Frontpage Interview's guest today is Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident and political prisoner who is the co- author (with Ron Dermer) of the new book The Case For Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror. Mr. Sharansky has been awarded the Congressional Gold Medal of Freedom for his courageous fight for liberty. He currently serves as Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs.
FP: Mr. Sharansky, welcome to Frontpage Interview. It is an honor and privilege to speak with you.
Sharansky: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts with your readers. I also wanted to thank you for inviting me and my co-author Ron Dermer to the Restoration weekend last month. I really enjoyed participating in your program.
FP: Thank you, but believe us, it is our whole staff that is grateful to you for accepting the invitation. We were graced by your presence.
So let’s get started. What inspired you to write The Case for Democracy?
Sharansky: I was inspired to write this book by those who are sceptical of the power of freedom to change the world. I felt that the arguments of these sceptics had to be answered. The three main sources of scepticism are first, that not every people desires freedom; second, that democracy in certain parts of the world would be dangerous; and third, that there is little the world’s democracies can do to advance freedom outside their countries.
This scepticism is the same scepticism I heard a generation ago in the USSR when few thought that a democratic transformation behind the iron curtain was possible. Just as the sceptics were wrong then, I am convinced they are wrong now about the possibility of freedom spreading to the Middle East.
In this book, I explain why I believe in the power of freedom to transform our world. My optimism is not based primarily on the successful march of democracy in recent times but rather is based on the experience of having lived in a fear society and studied the mechanics of tyranny that sustain such a society. By helping readers understand these mechanics, I hope they will appreciate why freedom is for everyone, why it is essential for our security and why the free world plays a critically important role in advancing democracy around the globe.
FP: You distinguish between "fear" and "free" societies. Briefly explain to our readers what you mean by this paradigm.
Sharansky: Free societies are societies in which the right of dissent is protected. In contrast, fear societies are societies in which dissent is banned. One can determine whether a society is free by applying what we call the “town-square test.” Can someone within that society walk into the town square and say what they want without fear of being punished for his or her views? If so, then that society is a free society. If not, it is a fear society.
People may believe that there can be a society where dissent is not permitted, but which is nonetheless not a fear society because everyone agrees with one another and therefore no one wants to dissent. But as we show in the book, such a monolithic society, which may occasionally emerge, will not last very long. Because of human diversity – different tastes, ambitions, interests, backgrounds, experiences, etc. - differences of opinion will be inevitable. Then the society will be confronted with the fundamental question. Will dissent be permitted? The answer to that question will determine whether the society is a free society or a fear society.
Of course, there can be serious injustices within free societies. They can have all sorts of problems and abuses of rights. But by having a right to dissent and having institutions which protect that right, free societies also have mechanisms to correct those abuses. In contrast, fear societies are always unjust and have no corrective mechanisms.
Fear societies are inevitably composed of three separate groups: True believers, dissidents and doublethinkers. True believers are those who believe in the ideology of the regime. Dissidents are those who disagree with that ideology and are prepared to say so openly. Doublethinkers are those who disagree with the ideology but who are scared to openly confront the regime.
With time, the number of doublethinkers in a fear society inevitably grows so that they represent the overwhelming majority of the population. To an outside observer, the fear society will look like a sea of true believers who demonstrate loyalty to the regime, but the reality is very different. Behind the veneer of support is an army of doublethinkers.
FP: You are critical of those who believe that democracy is suited only for certain cultures and that it is incompatible with Islam. Do you think Islam has the keys within itself to enter modernity?
Sharansky: First, as I mentioned, we can gain some optimism from history. It is important to remember that some of the most serious thinkers once thought that democracy was not compatible with the cultures of Germany, Italy, Japan, Latin America and Russia. The great historian Toynbee questioned whether democracy could ever flourish out of the Anglo-Saxon world or as he put it, in “alien soil.”
