Earlier today, I attended a bloggers’ briefing hosted by the Heritage Foundation and had the pleasure of hearing one-time Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky speak about his new book, Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy. The book is a follow-up to his earlier work, The Case for Democracy, which had a big influence on President Bush at the beginning of his second term.
In the new book, Sharansky argues that identity should not be seen as the enemy of democracy, but in fact a crucial aspect, which he learned as a prisoner, when his own identity and belief in freedom allowed him to persevere and bond with fellow prisoners who also realized that democracy was the only way they could be free to realize their own identity. This happened within a society in which there had been decades of Marxist assault on identity.
He said that the abandonment of identity in Western Europe, which began as reaction to the excesses of identity during World War II, has lead to an “aggressively rushing multiculturalism” in Europe, in which immigrants with anti-Democratic views are flooding the country, and weakening Democracy. America has maintained a strong democracy because – compared to Europe – Americans have maintained their identity and remain deeply religious. Faith, Sharansky said, is one of the bulwarks against moral relativism (a phenomenon that he credited Allan Bloom for first picking up on in The Closing of the American Mind).
During the Q&A, I asked Sharansky about groups like Hamas, which establish an identity based on martyrdom, glorification of death, and the destruction of Israel. Wasn’t that an example of identity being a barrier to democracy?
Sharansky responded that at one end, you could have belief in freedom that is divorced from identity, which, as in the case of Europe, leads to powerless democracies, or, on the other end, identity can be taken to an extreme and detached from a belief in freedom, in which case you end up with fundamentalism.
With regard to Hamas and Palestinians specifically, Sharansky said the problem is that they have formed an identity based almost entirely on negative factors, rooted in what they are against rather than what they are for. They need an identity based on positive elements, but instead are filled with hatred and determined to kill Jews. “That is an identity we cannot accept,” he said.
Asked about the Middle East peace process, he said that everybody needs to realize that at this point there is no Palestinian leader that really wants a two-state solution, and the more that Arabs come to see Israel as a “passing episode,” the more it solidifies their opposition to accepting any Jewish state.
Asked to assess the idea of promoting democracy in the wake of Iraq, he said that America made a big mistake by not recognizing the identities of Sunnis, Shites, and Kurds from the outset, and working with moderate leaders in those communities all along. Instead, there was a rush to hold elections, which Sharansky believes should only come at the end of the process instead of at the beginning.
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