign petitions; spread the word online; and write to Iranian officials at the United Nations, Iranian officials in Iran, and to our own lawmakers and media to bring attention to or address these violations. We can take part in peaceful demonstrations, contribute to human rights organizations, and help journalists and others who have had to flee Iran out of fear.”


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