Let’s take Japan for a moment. Truman’s advisors were very sceptical about the prospects for democracy in Japan, as were most of the “experts” of the time. And there were good reasons to be sceptical. This was a country with virtually no exposure to the West for centuries. Japan rigidly hierarchical society, and unique culture was seen as antithetical to democratic life. In fact, when the concept of rights was translated into Japan it took a compound word consisting of four characters to express it. But democracy in Japan has been a great success story. Japan is not a Western democracy. The Japanese have kept their traditions, culture and heritage, but they have joined the community of free nations.
Still, history will only get us so far. People can always argue that the “Arabs” are different -- that the sceptics may have been wrong with regard to other cultures and regions, but they will not be wrong when it comes to the Arabs and the Middle East.
And the sceptics present some weighty evidence: Twenty-two Arab countries and not a single democracy. The scenes we see on our television screens, from the celebration s that followed the 9/11 attacks to mass marches praising suicide bombers, would give even the biggest optimists pause.
But while I understand that the picture we see from the outside is very troubling, I am confident that what is really going on inside these societies is very different. Just as the 99% of Soviet citizens who supported the Soviet regime in 1985 was no indication of what the people inside the USSR really thought, the army of true believers that we think we see in the Arab world is an illusion. One only has to read the memoirs of those dissidents who have left place lake Iran and Saudi Arabia to understand that these societies are steeped in doublethink.
I have no doubt that given a real choice, the vast majority of Muslims and Arabs, like everyone else will choose a free society over a fear society. Believe me, the drug of freedom is universally potent. Once the life of doublethink and self-censorship is shed, once the brainwashing stops, once freedom is tasted, no people will ever choose to live in fear again.
FP: What were your feelings and thoughts when Arafat died?
Sharansky: First, I thought that a terrorist and murderer had left this world. Second, I thought that a new opportunity for peace could emerge if we had learned from the mistakes of the past.
Oslo failed because the democratic world, including Israel, thought that peace could be made with a dictatorship. The central premise behind Oslo was that if Arafat were given enough legitimacy, territory, weapons and money, he would use his power to fight terror and make peace with Israel.
Unfortunately, little attention was paid to how Arafat ruled. In fact, some saw the harsh and repressive nature of Arafat’s regime as actually bolstering the prospects for peace. According to this logic, Arafat would be able to fight terror organizations without his hands tied by the constraints of democratic rule. As former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin chillingly put in the earliest days of Oslo, Arafat would fight terror “without a Supreme Court, without human rights organizations and without all sorts of bleeding heart liberals.”
Only weeks after Oslo began, when nearly all the world and most of Israel was drunk with the idea of peace, I argued that a Palestinian society not constrained by democratic norms would be a fear society that would pose a grave threat to Israel. As Andrei Sakharov taught me, regimes that do not respect the rights of their own people will not respect the rights of their neighbors.
In the post-Arafat era, the success of the peace process will hinge on whether the world finally focuses on what goes on inside Palestinian controlled areas . Just as the democratic world did not care how Yasser Arafat ruled, it may not care how his successor ruled. This would repeat the mistake of Oslo and lead to the same tragic results.
On the other hand, if the free world is concerned with how a new Palestinian leader governs, then the peace process will have a real chance to succeed. By telling Palestinian leaders, whoever they may be, that the support of the free world will be made conditional on enacting real reform - from dismantling the refugee camps in which Palestinians have lived for four generations to developing private enterprise to changing the curriculum of hate in Palestinian schools - the free world can help the Palestinians rebuild a destroyed civil society and create the foundations for a genuine peace.
The message of the free world to any potential Palestinian leadership should be a simple one: Embrace democratic reform and we will embrace you. Reject democratic reform and we will reject you. By focusing once and for all on helping the Palestinians build a free society, I have no doubt that an historic compromise between Israelis and Palestinians can be reached and that peace can prevail.
FP: Why do you think Arafat rejected the incredible deal Barak offered at Camp David?
