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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

December 18, 2004

Excerpt from the "Front Page" interview with Sharansky:

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.

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