Commentary Magazine


Topic: Vaclav Havel

Farewell to Two Men Who Shaped History–But in Different Directions

The nearly simultaneous deaths of Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong Il serve as a useful reminder that history is more than impersonal forces. It is also the accumulated actions of individuals–and “great men” (that anachronistic phrase) have an outsize role in shaping the direction history takes.

There were many reasons, of course, why Czechoslovakia had such a smooth transition from Communist role and then managed to break apart so peacefully into two new countries–the Czech Republic and Slovakia–while avoiding the bloodshed that characterized the breakup of Yugoslavia. But surely part of the explanation can be found in the moral authority and democratic vision of Vaclav Havel. He dedicated his life to fighting for liberal principles and then, once he had made the startling transition from prison to president, he showed himself to be an exemplar of those values by leaving office at the end of his term–an action we take for granted but is hardly guaranteed in any country undergoing a democratic transition. A playwright and intellectual, he was an exemplary man of letters who used his prestige to further the freedom of his people–rather than, as is the case with so many of his counterparts in the West, to champion despots and deluded fanatics.

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The nearly simultaneous deaths of Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong Il serve as a useful reminder that history is more than impersonal forces. It is also the accumulated actions of individuals–and “great men” (that anachronistic phrase) have an outsize role in shaping the direction history takes.

There were many reasons, of course, why Czechoslovakia had such a smooth transition from Communist role and then managed to break apart so peacefully into two new countries–the Czech Republic and Slovakia–while avoiding the bloodshed that characterized the breakup of Yugoslavia. But surely part of the explanation can be found in the moral authority and democratic vision of Vaclav Havel. He dedicated his life to fighting for liberal principles and then, once he had made the startling transition from prison to president, he showed himself to be an exemplar of those values by leaving office at the end of his term–an action we take for granted but is hardly guaranteed in any country undergoing a democratic transition. A playwright and intellectual, he was an exemplary man of letters who used his prestige to further the freedom of his people–rather than, as is the case with so many of his counterparts in the West, to champion despots and deluded fanatics.

Kim Jong Il was one of those despots and fanatics who are inexplicably attractive to a few Westerners. He came to power at nearly the same time, in 1994, but aside from the accident of timing, the differences between the two could not have been more pronounced. Kim had no record of independent achievement as Havel had; he had neither produced significant works of art, nor spent time in jail for his beliefs. He had done little other than toady up to his father, Kim Il-sung.

When the elder Kim died, his son could have overseen a transition to democratic or at least less autocratic rule. Far from it, the junior Kim maintained the Stalinist dictatorship intact. He presided over the deaths of millions of his own people in a needless famine, even while channeling the scarce resources of the state into procuring luxury goods for himself (French cognac, Japanese actresses) and nuclear weapons for his state.

Kim was a canny survivor who used North Korea’s only assets–its nukes–to outmaneuver the U.S. and to maintain his iron grip on power. But all that means is that in the long run he will be remembered as a junior varsity Stalin, Mao, or Hitler: someone who in his own way embodied evil. Havel, by contrast, was far from perfect–he would never have claimed otherwise. But he was as transparently idealistic and well-intentioned as a statesman can get–on a par with only a  few other dissidents-turned-leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Lech Walesa.

Both Havel and Kim left their marks on history. Havel’s may be found in a flourishing, peaceful, democratic state in central Europe. Kim’s may be found in a destitute prison-camp of a state in Northeast Asia.

 

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Vaclav Havel, Living Within the Truth

I wanted to add my thoughts to what Jonathan wrote in his tribute to Vaclav Havel.

Havel belongs in the rank of the great dissidents of the 20th century. Yet unlike others (e.g., Andrei Sakharov and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn), Havel became the political leader of his nation. Few people who have a hand in bringing down a monstrous regime then help to rebuild their society from the ashes. This gave Havel a rare, even unique, perspective.

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I wanted to add my thoughts to what Jonathan wrote in his tribute to Vaclav Havel.

Havel belongs in the rank of the great dissidents of the 20th century. Yet unlike others (e.g., Andrei Sakharov and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn), Havel became the political leader of his nation. Few people who have a hand in bringing down a monstrous regime then help to rebuild their society from the ashes. This gave Havel a rare, even unique, perspective.

In his 1992 book, Summer Meditations, Havel wrote about the tension. “Clearly, a dissident intellectual who philosophizes in his study about the fate and future of the world has different opportunities, a different position, a different kind of freedom, than a politician who moves among the complicated social realities of a particular time and place,” he said. Politicians are constantly coming up against “the intractable and contradictory interests that inhabit that time and space.” Havel went on to write this:

The sine qua non of a politician is not the ability to lie; he need only be sensitive and know when, what, to whom, and how to say what he has to say. It is not true that a person of principle does not belong in politics; it is enough for his principles to be leavened with patience, deliberation, a sense of proportion, and an understanding of others. It is not true that only the unfeeling cynic, the vain, the brash, and the vulgar can succeed in politics; such people, it is true, are drawn to politics, but, in the end, decorum and good taste will always count for more. My experience and observations confirm that politics as the practice of morality is possible. I do not deny, however, that it is not always easy to go that route, nor have I ever claimed that it was.

The role of the dissident intellectual and the president of a sovereign nation are profoundly different — yet Havel considered both to be, at their core, moral undertakings. By his own admission, Havel the politician became aware of how immensely difficult it is to be guided in practice by the principles and ideals in which he believed. “Clouds have filled the sky,” he admitted, “clarity and general harmony have disappeared.” And yet he would emphasize, again and again, the moral origin of all genuine politics.

Havel’s greatest essay may have been “The Power of the Powerless,” written in 1978, in which he wrote about the shattering effect totalitarianism had on human dignity. It required people to “live within the lie,” Havel said. The great playwright asked us to imagine that one day a greengrocer stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support.

“In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie,” Havel wrote. “He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.” [italics in original]

A brave and brilliant man, Vaclav Havel lived within the truth far better than most of us ever will.

Requiescat in pace.

