During the final week of recess, about two dozen Hopkins undergraduates had a ringside seat as four prominent dissidents shared their experiences with oppression and their observations of threats to democracy around the world.
The course, Frontlines of Freedom, was led by none other than former world chess champion, democracy advocate and chair of the Renew Democracy initiative, Garry Kasparov. Offered by the SNF Agora Institute, it was designed to shed light on antidemocratic tendencies that most Americans are only just beginning to understand by drawing on the perspectives of dissidents who have fought these tendencies globally for decades.
“We were very pleased that the SNF Agora Institute was able to offer Johns Hopkins students the opportunity to take a class with Garry Kasparov, who himself is such an important voice in the global struggle for democracy,” said Hahrie Han. , director of the SNF. Agora Institute. “Bringing our students into direct conversation with dissidents from oppressive regimes around the world has been invaluable to their understanding of the magnitude of the stakes for democracy and activism – in the dissidents’ home countries and here in the United States. United.”
In one session, Mihrigul Tursun from China, a former Uyghur detainee, described the experience of being sent to a “re-education camp” in Xinjiang. Originally from Xinjiang, Tursun was living in Egypt and had returned to the northwest Chinese city to visit her parents in 2015, when authorities arrested her and separated her from her eight-week-old triplets. When she was released three months later, she was told that one of her sons had died.
Authorities confiscated Tursun’s passport, preventing him from leaving China. In 2017, she was again taken into custody, where she lived in a cell so overcrowded that she and 50 other women took turns sleeping and spending the rest of the time on their feet. During the year she spent there, she saw nine prisoners die. After diplomats from the Egyptian embassy in Beijing helped secure her release in 2018, she and her two surviving children moved to Virginia, where they live today.
“I would like you to be my advocate and my people’s advocate using your freedom,” Tursun said in response to a question about what message she would like to send. She said her inmates often told prisoners that no one cared about them or their experience. “I expect you to show the Chinese that you care,” she said.
Besides Tursun, dissident guests included Venezuela’s Leopoldo López, imprisoned for his political opposition to the dictatorships of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro; Masij Alinejad of Iran, an activist journalist prosecuted by the Iranian regime for her campaign against the compulsory wearing of the hijab; and Pastor Evan Mawarire of Zimbabwe, the creator of the “This Flag” campaign that helped overthrow dictator Robert Mugabe, and who was arrested and harassed by current strongman Emmerson Mnangagwa.
“I want you to be my advocate and my people’s advocate by using your freedom. I expect you to show the Chinese that you care.”
Human rights activist and former Uyghur detainee
“My thanks to Johns Hopkins, the SNF Agora Institute and, of course, the students,” Kasparov said. “It would have been easy for young students to be overwhelmed by the powerful stories of our guest speakers, all dissidents who fought the most painful battles for basic human rights in their home countries. questions and student essays have shown that many of them are ready and willing to tackle these difficult questions of democracy and how to protect its essential ingredients at home and abroad. lots of nuance, but the first challenge is to agree that there is a problem and there is a need to fix the system, not tear it down.The stories, activism and organizing of our dissident guests made clear to everyone how dangerous it is to take democracy for granted, even in the greatest democracy of all.
Each day began with a guest discussing their experiences, followed by questions and discussion. Readings and written assignments encouraged students to examine topics such as the nature of democracy, its ongoing global decline, and the building of a coalition against illiberal forces; myths of stable or benevolent dictatorship; the further repression of women and minorities in authoritarian states; what the United States and other democracies must learn from the decay and breakdown of democracy elsewhere; and participation and activism within civil society as key to combating hyperpartisanship and misinformation.
“I was interested in taking the course because I wanted to better understand authoritarianism and democratic backsliding,” said Emma Vengosh Weinthal, a freshman at the Krieger School. “I was delighted that the course offered the opportunity to learn from Mr. Kasparov and hear from political dissidents from around the world.”
“The course was really eye-opening because we got to meet so many amazing and inspiring speakers,” said Jeffrey Guo, a sophomore majoring in neuroscience. “They really made me aware of the problems that are happening in the world and how lucky we are to have things that many take for granted. I took this course because Mr. Kasparov is well known for his chess career, but I wanted to see how someone like him sees social issues and can really bring a unique perspective.”
Among the course’s key messages was the idea that we in the United States can both learn to understand oppressive regimes around the world and take action to resist them and protect our own democracy. For example, many batteries, computer components, clothing and agricultural products are made in China with enslaved Uyghur labor, pointed out Nury Turkel, a Uyghur-American lawyer and activist who joined the Tursun session, and consumer activism in the form of purchasing power can pressure companies to behave more ethically.
“Lending your voice is the least you can do,” Turkel said. “In politics, you have to create an environment where politicians feel uncomfortable not to act. Democracy is under threat. This is our future. If we let this continue and spread, it will affect civil liberties, democratic rights and privacy around the world.”
Kasparov, who was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, Soviet Union in 1963, was one of the first prominent Soviets to call for democratic reforms. He retired from professional chess in 2005 to join the Russian pro-democracy movement and was appointed chairman of the World Foundation for Human Rights in 2012. He is currently chairman of Renew Democracy Initiative, a non-profit organization organization that promotes democratic principles and civic behavior in the public sphere.
“The lesson is that we all need to be active participants for democracy to work, otherwise extremes will take over.”
President, Renew Democracy Initiative
RDI director Uriel Epshtein helped moderate the class discussions. At the end of the course, he challenged the students to apply the insights they had discovered in their future projects.
“What all the guests have in common is the belief that freedom matters, that democracy matters and that everyone should have the right to engage in society without having to fear prison or social ostracism” , Epshtein said. “I want to encourage all of you to think openly about different perspectives, to be open to different viewpoints, and not immediately shut down someone who disagrees with you. Being able to engage constructively with each other is really important.”
RDI plans to incorporate the course into a model that it can take to universities across the country. The intersessional version showed that such a model can be successful and that its teachings are essential in providing students with the context they need to understand and defend democracy, Kasparov said.
“I know that not everyone will become an activist or a politician,” Kasparov said. “And America is not Russia. But the lesson is that we all have to be active participants for democracy to work, otherwise the extremes will take over. Having doctors and engineers who are equally invested in democracy and politics is crucial. I hope this course can become a model, a role model, for others, with Johns Hopkins and SNF Agora in the lead. Just as important as good citizenship, we need to relearn the elements of trust and good that make democracy work. We have huge problems to solve in America, especially inequality, which has only worsened during the pandemic. We can only solve these problems if we agree on a fundamental framework for empowering people. And for all the problems of democracy, it is far better than anything else and the only way forward.