December 1, 2004 | Scripps Howard News Service

Give Freedom a Chance

Readers of a certain age will recall the name Anatoli Sharansky. He was a Soviet dissident who in 1978 was tried by a kangaroo court, convicted of treason and shipped off to the Gulag.

As a young reporter, I covered that trial – or attempted to. The courtroom was closed to press and public. Sharansky's supporters mingled with journalists behind barricades outside the courtroom until one day an armored vehicle drove up and took him away. He wasn't allowed to say a word to us. We were not permitted even to see his face. I'll never forget his friends and family shouting his nickname in a sad chorus as the vehicle disappeared into the distance: “Tolya! Tolya!” I wondered if he could hear them.

In 1986 Mikhail Gorbachev released Sharansky, who immigrated to Israel and changed his first name to Natan, He has just written a book: “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror.” 

I haven't checked how it's doing on but I do know that President Bush is reading it – and recently had Sharansky stop by the White House for a long discussion. I have it on good authority that Vice President Dick Cheney has read it, too; also Sen. Joseph Lieberman and former CIA director R. James Woolsey.

Why has “The Case for Democracy” attracted this illustrious readership? Because it makes an impassioned case for the transforming power of freedom. It argues for supporting those who are fighting for human rights in parts of the world – not least the Middle East — where such concepts have not yet taken root. 

Sharansky says that during his years as a political prisoner, he came to realize that the world was divided into free societies and “fear societies.” 

From South America to Asia to Africa, there are more free societies and fewer fear societies today than there used to be. But the Middle East has been mostly left behind.  Saddam Hussein's Iraq was the most oppressive fear society in the region, one where mass murder, torture and institutionalized rape were routine. Fear dominates Iran and Syria; also Syrian-occupied. Lebanon. And no one would dare stand up in Ramallah or Gaza City and say out loud that Yasser Arafat was corrupt and that's it's time to negotiate a sincere and lasting peace with Israel.

Some Arab countries produce oil and selling that oil has made some individuals spectacularly wealthy. That is not the same as creating a prosperous nation. To accomplish that, requires creative thinking which is not permitted in fear societies. That may help explain why Arab countries don't manufacture cars, computers, medicines or toys. Instead, too may of them manufacture hatred, terrorism and excuses. Failures are never the faults of the dictators or regimes. They are always the fault of some demonic “other” – e.g. colonialists, “Crusaders,” Zionists, Americans, Israelis. 

Are the peoples of the Middle East prepared to shoulder the burdens and responsibilities of freedom, democracy and human rights? Most people on the Left today think not. The paleo-conservatives and Buchananite Right agree on that. Most Europeans believe that attempting to spread freedom in Arab lands makes as much sense as planting banana trees in Iceland. 

Their alternative: stability. But Sharansky argues that the stability that dictators promise is built on sand. Consider the stability we've fostered by supporting the Saudi rulers or by not interfering with the Iranian mullahs — even after they kidnapped our diplomats and enlisted Hezbollah to murder our Marines and diplomats in Beirut.

Look at the stability France has reaped by dismissing as naïve proposals for democratic reform in Cote D'Ivoire for the past 40 years. Recall the stability that Saddam Hussein offered. Look at the stability the Israelis gave themselves by bringing Arafat back from exile and placing him in power in the West Bank and Gaza.

But maybe freedom is more than most Iraqis, Iranians and other peoples of the Middle East can handle. While we can't rule that out, Sharansky reminds us that not so long ago the same arguments were being made about the inability of Germans, Japanese and other nationalities to develop societies based on anything more complex than the crack of the whip.

And there is a growing list of Arab and Muslim dissidents — advocates for freedom, democracy and human rights who are as brave as were Sharansky, Andrei Sakharov, Vaclav Havel and similar East European dissidents in their day. Men like Tarek Heggey, Farid Ghadry, Akbar Ahmed and Omar Karsouo – to name just a few. 

In the 1970s we chanted: “Give peace a chance.” Perhaps the slogan of Muslim reformers – and those, like Sharansky, Bush and Lieberman, who support them — should be: “Give freedom a chance.” Surely, it's too soon to give up.

– Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.



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