Who Are You?
Ignore the question at our peril.
Aug 25, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 46 • By JEREMY RABKIN
Natan Sharansky attracted worldwide attention as a Soviet dissident in the 1970s, as a political prisoner in the 1980s, then as a member of the Israeli cabinet in the 1990s. He has been many things, but insists on the opening page of Defending Identity, "I never considered myself a writer." Yet here is his third book.
His first, Fear No Evil, was an inspirational but highly personal memoir of his experience as a dissident and political prisoner in the Soviet Union. His second book, The Case for Democracy, published some 20 years later, drew on illustrations from his own experience of Soviet repression. But from the title down to its final pages, The Case for Democracy was a book offering confident prescriptions for the global strategy of the world's democratic states.
This new book seems to address some deficiencies in the argument of Sharansky's previous work. From the title onwards, Defending Identity is a bit defensive. "Identity" seems to be something that does not fit readily with "democracy," or something which, at least, rouses suspicion among democrats.
You might think a democrat would have to side with his own people, his own 'demos.' The democrats Sharansky tries to answer here, however, aren't for rule by the people, or even rule by the majority, so much as they are for universal human rights. But that was the very approach Sharansky himself seemed to embrace in his previous book, where he called for a coalition of free peoples against the governments oppressing the unfree.
The hope for freedom, he insisted, was universal, so the populations oppressed by dictators are potential allies of the free peoples, if only the free world finds the confidence to confront the dictators. It was an argument publicly embraced (along with its author) by President George W. Bush as he committed the United States to a counterinsurgency in Iraq.
Defending Identity has a different emphasis. Sharansky still defends the effort to liberate the Iraqi people--though with a somewhat sketchy disclaimer that more attention should have been paid to Sunni-Shia conflicts and other "identity" issues after the initial toppling of Saddam. But his main concern is the way progressive opinion, even among human rights advocates, has focused so much ire in recent years on the United States and, even more so, on Israel.
In his previous book, too, Sharansky criticized human rights advocates for moral blindness: By refusing to distinguish imperfections in generally democratic countries from governments resting entirely on repression, human rights advocates actually weakened the political coalition of democracies. This new book moves the argument to a different plane.
In The Case for Democracy Sharansky emphasized that the longing for freedom is universal because everyone would prefer to live in a free society rather than a "fear society." Here he acknowledges a large complication: Individuals don't just want to feel safe; they want to feel connected to something larger than themselves. They want to defend their "identity" as well as their personal safety.
So he criticizes the tendency among human rights advocates to demand public neutrality toward religion in ways that end up stifling religious identities. He criticizes the French law prohibiting women from wearing veils in French schools. He criticizes American liberals for worrying so much about "separation of church and state" that they end up suppressing or marginalizing the public expression of religious views. Restricting people in the name of human rights will repel potential allies in the cause of freedom.
Sharansky's deeper point is that people of strong "identity" aren't just potential allies. They are the people most ready to fight for their freedom. They are the people with the most courage, and he gives several examples from his prison experience. The prisoners most likely to resist intimidation were Pentecostals, Ukrainian nationalists, and so on. Their very particular commitments gave them very particular reasons to resist Soviet tyranny.