The best book I ever read was Natan Sharansky’s Fear No Evil. It’s a memoir of Sharansky’s time in Soviet prison and how he sparred intellectually with the KGB jailers who tried to break him. Sharansky’s moral clarity and defiance helped discredit the Soviet Union at a time when apologists persisted. Vladimir Kara-Murza, poisoned twice, is a modern Sharansky. So too is Russian lawyer Alexei Navalny. Both returned to Russia to advocate for democracy despite knowing they faced Vladimir Putin’s repression. Both are in prison today.
The same holds true for figures who have defied China. No one knows who the Tiananmen Square “tank man” was who stood before and stopped a column of Chinese tanks seeking to crush pro-democracy protesters in 1989, but there are many others who boldly stood up to the Chinese Communist Party. The Dalai Lama’s quiet morality is a dagger in the heart of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s dictatorship. Chen Guangcheng, a blind dissident who exposed China’s forced abortions and sterilization, exposed the reality of China’s one-child policies. Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang paid with his life for whistleblowing about the truth of COVID-19, saving thousands if not millions of lives at a time when Xi’s secrecy imperiled health worldwide.
Turkey, too, has its share of dissidents. Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas did not temper his non-violent advocacy for freedom and defiance of Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan for fear of imprisonment. Businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala spoke and advocated openly for equal rights under the law for all citizens of Turkey, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Erdogan, the snowflake dictator, imprisoned both.
In 2005, Mansour Osanlou faced down Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to force recognition of an independent trade union, a Lech Walesa moment the George W. Bush administration ignored. More recently, countless Iranians risked their personal safety for women, life, and freedom.
What characterizes all these dissidents is that they advocate for democracy and non-violent change. None endorsed terrorism or violence.
Compare that with Paul Rusesabagina who, on video, urged violence as a means to oust a Rwandan government he opposed. This was not merely rhetorical excess: He subsequently wired money via Western Union to a militia that staged a terrorist attack against civilians in a local border town. Yet not only Hollywood-besotted Democrats but also prominent Republicans have rallied around Rusesabagina as, in Jay Nordlinger’s words, a “political prisoner” and “dissident.”
The same is true with many Republicans who rally around Maryam Rajavi, the leader of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq. She styles herself a democrat and says she seeks a free Iran, but wields an authoritarian axe over her organization. Group members face forced sterilization and divorce. Those who dissent are subject to imprisonment, torture, and even death. The group makes no secret of its past involvement in terrorism against both Americans and, after losing power in the Islamic Revolution that they supported inside Iran, against their former Iranian co-conspirators. Nevertheless, retired officials from Sen. Joe Lieberman to Vice President Mike Pence to retired Gen. Jack Keane each appear with her or sing the praises of her movement.
After the heady days of the Soviet Union’s collapse, democracy seemed resurgent. Today, the world sees how fragile freedom is. It is easy lecturing about democracy from a secure perch in the State Department, a U.S. university, or European capital, but the real heroes of freedom are those dissidents who put their lives on the line. Unfortunately, too many in Washington, whether out of naïveté or for a handsome honorarium, cheapen the real dissidents by embracing those who seek the mantle but refuse to eschew violence.
When those who did not serve lie about their military service and seek its privileges or honor, they are guilty of stolen valor. Those who pose as dissidents but seek only power and privilege are guilty of the same crimes against democracy. It is time to stop bestowing false honor on fake dissidents, for by association it degrades the real ones.