For the Love of Freedom

Posted in Other | 22-Feb-07 | Source: The Henry Jackson Society

Cambridge, 15th February 2007

Last December, Jeane Kirkpatrick died at the age of 80. Her memorial service was held just a week ago, on 6th February, at the Washington National Cathedral. Kirkpatrick was a remarkable woman and, thanks to her appointment by Ronald Reagan, one of the great American ambassadors to the United Nations. No partisan figure, she had been a lifelong Democrat, only joining the Republicans in 1985. ‘Scoop’ Jackson, our society’s namesake, was one of her mentors. Although she was an opponent of American support for Britain in the Falklands War, in its efforts to drive a Junta out of British territory, Kirkpatrick was for the most part a strong voice for freedom when it was most needed. From the floor of the United Nations, she named jailed Soviet dissidents, forcing the world to confront the horrors veiled by the iron curtain. After 11th September 2001, Kirkpatrick was swift to appreciate the stakes, calling for robust action to secure victory.

A famous anecdote is told of her meeting with the physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, soon after he was allowed to return to Moscow from years of internal exile in Gorky. Faced with a slew of visiting dignitaries from America, including Henry Kissinger, he called out, ‘Kirkpatski, Kirkpatski - which of you is Kirkpatski?’ They gestured to Jeane Kirkpatrick. Sakharov took her hand and said: ‘Mrs Kirkpatski, I want you to know, your name is known in every cell of the gulag’.

Last month, Michael Gove MP, one of the signatories to The Henry Jackson Society’s Statement of Principles, gave a speech in Portcullis House, later published in edited form in The Spectator, in which he called for dissidents in the Islamist world to be named in the same manner today:

If one looks at the example of Iranian journalists and academics who have been jailed for daring to speak out against the Islamist regime in Iran, one of the questions that I would ask is, when was the last time that any British politician or foreign minister raised their names and their plights in the way in which during the 1980s we regularly used to invoke the name and raise the plight of people like Natan Sharansky and Vaclav Havel?

There are a number of figures […] whose names should be regularly invoked by our politicians and whose brave struggle against Islamism should be our struggle as well. The position, I know, of liberals in Arab and Islamist countries is pretty bleak, but it is all the bleaker when those in this country who have the power to speak, a power which is often denied those in Arab and Islamic countries, don’t raise their voices and use their intellectual weight to cry freedom.

The Henry Jackson Society is happy to join and reiterate Mr. Gove’s call on our own behalf. We believe in democracy and freedom for all the peoples of our world and do not forget those suffering under tyrants elsewhere, such as the victims of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, nor the prison-nation that North Korea’s leaders have built, with perhaps two hundred thousand interned in its camps. The testimony of Kang Chol-Hwan in his prison memoir, Aquariums of Pyongyang is unforgettable. We take this opportunity and this platform to applaud today a few of the figures working for democratic reform in another unfree region. Such names stand as sign and symbol of brave individuals across the world, who must struggle every day of their lives to express their love of freedom.

  • Ammar Abdulhamid, Coordinator of the Tharwa Project, who works for minority rights in the Arab world from his home in Damascus, including highlighting the plight of Iran’s Ahwazi Arabs.
  • Dr. Jawad Hashim, Shakir Al-Nabulsi and Lafif Lakhdar, who together composed a petition to the United Nations asking for a tribunal to prosecute Muslim clerics who issue fatwas in support of terrorism, a petition now signed by over 2,500 Muslim intellectuals from twenty-three countries.
  • Shirin Ebadi and Akbar Ganji of Iran. Mrs. Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her work in support of democracy and human rights, embarrassing the regime but giving much pride to her fellow Iranians. The selection committee praised her as a ‘courageous woman’ who ‘has never heeded the threat to her own safety’. Mr. Ganji has also received many awards for his commitment to political freedom. Wielding his ‘moral courage’ as his only weapon, he spent much of 2000-2006 in prison, just one of the estimated 2.3 million Iranians who have suffered imprisonment since the 1979 revolution.
  • Hussein Shobokshi of Saudi Arabia, who wrote an article in August 2003 recounting a bedtime story he told his seven-year-old daughter. His story was of a country where she would be able to drive and be a lawyer, a country with elections and human rights conferences and female cabinet ministers. He received much private praise, but also death threats from the religious fundamentalists for this tale of hope. The two newspapers for which he worked permanently cancelled his column.
  • Saad Eddin Ibrahim of Egypt, one of the Arab world’s pre-eminent social scientists. Mr. Ibrahim heads the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies, and was instrumental in the establishment of a raft of human rights organisations across the Arab world. Sentenced in 2001 to seven years hard labour for ‘harming society’s interests, values and laws’, he was only cleared and released after a two year struggle.

While so-called freedom fighters in Iraq live under the lamp of world attention, it is good to remind ourselves of the achievements wrought in the dark by civilised men and women who face great peril without resorting to violence. We must also mourn for the cost, for those whose work for freedom and democracy has brought them imprisonment, torture or death. Men like Tarek Halim Qandil, the editor of Al-Arabi al-Nassiri, who wrote articles in 2004 opposing the idea of the son of President Mubarak succeeding to the presidency only to be kidnapped, tortured and thrown naked from a speeding car into a Cairo street. Men like Riyadh al-Seif, who called for a pluralist democracy in Syria and was sentenced to five years imprisonment in March of 2002. As he was led away, Seif called out: ‘This is a badge of honour to me and others like me. Long live the people!’

Most particularly, 14th February is the second anniversary of the assassination in downtown Beirut of Rafiq al-Hariri, who challenged Syria’s continued domination of Lebanon. Syria had promised to withdraw as early as 1989. Fifteen years later, they were determined to stay, and only the popular fury at Hariri’s death finally forced their retreat. Valentine’s Day is a moment, then, to recall the solemn price exacted for freedom, but also a moment to celebrate, knowing that those who work against democracy are weaker than its anger.

These are hard times, and any political reform in the Middle East will be hard-won. We must keep in mind that North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula continue to produce their own, home-grown liberals. They are few and brave. As Saad Eddin Ibrahim observed in 2004, that is enough to make all the difference:

We should not underestimate what the will of determined people can do…. All of history is the result of the work of few people in every culture, in every society, who had a mission and who believed in what they were doing.