December 7, 2005 | Scripps Howard News Service

Purple Fingers of Freedom

I was having dinner with some people I didn't know well, and I happened to mention that a good deal of my time in recent years has been spent working with Arabs and Muslims on questions relating to democracy.

A Brit sitting across the table leaned in, arched an eyebrow and almost spat at me: “Do they ever tell you to just bugger off?”

I replied, as evenly as I could, that that had not happened. The Arabs and Muslims I have had the opportunity to work with have not needed to be convinced that it's preferable to choose your own leaders. I did not have to sell them on the idea that speaking your mind and not ending up in a mass grave as a result is a good thing. And they decided on their own that they should have the right to worship as they choose – and be willing to tolerate others enjoying the same right.

I asked my dinner companion: “Is this hard for you to believe? Is it your impression that Arabs and Muslims would rather take orders from dictators and can't appreciate freedom the way sophisticated people like you do?”

I think I won that round but, to be fair, he did have a point: How do we know that a majority of those in the Middle East aren't more comfortable living under ordered tyranny rather than chaotic liberty?

The first real indication came less than a year ago: In January, millions of Iraqis risked their lives – and dozens sacrificed their lives – in order to cast ballots in the freest and fairest elections that nation had ever experienced.

They repeated the exercise, again defying al-Qaeda terrorists and Saddamist insurgents, to vote on a constitution in October. And on December 15, Iraqis will go to the polls once more, this time to vote for candidates who will serve a full term in office.

Surely, Americans – along with Brits and French and others in the Free World – ought to support these Iraqi voters in every possible way. Whether you were for the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq or against it, whether you think American troops should leave immediately or stay till the last al-Qaeda dog dies – none of that should matter when it comes to Iraqis who want to build democratic institutions and guarantee human rights – and not be suicide-bombed for their efforts. 

Someone who grasped this earlier and better than did most politicians and journalists was Shelby Dangerfield, a 10-year-old girl from Billings, Montana. In January, she inked her index finger purple to show her support for Iraqis who had done the same (a means to ensure voters only vote once) and who had been so daring as to display the evidence of having voted in public.

“We take it for granted,” Shelby said about voting to the Billings Gazette. She added that it was particularly “important for women to be getting to vote.”

Her idea has now been picked up by an ad hoc committee for Solidarity with Free Iraqis, a coalition of groups whose members will purple their fingers Monday Dec. 12 through Election Day on Thursday, in solidarity with free Iraqis.

Among those so far affiliated with this movement are former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Education Secretary Bill Bennett, former Clinton CIA director Jim Woolsey, talk show hosts Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly, Democratic Congressman and decorated Vietnam Veteran Jim Marshall, political strategist Mary Matalin as well as such diverse organizations as Families United for Our Troops, Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom and the Henry Jackson Society.

After returning from his fourth trip to Iraq in 17 months, Sen. Joseph Lieberman recently wrote that the war being waged in that country pits “27 million Iraqis who want to live lives of freedom, opportunity, and prosperity” against “roughly 10,000 terrorists who are either Saddam ‘revengists,' Iraqi Islamic extremists, or al-Qaeda foreign fighters, and know their wretched causes will be set back if Iraq becomes free and modern.”

The Senator added: “Every time the 27 million Iraqis have been given the chance since Saddam was overthrown, they vote for self-government and hope over the violence and hatred the 10,000 terrorists offer them.”

Is there any doubt that those Iraqis – and other Arabs and Muslims who are risking everything for freedom — deserve not derision or neglect but respect and encouragement?

Purpling a finger on Dec. 15th seems a pretty simple way to demonstrate that.

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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