 

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Vaclav Havel Defined Principled Dissent

The death today of Vaclav Havel at the age of 75 reminds us what it truly means to speak up for liberty against tyranny. A playwright who became a symbol of dissent against an evil Soviet empire, Havel spent years in Communist jails for his activities and writings that championed individual freedom. He co-authored the Charter 77 manifesto that gave new life to the cause of human rights in his own country and helped inspire others elsewhere living under the Soviet yoke. Eventually, he helped lead his nation to freedom after the fall of the Berlin Wall and served as the first president of a free Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic after the Slovaks left to form their own nation.

But there is more to be learned from recounting the story of Havel’s sacrifices and triumphs than just a tale of individual heroism. What ought to be remembered about Havel and the “Velvet Revolution” that he led to victory is that it was won by an uncompromising defense of the principle of democracy and individual rights when many unenlightened Western “realists” and liberals made it clear they were more interested in accommodating the Soviets than working to free those suffering under their tyranny. Havel’s struggles also gives us a yardstick by which we can measure the worthiness of contemporary protest movements around the world that now claim the mantle of dissent.

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The death today of Vaclav Havel at the age of 75 reminds us what it truly means to speak up for liberty against tyranny. A playwright who became a symbol of dissent against an evil Soviet empire, Havel spent years in Communist jails for his activities and writings that championed individual freedom. He co-authored the Charter 77 manifesto that gave new life to the cause of human rights in his own country and helped inspire others elsewhere living under the Soviet yoke. Eventually, he helped lead his nation to freedom after the fall of the Berlin Wall and served as the first president of a free Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic after the Slovaks left to form their own nation.

But there is more to be learned from recounting the story of Havel’s sacrifices and triumphs than just a tale of individual heroism. What ought to be remembered about Havel and the “Velvet Revolution” that he led to victory is that it was won by an uncompromising defense of the principle of democracy and individual rights when many unenlightened Western “realists” and liberals made it clear they were more interested in accommodating the Soviets than working to free those suffering under their tyranny. Havel’s struggles also gives us a yardstick by which we can measure the worthiness of contemporary protest movements around the world that now claim the mantle of dissent.

It should be remembered that while those who oppose American efforts to “export” democracy to the Third World now say such values are alien to non-Western nations, “realists” and liberals once said the same thing about Eastern Europe. Western liberals were too busy opposing America’s often-faltering efforts to oppose communism and Soviet expansionism to register much sympathy for Havel’s tireless and perilous fight against the Soviet puppet regime in Prague. Realists were ready to sacrifice him and other dissidents as well as a captive Soviet Jewry in order to preserve a failed policy of détente.

But Havel persevered and kept pushing for human rights. He became the personal embodiment of the Czech people’s desire for freedom. His last arrest and trial for dissent in the waning days of the Communist regime helped generate the movement that brought it down. His election as president set in motion a new wave of democracy across Eastern Europe. Once in power, he helped solidify democracy by working to dissolve the Warsaw Pact by which Russia maintained its hegemony over the region and then paved the way for Eastern European nations to join the NATO alliance.

The point to be gleaned from an analysis of his writing and political career is that he was no dilettante when it came to the cause of freedom. He not only put his own life on the line when opposing the Communists, but he consistently resisted the notion that there was any excuse or justification for the denial of human rights or the right of a people to govern themselves. In an age when public intellectuals often lent their talents to causes that gave short shrift to the principle of democracy so as to bolster the cause of anti-Americanism or other leftist fashions, he was a dissident for democracy. And though he would be bitterly criticized by the left for doing so, he remained loyal to this cause by supporting the United States in its efforts to oppose tyrants like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.

In the past year, we’ve been hearing a lot about the rise of a new wave of dissent as various groups have taken to the streets to protest in the Arab world, Russia, Israel and even here in the United States, all of whom were collectively named Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year.” Some of these protests have been heroic efforts to speak up against tyranny, as is the case in Russia. Others are less easy to define. The Arab Spring has morphed into a push for Islamist tyranny. The Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States is a leftist attack on economic freedom more than a plea for more democracy.

Vaclav Havel’s career was a reproach to all those who seek to use dissent to diminish freedom rather than to expand it. It speaks volumes about the Nobel Peace Prize that Havel never received one while others less worthy have been so honored. It is also telling that many of those who seek to glorify some of those who took to the streets this year for non-democratic causes had little sympathy for Havel. Nevertheless, he will be remembered as long as the Czech nation and the cause of liberty lives. May his memory be for a blessing.

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Who Decides What’s ‘Beyond the Pale’ of the Republican Party?

In a speech to the Hudson Institute last week, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, in accepting the Herman Kahn Award, spoke admiringly of Kahn. Daniels quoted from Kahn’s 1982 book, The Coming Boom (it can be found near the 27-minute mark): “It would be most useful to redesign the tax system to discourage consumption and encourage savings and investment. One obvious possibility is a value added tax and a flat income tax, with the only exception being a lower standard deduction.” Daniels went on to add: “That might suit our current situation pretty well. It might also fit Bill Simon’s line in the late 70s that the nation should have a tax system that looks like someone designed it on purpose.”

Governor Daniels’s statement was too much for Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, who said:

This is outside the bounds of acceptable modern Republican thought, and it is only the zone of extremely left-wing Democrats who publicly talk about those things because all Democrats pretending to be moderates wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot poll. Absent some explanation, such as large quantities of crystal meth, this is disqualifying. This is beyond the pale.

Grover has given himself quite a task: defining for the rest of us what is “outside the bounds of acceptable modern Republican thought.” What Daniels said is not simply wrong; it is “disqualifying.” Read More

In a speech to the Hudson Institute last week, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, in accepting the Herman Kahn Award, spoke admiringly of Kahn. Daniels quoted from Kahn’s 1982 book, The Coming Boom (it can be found near the 27-minute mark): “It would be most useful to redesign the tax system to discourage consumption and encourage savings and investment. One obvious possibility is a value added tax and a flat income tax, with the only exception being a lower standard deduction.” Daniels went on to add: “That might suit our current situation pretty well. It might also fit Bill Simon’s line in the late 70s that the nation should have a tax system that looks like someone designed it on purpose.”

Governor Daniels’s statement was too much for Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, who said:

This is outside the bounds of acceptable modern Republican thought, and it is only the zone of extremely left-wing Democrats who publicly talk about those things because all Democrats pretending to be moderates wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot poll. Absent some explanation, such as large quantities of crystal meth, this is disqualifying. This is beyond the pale.