Sharansky: Arafat rejected the deal because, as a dictator who had directed all his energies toward strengthening the Palestinians hatred toward Israel, Arafat could not afford to make peace.
To understand why dictators have a problem with making peace – or at least a genuine peace - the link between the nature of a regime and its external behavior must be understood. Democratic leaders, whose power is ultimately dependent on popular support, are held accountable for failing to improve the lives of their citizens. Therefore, they have a powerful incentive to keep their societies peaceful and prosperous.
The power of dictators on the other hand is not dependent on popular will. For them, staying in power is a function not of keeping people happy but rather of keeping them under control To justify the degree of repression necessary to sustain their illegitimate rule, dictators constantly need to mobilize their people against external enemies.
It is not surprising, then, that in the decade since Oslo began, Arafat used all the resources placed at his disposal to fan the flames of hatred against Israel. The media under his control incited the current generation of Palestinians against the Jewish State and his PA run schools ensured that the next generation would be even more poisoned with hate. While negotiations were conducted and summits held, Arafat’s regime was crushing Palestinian civil society and creating an autonomy of terror.
Arafat did not accept Barak’s over-generous offer because Arafat’s repressive rule was dependent on keeping the conflict with Israel alive. Non-democratic regimes always need to mobilize their people against external enemies in order to maintain internal stability. This is why, for example, the regime in Egypt, formally at peace with Israel, has become the sponsor of perhaps the most rabid form of anti-Semitic incitement on earth. Egypt got a lot of things from the peace process: territory, billions of dollars in aid, a modernized army, etc. But it also lost Israel as a political enemy. Its non-democratic regime cannot maintain internal stability without having an external enemy, and the only enemy that will serve as a glue that can mobilize Egyptian society is Israel. So instead of having Israel as a political enemy, Egypt has turned the Jewish religion and the Jewish people into an enemy.
Now look at Saudi Arabia. This is a country run by a tribal dictatorship. To maintain its internal stability, these dictators fund Wahabbi extremist Islam both within Saudi Arabia and all over the world. Look at almost all the areas across the world where there is terrorism. Many of the radical clerics in these places were educated at least partly in Saudi Arabia and many of the terrorists themselves were indoctrinated with Wahabbi ideology. That is why the price for stability inside Saudi Arabia has been the spread of terrorism all over the world.
The only peace that can be made with a dictator is once that must be based on deterrence. For today, the dictator may be your friend, but tomorrow he will need you as an enemy.
FP: In your book you emphasize that spreading democracy is crucial for our own security. What are some of the things that can be done to promote democracy around the world?
Sharansky: The two most important things that can be done to promote democracy in the world is first, to bring moral clarity back to world affairs and second, to link international policies to the advance of democracy around the globe.
When we are unwilling to draw clear moral lines between free societies and fear societies, when we are unwilling to call the former good and the latter evil, we will not be able to advance the cause of peace because peace cannot be disconnected from freedom.
By not understanding why freedom is so important to peace, we run the risk of trying to find “our dictator” in the hopes that he will provide security. In the end, we are likely to find ourselves supporting regimes that repress their own people and endanger us.
When Ronald Reagan called the USSR an evil empire he was fiercely criticized by many in the West who saw him as a dangerous warmonger. But when we in the Gulag heard of Reagan’s statement, we were ecstatic. We knew that once there was no moral confusion between the two types of societies, once good and evil were kept separate, the Soviet Union’s days were numbered. Soon, the most fearsome totalitarian empire in human history collapsed without a shot being fired and the cause of peace and security was advanced. I have no doubt that moral clarity will have the same effect today and equally serve the cause of peace, stability and security around the world.
Once we have this moral clarity then we must link our foreign policies to the expansion of freedom within non-democratic societies. The Jackson amendment, which linked most favored nation trade benefits with the US to the preservation of the right of emigration is a model of how such linkage can be created. In dealing with fear societies, the free world must have both a very big carrot and a very big stick. We should embrace leaders who embrace democratic reform and reject leaders who don’t. The free world should be willing to use all its leverage – moral, political, financial, etc. – to promote freedom and democracy.
