A glimmer of hope
Published in: Daily Mail
This is a month of sobering anniversaries. Later this week the Spanish commemorate their '3/11', the horrific Madrid train bombings that took place a year ago on March 11. And two weeks' time sees the second anniversary of the start of war in Iraq.
The recent carnage in Iraq and Israel provides sickening evidence that these battles still rage on. And as last week's conviction of a second British shoe-bomber reminds us, along with the controversy over the government's proposed control orders, Islamist terrorism menaces this country too.
Yet at the same time, something very different and quite remarkable is stirring in the Arab world. Quite suddenly, a small wind of freedom is beginning to blow in countries which we have been told are impervious to the very idea.
In Egypt, President Mubarak has announced there is to be a contested presidential election for the first time. Saudi Arabia has said that women are to get the vote. And among ordinary Palestinians, anger at the recent Tel Aviv bombing for setting back the chance of peace provided a dramatic contrast to their normal jubilation at the deaths of Israelis.
Perhaps most remarkable of all, the pro-Syrian regime in Lebanon was forced to resign after huge popular demonstrations against the Syrian occupation, and Syrian President Assad is now making (so far unconvincing) noises about withdrawing his forces.
So why is all this happening? In a word: Iraq. Despite the persistent violence and the many grievous errors made by the coalition, the fact that Iraqis actually voted in a contested election has galvanised the Arab world.
The spectacle of previously implacable ethnic or religious enemies actually having to haggle and compromise to form a government has electrified Arabs for whom rule by a tyrannical strongman is the norm.
The whole point is that this need not be so. And the visible demonstration of this fact in Iraq has altered the geo-political landscape. As Walid Jumblatt, Lebanon's veteran Druze opposition leader - and an opponent of the war- has remarked, the Iraq election was 'the start of a new Arab world. The Berlin Wall has fallen.'
Of course, this does not mean that swords will be turned into ploughshares overnight. Tragically, further carnage is all but inevitable. But Arab tyrants are nevertheless feeling the hot breath of freedom on their necks.
What this tells us is that within the Islamic world, the vast majority of people want to live in freedom just like the rest of us. The war being waged by the west must not be principally a war of bombs and bullets, although sadly these have their place.
It must be instead principally a war of ideas: of democracy against tyranny, of freedom against slavery, and of the rule of law against corruption, torture and murder. The belief that there is something about Arabs or Muslims that makes them impervious to such virtues is simply wrong.
These insights form the central argument of an inspirational new book, 'The Case for Democracy', by the former Soviet political prisoner and now Israeli minister, Natan Sharansky.
Sharansky was one of a group of prominent dissidents whose campaign for human rights helped weaken the Soviet Union. His experiences as a prisoner of the KGB for nine years before being freed in 1986 to emigrate to Israel have given him unique insights into the nature of tyranny and how to respond to it.
In particular, he has realised that all tyrannies - whether Soviet, Arab or Islamist - may appear strong but in fact are endemically weak. Even as they were jailed, he and other dissidents understood what at that time few in the west had grasped - that Soviet Communism itself was about to collapse like a pack of cards.
Tyrannies are weak because they are hated by the populations they terrorise. If their people rise against them, they are finished. To keep them pliable, they invent bogus enemies such as America, Israel and the west, whom they demonise by lies and libels.
The threat to the west is therefore directly related to the repression within the societies that spawn it. So the only way to destroy this threat is to help turn these tyrannies into free societies - which virtually never wage aggressive wars, because the electorates to which their governments are answerable invariably want to get on with peaceful lives.
This is, of course, the doctrine espoused by President Bush which is much mocked for its apparent utopianism. But as Sharansky says, exactly the same was said of the Soviet Union - that its people were incapable of freedom.
Some societies will indeed never be democracies as we understand the term. But for Sharansky, the key issue is the freedom to express one's views without being taken away by the secret police and locked up, tortured or killed. This is the difference between a free society and a 'fear society'. And no-one, he says, including Arabs or Muslims, wants to live in a fear society.
It was the west's high-volume support that gave Sharansky and his fellow dissidents the strength to carry on with their heroic fight. As he says, we should surely be similarly treating as dissidents those brave Arabs and Muslims resisting their own tyrannical regimes.
As with the Soviet Union, we should complain every time one of them is arrested or murdered. We should publish lists of Arab and Muslim heroes, organise petitions, vigils and demonstrations, broadcast radio messages and write books and articles in support.
Regimes crumble quickly if they are opposed. But instead, a lack of moral clarity within the west has inflated its own misdeeds to the same level as the oppression within fear societies, and equated terrorism and its response as a 'cycle of violence'. In addition, the west continues to support or appease dictators because it has never understood that peace and security depend not on the stability of tyranny but on societies that are free.
As a result, fear societies continue because the free world merely transfers its support from one strongman to another in a relay race of repression. Khruschev, Brezhnev, Saddam Hussein, Arafat, Assad - there is an endless list of tyrants who the free world thought it could manipulate but by whom it who ended up being manipulated.
It is not enough for such rulers to promise to eradicate terror groups or hand over some token terrorists for trial. Not is it enough merely to hold elections. Free societies depend on institutions that respect human rights such as independent courts, the rule of law, a free press, free opposition parties.
Only then do they become accountable societies in which the impulse for aggression dies. And so in its own interests, the free world must hold these rulers' feet to the fire until they deliver such reforms.
To be sure, this is a long, dangerous and difficult road. But the yearning for freedom by the human spirit is universal and as old as humanity itself. A spark has ignited in the Arab and Muslim world. Will the west now nurture it - or snuff it out?
The war against terror is not a clash of civilisations. It is a defence of civilisation against barbarism, in which the west should stand shoulder to shoulder with Arab and Muslim dissidents against those who enslave them, and in this way defend the peace and security of the world.