Grover has given himself quite a task: defining for the rest of us what is “outside the bounds of acceptable modern Republican thought.” What Daniels said is not simply wrong; it is “disqualifying.”

Norquist has been an influential figure in the conservative movement for a generation, but his response to Governor Daniels is almost laughably self-important. He acts as if he were speaking ex cathedra. There is an imperiousness and intolerance to Norquist’s words, an effort to shut down debate rather than to engage it. This approach shouldn’t be used in any case — but to employ it against arguably the nation’s most successful governor is very unwise.

As this article in Human Events (!) points out, Daniels’s record as governor is extremely impressive and quite conservative, from job growth to championing free-market reforms to limiting the size of government to cutting taxes. (Daniels did raise taxes, but overall, Human Events points out, “the tax cuts far outweighed the increases.”)

I’d add that one of Daniels’s more attractive qualities is that he’s an idea-oriented politician. He’s clearly at home in the realm of ideas, can speak knowledgeable and easily about them, and likes to provoke discussion and different ways of thinking. It may well be that what Herman Kahn recommended in the early 1980s is a flawed proposal, but what Daniels said hardly qualifies as heresy. For Norquist, however, Daniels is an apostate (apparently for the second time). He needs to be read out of the movement. Perhaps the same standard would have applied to Ronald Reagan, who in 1982 signed what at the time was the largest tax increase in American history (the TEFRA tax).

Norquist’s words reveal a cast of mind that conservatism would be better to avoid. It is the kind of attitude that has come to define many modern universities, which are among the most illiberal and intellectually rigid and stifling institutions in America. A healthy, self-confident conservative movement doesn’t declare what Daniels said to be “outside the bounds of acceptable modern Republican thought”; rather, it allows for and even encourages genuine debate and creative thinking, the probing of ideas and holding them up to scrutiny, self-examination, and self-reflection. Let’s leave it to others to employ the tactics found in a George Orwell novel.

Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Vaclav Havel wrote a powerful essay about Eastern Europe. He spoke about a system committed to “eliminating all expressions of nonconformity” and that had become “ossified.” He went on to speak about the greengrocer who has to put a slogan in his window in order to contribute “to the panorama that everyone is very aware of.” This panorama, Havel went on to write, had a subliminal message: “it reminds people where they are living and what is expected of them. It tells them what everyone else is doing, and indicates to them what they must do as well, if they don’t want to be excluded, to fall into isolation.”

Conservatism found such a system repugnant then. We shouldn’t begin to borrow from it now.

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China’s Clever Netizens

Google’s decision last week to stop censoring in China pointed international attention toward netizens, who have become increasingly bold in advocating for human rights and freedoms. These basement bloggers are putting a new spin on a tool long used by political reformists: music. Online music videos criticizing government corruption and censorship are successfully going viral, even as Beijing’s Internet crackdowns continue.

China Digital Times reports on one such video, “My Brother’s at the Bare Bottom,” which is conveniently translated into English on their blog. (The footnotes at the end help an English-speaking reader pick up on the nuances.)

“My Brother’s at the Bare Bottom” is primarily a criticism of Chinese censorship. But it also confronts the politicization of Chinese language. Beijing repeats its calls for “harmonious society,” a euphemistic justification for one-party rule, repression, and censorship. But the Chinese word for “harmonize” sounds the same as the word for “river crab.” This makes the buttery crustaceans irresistible to dissident mockers.

The success of these videos is enough to make Beijing’s censors … ehm, crabby. “Even the most self-censored Chinese search engine Baidu still can find over 29,000 copies of this song, including on one of the nation’s largest news and game portals, Netease,” the Digital Times writes. “If you search the title of the song on Google? Over 830,000 webpages show up.”

YouTube-genre flicks do not pretend to be catalysts for a social uprising; they’re an end in themselves. But while many feature silly cartoons and vulgar wordplay — take for instance “The Song of the Grass Mud Horse,” explained neatly by CNN here — they are not insignificant. We all remember what MTV perpetrated on the radio star.

Call it “Bare Bottom” exposure: the use of entertainment and humor can influence Chinese culture and thus, eventually, Chinese politics. The rowdy irreverence appeals to a broader, younger audience. In short, these music videos are the creation of a citizenry willing to question its government.

Such an attitude can ignite bigger changes eventually. It has happened before. Take, for instance, the trial of the band the Plastic People of the Universe in Czechoslovakia, which helped rally momentum for Vaclav Havel’s Charter 77, a precursor to Liu Xiaobo’s Charter 08.

A Chinese public willing to think and act independently — even if only online — foreshadows a time when Big Brother could find itself at the bare bottom too.

Google’s decision last week to stop censoring in China pointed international attention toward netizens, who have become increasingly bold in advocating for human rights and freedoms. These basement bloggers are putting a new spin on a tool long used by political reformists: music. Online music videos criticizing government corruption and censorship are successfully going viral, even as Beijing’s Internet crackdowns continue.

China Digital Times reports on one such video, “My Brother’s at the Bare Bottom,” which is conveniently translated into English on their blog. (The footnotes at the end help an English-speaking reader pick up on the nuances.)

“My Brother’s at the Bare Bottom” is primarily a criticism of Chinese censorship. But it also confronts the politicization of Chinese language. Beijing repeats its calls for “harmonious society,” a euphemistic justification for one-party rule, repression, and censorship. But the Chinese word for “harmonize” sounds the same as the word for “river crab.” This makes the buttery crustaceans irresistible to dissident mockers.

The success of these videos is enough to make Beijing’s censors … ehm, crabby. “Even the most self-censored Chinese search engine Baidu still can find over 29,000 copies of this song, including on one of the nation’s largest news and game portals, Netease,” the Digital Times writes. “If you search the title of the song on Google? Over 830,000 webpages show up.”

YouTube-genre flicks do not pretend to be catalysts for a social uprising; they’re an end in themselves. But while many feature silly cartoons and vulgar wordplay — take for instance “The Song of the Grass Mud Horse,” explained neatly by CNN here — they are not insignificant. We all remember what MTV perpetrated on the radio star.