FP: You show yourself to be quite an optimist in your book, arguing that democracy can even come to places like the Arab Middle East. Some critics argue that when we look at Arab tribal culture and its intersection with Islamism, democracy for this region appears to be an almost hopeless enterprise. Give us some encouraging words. How can we bring liberty to a region where so many individuals yearn for Sharia law and despise individual freedom, Western-style entertainment, and women's rights and equality?
Sharansky: I am optimistic that peace can be achieved in the region because I believe that every society on earth can be free and that if freedom comes to the Middle East, there can be peace. Thus, the potential for peace is there.
I am often asked how I can have confidence in a democratic Middle East when there are so few dissidents in the Arab world. People ask me where are the Arab Sakharovs and the Arab Ghandis.
I would ask those sceptics to give me the names of all the famous dissidents in Stalin’s Soviet Union in the 30s and 40s. Did hundreds of millions of people agree with Stalin? Of course not. There were no dissidents then in the USSR because they were all killed. Ghandi would not have had one follower, let alone millions, in Hitler’s Germany. Dissent is always a function of the price of dissent. Once the price of dissent in the Soviet Union was years in prison and not death, a few hundred dissidents emerged. But they were only the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds of millions of others also wanted their freedom.
The sceptics should remember that when I became a dissident in the 1970s, I knew that I could be arrested and imprisoned, but I also believed that the free world would stand with me. That is a comfort that potential dissidents in the Arab world do not have. Not only have the regimes they are confronting treated them with impunity, the free world has also remained silent.
Once that changes, once the free world encourages democratic forces within the region, once it links its policies toward states in the region to the degree of freedom they provide their own citizens, nothing will stop the march of freedom.
What will be needed is a joint effort that crosses partisan and ideological lines. In the Cold War, security hawks and human rights activists joined forces in confronting the Soviet Union. This historic partnership was critical in ending the Cold War. Today, that partnership must be reconstituted. Security hawks must understand that security and democracy are inextricably linked. Likewise, human rights activists must understand that the struggle for human rights cannot be detached from the struggle to promote democracy around the world. I believe that by bringing these two groups together, the Bush administration can succeed in its historic task of promoting democracy in the Middle East.
If a united free world stands up for democracy, I have no doubt freedom, and ultimately peace, can prevail.
FP: Today Mr. Sharansky, once again, the world is witnessing yet another conflict between the forces of freedom and the totalitarian impulses that seek to stifle them. You are a human being that personifies that struggle in your own life, for you battled personally for freedom against one of the most ruthless and vicious despotic regimes in world history. Tell us: what made you a soldier for freedom? For instance, you could have kept your mouth shut and never taken any stands for liberty and you could have avoided the Soviet gulag. And yet, you stood up for the principles of liberty knowing full well the terrible consequences that you might have to face from a barbaric regime.
What is it sparks this instinct to do what you did? What made you put your hands up to fight a monstrous tyranny? What is the calling of a dissident? And tell us a little bit about the human qualities that you had to rely on to survive the gulag and to emerge as you did: not as a victimized prisoner, but as a invincible warrior.
Sharansky: I wrote in great detail about this subject in my first book, Fear No Evil. More broadly, I became a dissident the moment I left the world of doublethink - the moment I was willing to say what I thought. What gave me the courage to do so was the inner freedom I had found in reconnecting myself to the history and heritage of my people - a process that began for many Soviet Jews in the wake of Israel's miraculous victory in the Six Day War.
You see, a totalitarian regime is most powerful when an individual confronts it alone. But I was never alone. I was connected to thousands of years of Jewish history. I saw our struggle within the USSR as a continuation of my people's ancient journey from slavery in Egypt to our promised land. I was strengthened by so many around the world, Jews and non-Jews, who were engaged in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry and to liberate hundreds of millions of people from under the boot of Soviet tyranny. And most important, I was strengthened by the vision of being reunited again with my wife Avital in Jerusalem. This feeling of interconnectedness is what enabled me to persevere all those years in the Gulag.
