Defending Identity

Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy

by Natan Sharansky

Public Affairs, 304 pp., $26.95

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.

By contrast, those who are only for human rights are often unprepared to take risks for their cause. Campaigns for "peace" in the 1970s and '80s tended, as he notes, to advocate appeasement of the Soviet Union--and were, for that reason, encouraged and nurtured by the Kremlin (at least in the West). In a somewhat similar way, Sharansky protests, the cause of human rights has been hijacked at the United Nations by Islamic states, who subordinate all other concerns to their campaign against Israel. Western human rights advocates have accommodated this perverse priority rather than lose access to international forums or risk unpleasant confrontations with Islamist organizations.

Europeans, Sharansky warns, have come to see national and religious loyalties as obstacles to global undertakings and departures from a properly cosmopolitan spirit. Too often they think of the United States and Israel as obstacles to global harmony because they do not go along with global trends--most of all, the trend toward accommodating Islamist extremism. Those who have "democracy without identity" find it impossible to resist those who have "identity without democracy," and end up trying to appease them.

Sharansky makes his case in broad strokes. The broad images he paints are certainly recognizable. For all the high talk about human rights in Europe, there does not seem to be much stomach to fight for human rights in other countries, or even to take the necessary steps to defend freedom within Europe itself. There is surely some troubling deficiency in patriotic pride or civic spirit when a country like the Netherlands, long proud of its spirit of tolerance and asylum, essentially expels a controversial figure like Ayaan Hirsi Ali when she became the target of Islamist terror threats.

Still, Sharansky's way of arguing his claims may leave some readers with remaining doubts. First, he relies on a very elastic or encompassing term when he speaks of "identity." It's a term he never clearly defines or defends (as a term) in Defending Identity. In modern usage, the term has the rhetorical force of the given, the irreducible, the fundamental. Your "identity" seems to be what defines you, what makes you what you are, so who could dispute "identity" without disrespect?

But there are all sorts of "identities" held with varying degrees of intensity, interpreted in various ways, even by those "identified" by the same "identity." Sharansky's argument is not simply for "identity" but for versions which are, at least, broadly compatible with political democracy and appreciative of its protections. History shows many versions of Christianity and Islam, of ethnic nationalisms, of socialism, and the like. But as soon as we acknowledge that there are different versions of various "identities" we must acknowledge that these are not simply "givens" but questions that invite thinking beyond their own boundaries.

Sharansky, himself, talks about the inspiration he drew while in Soviet prisons not only from the Psalms of David but from classics of world literature, from Aristophanes to Cervantes. In Fear No Evil he wrote at even more length about the "community of souls" who inspire each other across the ages by their writings, or sometimes, simply by their known deeds. That is, after all, an appeal to something that transcends "identity" in its usual sense.

Perhaps it follows that, if democracy has need of "identity," it also has need of people who have the imagination and understanding to lead "identities" in paths that are both durable and compatible with democracy. This might mean that democracy has need of people who are not just ordinary democrats. It is not a new thought, but still bracing.

Others may wonder if Sharansky's argument is not too much centered on Israeli experience. He devotes quite a few pages to attacking advocates of a "post-Zionist" approach to Israeli policy. He insists, as in The Case for Democracy, that there cannot be a reliable peace with a Palestinian entity that is not a true democracy. Here he also emphasizes that there cannot be peace with neighbors who demand that Israel give up its character as a Jewish state.

No other currently existing state is quite so threatened as Israel. Few others have such a complicated "identity"--partly, but not simply "religious," partly but not simply "ethnic," partly grounded in ancient tradition but not at all simply traditional or given. Sharansky takes it for granted that much of the world will gain understanding from considering -Israel's case.

Not everyone, even in Western countries, would agree with Sharansky's claim that "an Israel with a strong Jewish identity will help guard the free world against its enemies." And he does not offer much explanation in defense of this claim. But it is also an old thought and may be true on more levels than Sharansky has broached in this brief, timely tract.

Jeremy Rabkin, professor of law at George Mason University, is the author, most recently, of Law Without Nations? Why Constitutional Government Requires Sovereign States.

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