Call it “Bare Bottom” exposure: the use of entertainment and humor can influence Chinese culture and thus, eventually, Chinese politics. The rowdy irreverence appeals to a broader, younger audience. In short, these music videos are the creation of a citizenry willing to question its government.

Such an attitude can ignite bigger changes eventually. It has happened before. Take, for instance, the trial of the band the Plastic People of the Universe in Czechoslovakia, which helped rally momentum for Vaclav Havel’s Charter 77, a precursor to Liu Xiaobo’s Charter 08.

A Chinese public willing to think and act independently — even if only online — foreshadows a time when Big Brother could find itself at the bare bottom too.

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The Latest Milestone in Chinese Tyranny

For the last two decades, those committed to warm ties with Beijing have tried to tell Americans that the development of capitalism in China—albeit a capitalism that must operate in a system in which the rule of law and property rights are a matter of government fiat—would eventually transform the totalitarian system. But today, as the New York Times reports, another milestone has been passed in which such hopes have been revealed as utterly unfounded.

The Chinese capital was the setting on Wednesday for the trial of Liu Xiaobo, one of the country’s leading human-rights advocates. Liu faces up to 15 years in prison for calling for open elections and free speech. His role in promulgating Charter 08, a manifesto in favor of Chinese political freedom, is the chief reason for the government’s latest attempt to silence Liu. As the Times notes, the document’s language that states “We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes” is itself viewed as a crime by the Communist Party.

The persecution of Liu is something of a history of China’s abuse of human rights since 1989. At the time of the Tienanmen Square demonstrations in 1989, he was a visiting scholar at Columbia University but returned home to join the hunger strikers. When the Chinese army struck, he was arrested and held for 21 months without trial. In 1996, he was sent to the laogai—China’s gulag—for three years for calling for the release of others still imprisoned for their participation in the Tiananmen events. Since then he has been a thorn in the side of the Communist Party but the charter, which evokes similar protests by Czech opponents against the Soviet empire, has motivated the government to try and put him away again. Reporters were barred from the trial, as were other dissidents who bravely came to support Liu. This is all we know of the proceedings:

Liu Xiaoxuan, the defendant’s younger brother, was one of two family members allowed in the courtroom. After the trial adjourned, he tried to recall details of the proceedings — court officials had prevented those in the room from taking notes — and he repeated his brother’s final words, spoken to a judge. Mr. Liu, according to his brother, said that he came from a long line of persecuted thinkers and hoped he would be the last. “He said that if he was sent to jail, it might bring others freedom of speech,” Liu Xiaoxuan said.

It would be nice to think that were true. But neither the Obama administration—which allowed Beijing to humiliate the president during his recent trip there—nor its predecessors have had any interest in the fate of Chinese dissidents or the drive for pushing the world’s largest tyranny to change its behavior. The Chinese authorities have stepped up their suppression of freedom in the last year with a vengeance. Yet most Americans either don’t care or still actually believe the propaganda about the Chinese not caring about freedom, which business interests put forward about China and democracy. As with the successful campaign to stifle concerns about Chinese human rights that preceded the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Chinese government can count on the self-interest of the business community and the indifference of Washington to allow it to continue its abuses with impunity.

Yet the attempt by Liu to courageously invoke the example of those who challenged the seemingly unshakable grip of Soviet communism in 1977 ought to remind us all that even the most powerful of tyrants can be resisted and toppled. Provided, that is, that dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo be not forsaken by the forces of freedom elsewhere. Just as the West once embraced men like Vaclav Havel and Natan Sharansky, Americans must not allow Liu’s oppressors to triumph in silence.

For the last two decades, those committed to warm ties with Beijing have tried to tell Americans that the development of capitalism in China—albeit a capitalism that must operate in a system in which the rule of law and property rights are a matter of government fiat—would eventually transform the totalitarian system. But today, as the New York Times reports, another milestone has been passed in which such hopes have been revealed as utterly unfounded.

The Chinese capital was the setting on Wednesday for the trial of Liu Xiaobo, one of the country’s leading human-rights advocates. Liu faces up to 15 years in prison for calling for open elections and free speech. His role in promulgating Charter 08, a manifesto in favor of Chinese political freedom, is the chief reason for the government’s latest attempt to silence Liu. As the Times notes, the document’s language that states “We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes” is itself viewed as a crime by the Communist Party.

The persecution of Liu is something of a history of China’s abuse of human rights since 1989. At the time of the Tienanmen Square demonstrations in 1989, he was a visiting scholar at Columbia University but returned home to join the hunger strikers. When the Chinese army struck, he was arrested and held for 21 months without trial. In 1996, he was sent to the laogai—China’s gulag—for three years for calling for the release of others still imprisoned for their participation in the Tiananmen events. Since then he has been a thorn in the side of the Communist Party but the charter, which evokes similar protests by Czech opponents against the Soviet empire, has motivated the government to try and put him away again. Reporters were barred from the trial, as were other dissidents who bravely came to support Liu. This is all we know of the proceedings:

Liu Xiaoxuan, the defendant’s younger brother, was one of two family members allowed in the courtroom. After the trial adjourned, he tried to recall details of the proceedings — court officials had prevented those in the room from taking notes — and he repeated his brother’s final words, spoken to a judge. Mr. Liu, according to his brother, said that he came from a long line of persecuted thinkers and hoped he would be the last. “He said that if he was sent to jail, it might bring others freedom of speech,” Liu Xiaoxuan said.

It would be nice to think that were true. But neither the Obama administration—which allowed Beijing to humiliate the president during his recent trip there—nor its predecessors have had any interest in the fate of Chinese dissidents or the drive for pushing the world’s largest tyranny to change its behavior. The Chinese authorities have stepped up their suppression of freedom in the last year with a vengeance. Yet most Americans either don’t care or still actually believe the propaganda about the Chinese not caring about freedom, which business interests put forward about China and democracy. As with the successful campaign to stifle concerns about Chinese human rights that preceded the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Chinese government can count on the self-interest of the business community and the indifference of Washington to allow it to continue its abuses with impunity.