Of course, it also helps to be able to see the lighter side of life, even in the most difficult hours. I especially liked telling anti-Soviet jokes to my interrogators. I remember one time I told a joke about Brezhnev being furious when Americans succeeded at putting a man on the moon. After emergency discussions with other members of the Politburo, he assembled all the cosmonauts. "We have decided to beat the Americans by sending a man to the sun," declared Brezhnev." "But Comrade Leonid," replied one cosmonaut, "we will be burned alive." "What? You think we at the Politburo are idiots" shouted Brezhnev, "We have considered everything. You will be sent at night."
My interrogators were ready to burst from laughter, but they would not dare laugh in front of another KGB agent at such a joke, so they pounded on the table and shouted at me. I told these jokes not only to irritate my interrogators - which of course was always a source of pleasure - but also to remind myself who is really free and who is really in a prison -- the interrogator who cannot even laugh when he wants to or you, who is free to think what you want, say what you want and laugh when you want. It helps remind you why you are really there and why you will never want to return to the life of doublethink and fear.
I guess it also helps to have a hobby that is compatible with prison life, and my hobby was chess. I played thousands of games in my head and guess what - I always won.
FP: We are running out of time Mr. Sharansky. Before we finish, let me just sneak in a brief comment.
This interview has a special significance for me. I am the son of Soviet dissidents, Yuri and Marina Glazov. My dad signed the Letter of Twelve, which denounced Soviet human rights abuses and my mom actively typed and circulated Samizdat - the underground political literature. We were very fortunate to escape the vicious barbarity of what Soviet terror had in store for us.
You are an individual who is very close to my heart. Throughout my whole childhood I listened to your name being spoken at my family’s dinner table – and it was a name that demanded respect and admiration. My dad and mom spoke very highly of you and closely followed your trials and tribulations. I remember how much we all cheered in front of our television that day when you zig-zagged walking across that bridge during the exchange that freed you from your Soviet captors and tormentors. My whole family had tears in their eyes.
And you zig-zagged because the KGB had told you to walk straight. Despite all the suffering you experienced you remained a warrior to the last second, achieving victory – a single human being against an entire totalitarian regime. That last counter-punch of resistance represented so much to all of us – it inspired and continues to inspire human hope and the unquenchable thirst for freedom and liberty that resides in the heart of man.
So this may be a little bit of a strange way to end an interview, but I would like to give you a big bear hug in emotional Russian style. And I would like to say to you that I consider you one of my personal heroes. Thank you for standing up for freedom, for sacrificing so many years of your life in the Soviet gulag for the beautiful values that you treasure, and for being the extraordinary human being that you are. The world doesn’t make many people like you.
Sharansky: Thank you for your kind words. I am truly flattered. But you should never forget that I was not alone. It was precisely people like your parents, and the many people who were part of the Soviet Jewry movement within the USSR and the millions of supporters around the world who stood in solidarity with them that made it possible for an evil empire to be defeated.
When I was convicted, the KGB, the most powerful organization of the most powerful totalitarian empire in history, told me that the Soviet Jewry struggle was finished, that the human rights movement inside the USSR was over, that I had no choice but to cooperate. The KGB derided all those in the West who stood in solidarity with us as an army of students and housewives. But this army of students and housewives changed our world.
Less than twenty years later, the KGB is gone. The USSR is gone. Communism is gone. More than a million Soviet Jews have returned to their ancestral homeland. And hundreds of millions of people are now free. That should convince any sceptic of the awesome power of freedom to change our world. If we believe in that power once again then the results can be no less dramatic.
FP: Thank you, Mr. Sharansky. You are an inspiration. I hope you will visit us again soon. Take care.