On November 1, Hillel at Stanford hosted an event with Natan Sharansky, the human rights activist who rocked the world of foreign policy with his New York Times bestseller, The Case for Democracy.
“People try to convince themselves that democracy is only for them,” Sharansky said in response to one question from the audience. He claimed that some individuals mistakenly believe that certain groups of people aren’t ready for or don’t desire democracy – that they are not Judeo-Christian or Western enough. In short, they believe that some people are too different for the system to work.
“It’s racist to believe Arabs are not fit for democracy,” Sharansky proclaimed. He pointed out that nonbelievers once made the same arguments about the people of the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, militaristic Japan, Falangist Spain, and fascist Italy—all of which are now diverse, democratic states.
Sharansky’s talk grew personal when a member of the audience asked why he was so sure that everyone, including civilians in countries like North Korea and Iran, wanted the freedom he advocates.
“I am sure because doublethink is the same everywhere,” Sharansky replied. “When I was a little boy in the Soviet Union, I remember people celebrating in the streets … but when we were alone inside our house, my dad took us aside and told us that Stalin was a very bad man who had killed lots and lots of people.” Sharansky’s father instructed him to cry along with his classmates as they discussed “how grateful they were to Stalin, blah blah blah.” They had to pretend they agreed with the regime to stay safe.
“People can live in fear, or live in a society where they can speak their minds,” Sharansky said solemnly. “When it comes to a choice between living in fear and living without fear, people choose to live without fear.”
As Sharansky noted later in the discussion, “Revolutions happen when doublethinkers cross the line and become dissidents.” He himself crossed that line in 1977, when he was arrested by the KGB – the infamous state police and intelligence agency of the former Soviet Union – on charges of treason and spying for the United States. He was freed five years into his thirteen-year sentence due to political pressure from the Reagan Administration.
Despite the terror of his ordeal, Sharansky managed to joke about the food conditions behind the Iron Curtain, saying, “It is a big advantage to be small in a Soviet prison.” (He is only 5’3’’).
Sharansky insisted that freedom can be spread if free states have a strong moral compass. He quoted his deceased friend, Russian scientist and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Andrei Sakharov, who once told the United States: “If you want to be free, you cannot support dictators.”
Sharansky added his own testimony: “Making agreements with regimes who don’t respect the rights of their own people, who aren’t ready to say in Arabic what they’re saying in English, will not bring peace.”
While he criticized the authoritarian governments of much of the Middle East, Sharansky did believe that the region was showing signs of freedom, and that democracy would ultimately succeed. Iran is ripe for open dissent, he said, and Israel still acts as a small island of freedom in “the most dictatorial area of the world.”
His support of a Jewish State does not interfere with his hopes for cooperation between Palestinians and Jews.
“I’m ready for a Palestinian State if it’s democratic,” Sharansky said. “But democracy is not about elections—it is about free elections.” Right now, he said, people in the Middle East are choosing between dictators and extremist groups like Hamas – if a choice even exists at all.