Yet the attempt by Liu to courageously invoke the example of those who challenged the seemingly unshakable grip of Soviet communism in 1977 ought to remind us all that even the most powerful of tyrants can be resisted and toppled. Provided, that is, that dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo be not forsaken by the forces of freedom elsewhere. Just as the West once embraced men like Vaclav Havel and Natan Sharansky, Americans must not allow Liu’s oppressors to triumph in silence.

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Havel Unplugged

Vaclav Havel, in a intriguing interview, explains why “small compromises” on human rights have a dangerously cumulative effect:

We know this from our modern history. When [French Prime Minister Edouard] Daladier returned from the [1938] Munich conference, the whole nation was applauding him for saving the peace. He made a miniscule compromise in the interest of peace. But it was the beginning of a chain of evil that subsequently brought about many millions of deaths. We can’t just say, “This is just a small compromise that can be overlooked. First we will go to China and then perhaps talk with the Dalai Lama.” It all looks practical, pragmatic, logical, but it is necessary to think about whether it is not the first small compromise that can be the beginning of that long chain that is no good. In this case perhaps it will not be, but it was the first thing that came to my mind.

Havel then shares an anecdote that comes at a timely juncture. At West Point and again in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Obama waxed lyrical about human rights. But in practice he has consistently shoved human rights off his agenda, going as far as defunding Iranian democracy protesters and objecting to support for new media for Iranian dissidents. This as he engages despotic regimes without any sign of progress in their treatment of their own people. Havel argues, “Politics, it means, every day making some compromises, and to choose between one evil and another evil, and to decide which is bigger and which is smaller.” He recounts:

Two days after I was elected president, I invited the Dalai Lama to visit. I was the first head of the state who invited him in this way, directly. And everybody was saying that it was a terribly dangerous act and issued their disapproving statements and expressions. But it was a ritual matter. Later, the Chinese deputy prime minister and the foreign minister came for a visit and brought me a pile of books about the Dalai Lama and some governmental documents about what good care they have taken of Tibet, and so on. They were propagandist, fabricated books, but he felt the need to explain something to me.

I had a press conference with this minister of foreign affairs. And he said, “It was wonderful, meeting, because we were speaking openly. Mr. Havel gave me his opinion, and I explained the opinion of our government. I gave him this book, and he thanked me for it.”

This was unbelievable! Why did they feel the need to explain their point of view to the leader of such a small nation? Because they respect it when someone is standing his ground, when someone is not afraid of them. When someone soils his pants prematurely, then they do not respect you more for it.

Well, that’s one way of putting it. The question is an apt one for the Obami: what have they gained from pushing human rights off the agenda and what evidence do we have that this has produced benefits for America or for those living under the boot of thugocracies? It seems we might earn respect — restore America’s standing in the world, as the Obami like to say — by standing up to Iran, China, Russia, and the rest rather than saving pretty words for West Point cadets and Norwegian elites who are less in need of a lecture than the despots to whom Obama has strained to ingratiate himself.

Vaclav Havel, in a intriguing interview, explains why “small compromises” on human rights have a dangerously cumulative effect:

We know this from our modern history. When [French Prime Minister Edouard] Daladier returned from the [1938] Munich conference, the whole nation was applauding him for saving the peace. He made a miniscule compromise in the interest of peace. But it was the beginning of a chain of evil that subsequently brought about many millions of deaths. We can’t just say, “This is just a small compromise that can be overlooked. First we will go to China and then perhaps talk with the Dalai Lama.” It all looks practical, pragmatic, logical, but it is necessary to think about whether it is not the first small compromise that can be the beginning of that long chain that is no good. In this case perhaps it will not be, but it was the first thing that came to my mind.

Havel then shares an anecdote that comes at a timely juncture. At West Point and again in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Obama waxed lyrical about human rights. But in practice he has consistently shoved human rights off his agenda, going as far as defunding Iranian democracy protesters and objecting to support for new media for Iranian dissidents. This as he engages despotic regimes without any sign of progress in their treatment of their own people. Havel argues, “Politics, it means, every day making some compromises, and to choose between one evil and another evil, and to decide which is bigger and which is smaller.” He recounts:

Two days after I was elected president, I invited the Dalai Lama to visit. I was the first head of the state who invited him in this way, directly. And everybody was saying that it was a terribly dangerous act and issued their disapproving statements and expressions. But it was a ritual matter. Later, the Chinese deputy prime minister and the foreign minister came for a visit and brought me a pile of books about the Dalai Lama and some governmental documents about what good care they have taken of Tibet, and so on. They were propagandist, fabricated books, but he felt the need to explain something to me.

I had a press conference with this minister of foreign affairs. And he said, “It was wonderful, meeting, because we were speaking openly. Mr. Havel gave me his opinion, and I explained the opinion of our government. I gave him this book, and he thanked me for it.”

This was unbelievable! Why did they feel the need to explain their point of view to the leader of such a small nation? Because they respect it when someone is standing his ground, when someone is not afraid of them. When someone soils his pants prematurely, then they do not respect you more for it.

Well, that’s one way of putting it. The question is an apt one for the Obami: what have they gained from pushing human rights off the agenda and what evidence do we have that this has produced benefits for America or for those living under the boot of thugocracies? It seems we might earn respect — restore America’s standing in the world, as the Obami like to say — by standing up to Iran, China, Russia, and the rest rather than saving pretty words for West Point cadets and Norwegian elites who are less in need of a lecture than the despots to whom Obama has strained to ingratiate himself.

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Streisand in Jerusalem

Israeli President Shimon Peres has announced the impressive list of luminaries who will attend the upcoming conference celebrating Israel’s 60th birthday. They include George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Mikhail Gorbachev, Henry Kissinger, Rupert Murdoch, Vaclav Havel, Alan Dershowitz, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid.

While these VIP’s will highlight Israel’s many successes in a variety of sectors, the conference will also pay respect to the challenges that Israel has yet to overcome. At least this is how I’m interpreting the invitation of Barbra Streisand, whose rendition of Avinu Malkeinu promises to be a low point in Israel’s cultural history.

So, here’s to a more hopeful Israeli future–which, in my book, means inviting an 82-year-old Bob Dylan to play Hava Negila at the 75th celebration. (Frankly, even Bill Clinton returning for a repeat performance of “Imagine” might be an improvement.)

