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A Muslim on the Idea of Protest

London summers have always fascinated me. For most of the year, the city exudes a sombre darkness with the wet and chilly weather imparting a feeling of permanent dreariness. Then comes the summer with its late evenings and suddenly, it feels like the city gets a shot in the arm. I particularly like how pubs suddenly overflow with exciting chatter on the first warm days of the year. That’s where I found myself last evening, at a pub just off Oxford circus attending the eponymous event.  It felt like a little secret place away from the hustle and bustle of central London and I had good expectations.

‘The Idea of Protest’ sounded like one of those things where you take a seemingly ordinary word and infuse it with a dose of intellectual analysis. Often times, such exercises can seem unnecessary or downright puerile but not on this occasion. This event, organised by the Big Ideas, felt more like a random pub natter although it clearly was much more. The Big Ideas organises these sorts of discussion without the pretence of stuffy intellectualism.

Our speaker, Iain Boal was overflowing with names of thinkers and books about what I call the ‘Eternal Left’. These are the people who in the course of Western Civilisation act as its conscience against the unstoppable machine of modernity and the gospel of progress.

Iain began talking about the origin of the word protest itself which means a public testimony. He drew upon the mythology of the Luddites, a social movement of the 19th century who protested against the Industrial Revolution by breaking mechanised looms – machines which are used to weave cloth. Prominent historian Eric Hobsbawm called this ‘collective bargaining by riot’. Whatever it was, it seems the mechanised looms represented something much bigger, the machinery of civilisation itself maybe. The Luddites represented the common man who became disenfranchised by the developments humankind was enjoying. Was it moral that they destroyed the property of others to exercise their protest? As Iain noted, the word Luddite became the swear word in politics till the coming of communism! Perhaps this showed there is an innate sense of offendedness (not a real word, I know but I’m intellectualising the ordinary!) we feel from such acts.

This brings me to my next point, as a Muslim, how to do I approach the idea of protest? A more fundamental question than this would be, without getting too existential, what does it mean to be a Muslim? To me, being a Muslim in this context would mean that I would have to draw upon the vast intellectual, religious and philosophical heritage of Islam and construct for myself an ethical framework. So the question is really, is it ethically Islamic to protest? If so, what are the forms and limits of protest? Is protest all there is to the Islamic strategy of action against something disagreeable to Islam.

My reading of the Qur’an tells me that, without the slightest doubt, that God asserts His sovereignty over the heavens and the earth. The Quran is replete with this idea and mentions the word ‘Allah’ or the one true God about 2700 times. One could take His sovereignty to be in a religious sense, of course, by simply removing any other deity or intermediary but there is a far wider sense of sovereignty, that of adopting the values expounded by God through the Qur’an as the ethical framework in our lives. This is not an overnight exercise but rather a lifetime process of reorientation.

The Qur’an lays a great emphasis on social justice. For a start, it closely associates, no less than four times (Chapter 2, Verse 83; 4/36, 6/151 and 17/23), worshipping God with doing good for various sections of humankind such as the orphans, the poor and the travellers. These people whom we are to help are not segmented by race or religion. So social justice is a religious act, one could say and a religious act which ironically transcends the boundaries of religion or even ideology when it comes to who its beneficiaries are.

What about standing up to tyranny? Again the Qur’an clearly speaks for standing up to tyranny and for the safety and sanctity of one’s fellow man (4/75-76). Of course, this has been misinterpreted by the likes of Osama bin Laden and his ilk but when I think of a person who fits this bill, I think of Rachel Corrie. Rachel was a young woman killed by the Israeli war machine in 2003 whilst engaging in a non-violent protest with the International Solidarity Movement. People such as Rachel are immediately ascended to the stars, as it were. Rachel’s emails to her mother have already been made into plays.  Perhaps the spirit of nobility by the act of resisting tyranny is innately good and all human beings no matter what their origin can relate to that.

What are the limits of protest though? The Qur’an very clearly lays down the rules of confrontation and one of the clear rules is not to transgress limits. Often times, public protests spiral out of control. We are inundated with media images of protesters overcome with emotions and destroying public property and worse, mobbing innocent civilisations. In such moments, there isn’t time to stop and ask perhaps. Whatever the case is, protests which end up doing more harm than good are clearly un-Islamic. Perhaps if one feels that one’s protest would be ineffective and one’s situation is too intolerable, then maybe emigration is the better choice. That may sound a tad drastic but I contend that for some people, their sense of ethics is too strong for them to bear what they consider to be grave injustice.

It is amazing to see how human beings of such different backgrounds can come together towards a common human value – justice. Iain Boal expounded a little on the Western tradition of protest and that helped me to think about the Islamic notion of protest. He even mentioned the Arab Spring which involves mostly Muslims who draw upon both Western techniques of protest and Islamic ethics.  Perhaps, after all, we of different traditions are not so different after all.

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Farouk A. Peru is a Phd Candidate in Islam and Postmodernism and teaches Islamic Studies at King's College, London.