by Payam Akhavan
Akhavan was an Iranian immigrant to Canada in the late ’70s, and part of the religious minority that was soon to face the brunt of the hate and violence to come from the radical Iranian government that took charge after the revolution. He became a successful lawyer within the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where he fought to prosecute perpetrators of genocide during the Bosnian War and following the Rwandan Civil War. In Search of a Better World contains Akhavan’s collected lectures on human rights abuses and the pursuit of justice for the victims.
And let me be very clear: In Search of a Better World is a heavy, draining read. Akhavan goes through first-hand accounts of the terrors inflicted on the innocent in the aforementioned conflicts, but also during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan of the ’80s and Syria and Iraq under Islamic State rule. The author does this not for the purpose of shocking readers, but to lay bare the extents of human cruelty possible if we ignore it, if we refuse to intervene and protect the victims. Akhavan zeroes in on the years––decades, usually––of hate speech that serves to dehumanize a group in the lead-up to such atrocities, empowering the mob to act. And he shows the significant and widespread harm caused by the meddling of superpowers to further their selfish interests, playing with human lives in Cold War-era proxy wars and leaving these poor nations to clean up the mess leftover when they’re no longer deemed politically or militarily valuable.
Throughout the text, Akhavan makes apparent that signals were clearly broadcast for all to see in the case of each atrocity discussed, and that we must be prepared to intervene on an international stage long before the seething hatred reaches a boiling point in order to prevent death on such a terrible scale rather than only putting a stop to it after millions of lives are lost. And the author makes a great case of the ineffectiveness of the feel-good initiatives lacking personal work or sacrifice gaining popularity in the West––think slacktivism and celebrity-championed causes. Akhavan explains that true understanding of suffering doesn’t exist without seeing it up close, that doing something that actually makes a difference comes with a personal cost.
But keep in mind that In Search of a Better World is more than a depressing look at the ineffective way people respond to large-scale tragedy. It’s also about the resilience of the human spirit; even during times of unfathomable hardship, people persevere. The author shows that human dignity is worth fighting for, no matter who it is or where they come from. Akhavan’s lectures may be hard to get through if we want to keep the most abhorrent evils of the world out of sight and out of mind, but, if we actually want to take tangible steps toward a better world, we need to be prepared to look this evil in the face and stand up to it. This one comes highly recommended.