Israeli President Shimon Peres has announced the impressive list of luminaries who will attend the upcoming conference celebrating Israel’s 60th birthday. They include George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Mikhail Gorbachev, Henry Kissinger, Rupert Murdoch, Vaclav Havel, Alan Dershowitz, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid.

While these VIP’s will highlight Israel’s many successes in a variety of sectors, the conference will also pay respect to the challenges that Israel has yet to overcome. At least this is how I’m interpreting the invitation of Barbra Streisand, whose rendition of Avinu Malkeinu promises to be a low point in Israel’s cultural history.

So, here’s to a more hopeful Israeli future–which, in my book, means inviting an 82-year-old Bob Dylan to play Hava Negila at the 75th celebration. (Frankly, even Bill Clinton returning for a repeat performance of “Imagine” might be an improvement.)

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The Politics of Cynicism

Two revelations in the past couple of weeks have raised the question of whether Barack Obama’s “politics of hope” is transmogrifying into the politics of cynicism.

First we learned that Austan Goolsbee, Obama’s chief economic adviser, was cited in a memo by a Canadian consular official in Chicago as saying in a private meeting that Obama’s vocal opposition to NAFTA doesn’t reflect his real views. Rather, according to the memo, Obama’s arguments are based on political positioning. (Goolsbee disputes the characterization of the memo.) We then we learned that Samantha Power, at the time a key Obama foreign policy adviser (she has since resigned for calling Hillary Clinton a “monster”), said on the BBC TV show Hardtalk said that Obama’s commitment to withdraw all U.S. combat troops within 16 months is simply a “best-case scenario.”

The Hardtalk host asked, “So what the American public thinks is a commitment to get combat forces out in 16 months isn’t a commitment?”

Power went on to tell the New Statesman in an interview:

You can’t make a commitment in March 2008 about what circumstances will be like in January of 2009. He will, of course, not rely on some plan that he’s crafted as a presidential candidate or a U.S. Senator. He will rely upon a plan–an operational plan–that he pulls together in consultation with people who are on the ground to whom he doesn’t have daily access now, as a result of not being the president.

The Obama campaign reacted by saying that his commitment to withdraw combat troops within 16 months is “rock solid.”

As it happens, I hope both Goolsbee and Power are right in what they say about Senator Obama’s true views on both NAFTA and Iraq. Their positions are certainly more responsible than the positions Senator Obama has taken on the campaign trail.

At the same time, Obama is running as a candidate who will transcend the usual politics. He’s spoken out forcefully against cynicism and fashioned himself as the candidate of “hope” and “change”–someone whom we can believe in, someone whose words and commitments can be counted on. So when two top aides are essentially saying that we shouldn’t take all that seriously what Obama is saying on two key issues, it raises question marks about his authenticity and candor. As the New York Times put it on Saturday, “[the Power controversy] is the second time in two weeks that the actions of a top aide have forced Mr. Obama to defend the idea that he means what he says–hardly the ideal situation for a candidate who asks voters to trust his judgment and integrity.”

Obama is apparently making promises that he knows will be problematic to keep if he were to win the presidency. But by putting forward the belief that he is something different, and something better, than most politicians, he’s creating problems for himself. The best thing for Obama to do is to run his campaign in an honest manner, one in which he says what he believes and qualifies what deserves qualification. Among the advantages of this approach is that it wouldn’t require him to say one thing now, for public (liberal) consumption, and plan to do something different if he were elected president.

In a powerful 1991 speech the playwright Vaclav Havel, then president of Czechoslovakia, spoke about the temptations of political power. In his remarks Havel said

I am one of those people who consider their term in political office as an expression of responsibility and duty toward the whole community, and even as a sort of sacrifice. But, observing other politicians whom I know very well and who make the same claim, I feel compelled again and again to examine my own motives and ask whether I am not beginning to deceive myself . . . Those who claim that politics is a dirty business are lying to us. Politics is work of a kind that requires especially pure people, because it is especially easy to become morally tainted. So easy, in fact, that a less vigilant spirit may not notice it happening at all.

I’ve had favorable things to say about Senator Obama, who has struck me as a fairly admirable, if left-leaning, figure. But it’s fair to ask now, in light of what we’re learning about Senator Obama, whether the Audacity of hope is gradually giving way to the audacity of politics.

Two revelations in the past couple of weeks have raised the question of whether Barack Obama’s “politics of hope” is transmogrifying into the politics of cynicism.

First we learned that Austan Goolsbee, Obama’s chief economic adviser, was cited in a memo by a Canadian consular official in Chicago as saying in a private meeting that Obama’s vocal opposition to NAFTA doesn’t reflect his real views. Rather, according to the memo, Obama’s arguments are based on political positioning. (Goolsbee disputes the characterization of the memo.) We then we learned that Samantha Power, at the time a key Obama foreign policy adviser (she has since resigned for calling Hillary Clinton a “monster”), said on the BBC TV show Hardtalk said that Obama’s commitment to withdraw all U.S. combat troops within 16 months is simply a “best-case scenario.”

The Hardtalk host asked, “So what the American public thinks is a commitment to get combat forces out in 16 months isn’t a commitment?”

Power went on to tell the New Statesman in an interview:

You can’t make a commitment in March 2008 about what circumstances will be like in January of 2009. He will, of course, not rely on some plan that he’s crafted as a presidential candidate or a U.S. Senator. He will rely upon a plan–an operational plan–that he pulls together in consultation with people who are on the ground to whom he doesn’t have daily access now, as a result of not being the president.

The Obama campaign reacted by saying that his commitment to withdraw combat troops within 16 months is “rock solid.”

As it happens, I hope both Goolsbee and Power are right in what they say about Senator Obama’s true views on both NAFTA and Iraq. Their positions are certainly more responsible than the positions Senator Obama has taken on the campaign trail.

At the same time, Obama is running as a candidate who will transcend the usual politics. He’s spoken out forcefully against cynicism and fashioned himself as the candidate of “hope” and “change”–someone whom we can believe in, someone whose words and commitments can be counted on. So when two top aides are essentially saying that we shouldn’t take all that seriously what Obama is saying on two key issues, it raises question marks about his authenticity and candor. As the New York Times put it on Saturday, “[the Power controversy] is the second time in two weeks that the actions of a top aide have forced Mr. Obama to defend the idea that he means what he says–hardly the ideal situation for a candidate who asks voters to trust his judgment and integrity.”

Obama is apparently making promises that he knows will be problematic to keep if he were to win the presidency. But by putting forward the belief that he is something different, and something better, than most politicians, he’s creating problems for himself. The best thing for Obama to do is to run his campaign in an honest manner, one in which he says what he believes and qualifies what deserves qualification. Among the advantages of this approach is that it wouldn’t require him to say one thing now, for public (liberal) consumption, and plan to do something different if he were elected president.

In a powerful 1991 speech the playwright Vaclav Havel, then president of Czechoslovakia, spoke about the temptations of political power. In his remarks Havel said

I am one of those people who consider their term in political office as an expression of responsibility and duty toward the whole community, and even as a sort of sacrifice. But, observing other politicians whom I know very well and who make the same claim, I feel compelled again and again to examine my own motives and ask whether I am not beginning to deceive myself . . . Those who claim that politics is a dirty business are lying to us. Politics is work of a kind that requires especially pure people, because it is especially easy to become morally tainted. So easy, in fact, that a less vigilant spirit may not notice it happening at all.

I’ve had favorable things to say about Senator Obama, who has struck me as a fairly admirable, if left-leaning, figure. But it’s fair to ask now, in light of what we’re learning about Senator Obama, whether the Audacity of hope is gradually giving way to the audacity of politics.

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Visa Stupidity

A young, pro-American, “neolibertarian” blogger from Argentina named Pablo Martin Pozzoni recently wrote me this lament:

A few months ago I got the chance that I never have had before: to visit the country that I admire the most, because of what it is and represents, I had to stubbornly defend my decision against the hysterical anti-Americanism for which my country is well known…. This simple dream was cut short…not because of an economic or political situation in my country [but] by the Embassy of the United States…. Without taking into account my motivations or interests, I was considered something that anybody that knows me, and I am well known in Internet, will realize that is unthinkable and even laughable: a potential illegal immigrant.

It reminded me of other such tales. The Czech Republic and Poland, two of our staunchest allies, were on the brink of winning non-visa entry into the U.S. for their citizens, which several western European countries enjoy, when the deal was scotched by 9/11. Instead, would-be Czech and Polish visitors have to shell out a couple of hundred bucks for a visa application (which is not refundable) and wait on long lines. If this doesn’t cure their philo-Americanism, nothing will.

The ostensible reason is security, but I doubt there has ever been a Czech or Polish terrorist who targeted the U.S. The real purpose of the screening process is to weed out anyone who might wish to stay in the U.S. But what harm, exactly, would a few Czech, Polish, or Argentine illegal immigrants do? And is that harm—such as it might be—worth the ill will we invite at a time when we have a serious dearth of foreign friends?

The stories get even more absurd. This June, when President Bush tried to revivify his democracy-promotion agenda by delivering a stem-winder at a conference in Prague organized by Natan Sharansky and Vaclav Havel, and meeting with a group of dissidents from around the world, the most important Iranian dissident who had been invited was unable to attend. Mohsen Sazegara was scheduled to be one of the conference’s speakers, but he was forced to cancel: U.S. immigration authorities refused to promise him undelayed reentry into the U.S. (where he lives in exile).

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A young, pro-American, “neolibertarian” blogger from Argentina named Pablo Martin Pozzoni recently wrote me this lament:

A few months ago I got the chance that I never have had before: to visit the country that I admire the most, because of what it is and represents, I had to stubbornly defend my decision against the hysterical anti-Americanism for which my country is well known…. This simple dream was cut short…not because of an economic or political situation in my country [but] by the Embassy of the United States…. Without taking into account my motivations or interests, I was considered something that anybody that knows me, and I am well known in Internet, will realize that is unthinkable and even laughable: a potential illegal immigrant.

It reminded me of other such tales. The Czech Republic and Poland, two of our staunchest allies, were on the brink of winning non-visa entry into the U.S. for their citizens, which several western European countries enjoy, when the deal was scotched by 9/11. Instead, would-be Czech and Polish visitors have to shell out a couple of hundred bucks for a visa application (which is not refundable) and wait on long lines. If this doesn’t cure their philo-Americanism, nothing will.

The ostensible reason is security, but I doubt there has ever been a Czech or Polish terrorist who targeted the U.S. The real purpose of the screening process is to weed out anyone who might wish to stay in the U.S. But what harm, exactly, would a few Czech, Polish, or Argentine illegal immigrants do? And is that harm—such as it might be—worth the ill will we invite at a time when we have a serious dearth of foreign friends?

The stories get even more absurd. This June, when President Bush tried to revivify his democracy-promotion agenda by delivering a stem-winder at a conference in Prague organized by Natan Sharansky and Vaclav Havel, and meeting with a group of dissidents from around the world, the most important Iranian dissident who had been invited was unable to attend. Mohsen Sazegara was scheduled to be one of the conference’s speakers, but he was forced to cancel: U.S. immigration authorities refused to promise him undelayed reentry into the U.S. (where he lives in exile).

When the Baathist former Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam joined with Muslim Brotherhood leader Ali Sadreddin Baynouni to form the National Salvation Front, the U.S. found itself in a quandary. It wanted to encourage this exile operation— which promised to be the most powerful opposition to the recalcitrant Assad regime—but it was reluctant to embrace these two men. The solution hit upon by U.S. officials was to work through Ammar Abdulhamid, a prominent Syrian liberal with whom the U.S. felt comfortable, and who was elected to the NSF executive committee. However, Abdulhamid was severely constrained in trying to influence the NSF: he could not attend any of its meetings, which are held in various locations across Europe. Abdulhamid has been living in the U.S. with temporary asylum status for two years, waiting to be granted permanent asylum. In the meantime, U.S. authorities refuse to give him a travel document.

If the arguments about security are absurd when it comes to Czechs and Poles, in the cases of Sazegara and Abdulhamid, there is no conceivable security issue. They already live in the U.S. Of course we need to scrutinize carefully potential terrorists who want to enter our shores. But surely we can do that and at the same time make it easy for friendly foreigners to visit or study here, or to take asylum here when their struggles for freedom endanger their lives.

Before 9/11, our responsible agencies made it easy for anyone to enter, including known terrorists. Now they make it difficult even for known friends. Previously, our border security was disarmed. Now we have loaded up and shot ourselves in the foot. There must be a better way.

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Praising Noam Chomsky

Osama bin Laden’s latest videotaped message, his first in three years, contains several pearls of wisdom. But the following is most apt:

This war was entirely unnecessary, as testified to by your own reports. And among the most capable of those from your own side who speak to you on this topic and on the manufacturing of public opinion is Noam Chomsky, who spoke sober words of advice prior to the war, but the leader of Texas doesn’t like those who give advice.

Two years ago, Chomsky was voted the world’s top public intellectual in a poll conducted jointly by the magazines Foreign Policy and Prospect, the latter a British publication (Vaclav Havel came in fourth). Chomsky is enormously popular on American college campuses, and loved especially by Europe’s chattering classes. And he is not just the favorite public intellectual of Osama bin Laden, but of Hugo Chavez, the caudillo of Caracas, as well.

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Osama bin Laden’s latest videotaped message, his first in three years, contains several pearls of wisdom. But the following is most apt:

This war was entirely unnecessary, as testified to by your own reports. And among the most capable of those from your own side who speak to you on this topic and on the manufacturing of public opinion is Noam Chomsky, who spoke sober words of advice prior to the war, but the leader of Texas doesn’t like those who give advice.

Two years ago, Chomsky was voted the world’s top public intellectual in a poll conducted jointly by the magazines Foreign Policy and Prospect, the latter a British publication (Vaclav Havel came in fourth). Chomsky is enormously popular on American college campuses, and loved especially by Europe’s chattering classes. And he is not just the favorite public intellectual of Osama bin Laden, but of Hugo Chavez, the caudillo of Caracas, as well.

Last September, in a speech before the United Nations General Assembly, Chavez waved around a copy of Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, while denouncing President Bush as “the devil.” “The people of the United States should read this. . .instead of. . .watching Superman movies,” Chavez told the assembled dignitaries.

Given his views of America and the West in general, it comes as no surprise that the MIT professor’s greatest fans are the Venezuelan military despot and the man responsible for the death of 3,000 on September 11, 2001. And with fans like that . . .

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Who Are the True Jihadists?

The exact meaning of jihad is not a new question. It came up, unsurprisingly, at the Conference on Democracy and Security organized by Natan Sharansky, Václav Havel, and José Maria Aznar in Prague last week (about which Joshua Muravchik has been blogging).

Herbert London, president of the Hudson Institute, was in the middle of a rousing speech about the mystique of democracy. He warned of the danger to democracies posed by jihadists, who abuse its freedoms to subvert democratic institutions. Up rose Sami Angawi, director general of the Amar Center in Saudi Arabia, to protest: “I am a jihadist!” Angawi explained how, as a Muslim, he saw his struggle for freedom, democracy, and human rights in Saudi Arabia as a jihad.

I listened to Angawi develop his point: that jihad is too important a concept for it to be the exclusive property of Islamists, and that it needs to be recaptured and decontaminated by moderate and secular Muslims. I felt real sympathy for Angawi—and not only because he stopped me from walking in front of a Prague streetcar. But there is, depite the best efforts of reformers like Angawi, little likelihood that jihad will lose its ominous connotations for non-Muslims any time soon.

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The exact meaning of jihad is not a new question. It came up, unsurprisingly, at the Conference on Democracy and Security organized by Natan Sharansky, Václav Havel, and José Maria Aznar in Prague last week (about which Joshua Muravchik has been blogging).

Herbert London, president of the Hudson Institute, was in the middle of a rousing speech about the mystique of democracy. He warned of the danger to democracies posed by jihadists, who abuse its freedoms to subvert democratic institutions. Up rose Sami Angawi, director general of the Amar Center in Saudi Arabia, to protest: “I am a jihadist!” Angawi explained how, as a Muslim, he saw his struggle for freedom, democracy, and human rights in Saudi Arabia as a jihad.

I listened to Angawi develop his point: that jihad is too important a concept for it to be the exclusive property of Islamists, and that it needs to be recaptured and decontaminated by moderate and secular Muslims. I felt real sympathy for Angawi—and not only because he stopped me from walking in front of a Prague streetcar. But there is, depite the best efforts of reformers like Angawi, little likelihood that jihad will lose its ominous connotations for non-Muslims any time soon.

The concept is freighted with memories that go back 1,400 years, to the earliest days of Islam. Whether moderate Muslims like it or not, jihad has a history that extends from Muhammad’s farewell address in 632 (“I was ordered to fight all men until they say ‘There is no god but Allah’”) to Osama bin Laden’s deliberate echo of his words in November 2001. The proclamations of jihad against the West that we have witnessed since the Islamic revolution in Iran are not very different from those of Muslim conquerors throughout history (several of whom came close to fulfilling those proclamations).

Nor, it should be noted, does the fact that some of the Islamic warriors of the past were admired for their chivalry (rather than abhorred for their cruelty, as the Islamists of today are) mean that their concept of jihad was any less warlike and apocalyptic. In 1189, Saladin, the great antagonist of Richard Coeur de Lion, threatened to pursue his jihad across the sea to Europe “until there remains no-one on the face of the earth who does not acknowledge Allah.”

Ignác Goldziher, the Hungarian Jew who pioneered modern Islamic scholarship, began in the late 19th century the long effort by Western orientalists to reinterpret the meaning of jihad—an effort ongoing more or less ever since. But the paucity and insularity of Islamic hermeneutics means that no new interpretation of jihad is likely to gain acceptance in the dominant theological schools of Cairo and Mecca. The Wahhabi interpretation of jihad, which deliberately overlooks the prophetic injunction to practice “greater jihad” (peaceful struggle) as well as “lesser jihad” (war against the infidel), is hugely dominant among them, and will remain so. For these scholars, marooned in the 7th century, war against the infidel is not only legitimate, but laudable and even obligatory—however unholy such war may be in the eyes of more moderate Muslims.

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