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Thursday, June 02, 2005

Protests Aren't My Thing

A fellow I know – who doesn't usually attend protests and rallies, he assures me – tried to convince me to go to a protest to demonstrate my outrage at the desecration of the Quran and religious abuse at Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan and Iraq. I refused. And he was surprised. But he shouldn't be. I very rarely go to protests. Not because I'm uncaring of the issues at hand – I don't appreciate when people make assumptions because I refuse to protest – but rather because I can't stand protests. I think they're useless.

I should note at the outset that I have nothing against the concept of the public protest. Theoretically, it is grounded in the desire to uphold democratic values. In a liberal democratic society, the public must be free to register its opinion in some way. Protests have historically been taken seriously because of their strength – either physical (threats of violence) or moral (threats stemming from the power of the idea) – and hence the fear that they could overpower the political system and change the status quo. If people feel that protests are the way to go, it is not my purpose to denounce or dissuade them from participating.

But I have been to a few protests, and the common thread in all of them was a dumbing-down of the issues, which I find insulting to thinking individuals. Here are people denouncing George W. Bush's policies, claiming to be the voice of reason, and yet they're wearing bizarre caricatured costumes and carrying placards with clichéd slogans purporting to encapsulate their entire message. "Drop Bush Not Bombs." "Heil Bush." "Shame Shame USA." The messages are foolishly partisan and uncompromising. Black and white. I wouldn't want to say the wrong thing in the midst of a shouting, angry crowd holding signs like that. Yet it strikes me that many of those carrying "Not In My Name" placards have no idea what they're protesting about. Some vague ideas, perhaps, but they're simply going along with the crowd, submitting themselves to the group's will. There's nothing of substance there. In fact, besides the often-empty rhetoric of the participants, the speakers at these events are often raging scream machines themselves.

A couple of years back, there was a demonstration to protest tuition hikes at UofT. I attended, as did many students on campus. There was talk of walking out of class to protest, and I'm sure some students did so. The event was well attended, the protesters fired up. But I had to leave after only a few minutes because the doltish crowd could not stop screaming offensive profanities in tandem. I couldn't be a part of that. I supported their cause, but I didn't support their methods. The problem with protests is that they're free-for-alls. People think they can just let loose and do what they want without repercussions. Even violence is justified in the name of democracy. They're protected by the crowd, after all.

And yet, if you're protesting, chances are you're supporting things you may not want to support. I once attended a rally that was very specific in focus, and yet there were flags in recognition of a cause that was contrary to the event's purpose. Most people didn't realize – I suppose they assumed they might as well support every group's rights if they were supporting one. But am I obligated to approve of the many anarchists at every protest? And protesters supporting women's right to choose, demanding the legalization of marijuana, and insisting on an end to capitalism? I believe this to be the very downfall of the political protest - there are simply too many ideas getting mixed up and there's no unified message to announce to the world. To be effective, protesters need to come up with a clear, cohesive message – and deliver that message is an reasonably intelligent manner. A riot of causes will not help any of them.

What troubles me most are the people who live for political protests. They consider themselves politically active, and so they go from protest to protest – wherever there's one, you're bound to find them. They'll even hop on buses and drive to wherever the next protest is taking place. As if these distractions will solve the problems of the world. Have enough protests, get the largest crowd, and things will come together for you. It won't. Because it's not that easy.

It's clear that something's not working here. We need to ask why that is so. Why do the media no longer cover these protests? Is it perhaps because there are so many? Or maybe because there's not much difference between the many protests sprouting up all around town? Why do politicians no longer take heed? Perhaps no one really cares about the rowdy yahoos anymore? And why is it so easy to get the police to intervene? Must one fight back with more protests? With acrimonious exchanges? Is there not room for discussion, for negotiation, for debate within the societal and governmental structures? Or do we believe we've gone beyond that point, that protest is the only answer now?

I believe protests can at best be described as the beginning. There's a whole lot of work that must be done afterwards. Yet so much focus is placed upon getting people together that there's little time or energy or resources left to think about what happens next. A small protest can bring together a thousand different people. If even a quarter of those people were mobilized to do something, think of how potentially powerful they could be. I'd like to see organizers investing their funding and resources in order to form organisations, to infiltrate the political system, to lobby and negotiate with political actors. We need not waste people's time and energy on futile endeavours if there are other more effective ways to exercise one's democratic right. When I think of the protest against the desecration of the Quran in Guantanamo Bay, I have only praise for CAIR's strategy of distributing translations of the Quran to spread awareness of its message and its significance in the Muslim community. Yes, it's less exciting work. But it's meaningful. And it's proactive in a way that protests by their very nature can never be.

I know political protests are not always futile. Ukraine is a spectacular example. But consider the effort that went into making it work. Consider the many people who camped out for so many days to make their point known. They did not put aside flashy placards after a couple of hours, abandoning their fight for the comfort of their homes. Their souls were invested in the cause. And they stayed on till they got what they so desired.

Some may say it's better to do something – anything – than to sit at home and whine at the injustices of the world. That's a valid criticism. But I'd like to see a strategy that's better than just anything. I'd like to see a strategy that has the potential to win, that offers reasonable solutions and a plan to get there. Otherwise we just have a group of excited, energized and highly emotional people, but no way to channel that energy. The feelings of solidarity can only go so far. After that, it's the substance of the message, and not just the cause, that will get people to act in meaningful ways.


  • At 6/03/2005 03:39:00 a.m., Anonymous Yusuf Smith said…

    As-Salaamu 'alaikum,

    About the Ukraine thing: that was not just the work of the street protestors, but of an awful lot of people who had laid the ground for it and the officials and judges who actually made it happen. The old president Kuchma was widely reviled as a tyrant and a dictator, but this couldn't have happened in a real dictatorship, as we recently saw in Uzbekistan.

    History shows that there are really no such things as revolutions: there are civil wars, palace coups and military coups. What happened in Ukraine was not even that - it was an election, which one side tried unsuccessfully to fix.

  • At 6/03/2005 09:57:00 a.m., Blogger cncz said…

    Salam Saffiyah! Someone asked about Canadian weather on my blog, and I told them you were the person to go to. About protests--my thing is that I make it a policy never to go to them, at least in France, because you always wind up on tv. Worse, you get lumped in with people protesting for different reasons. The last thing I need is to be on tv...

  • At 6/03/2005 01:42:00 p.m., Blogger Safiyyah said…

    Yusuf: I agree with you that there are other factors involved with the Ukraine situation, though I wouldn't deny that the people played a part.

    Cncz: Will visit your blog, though talk of the weather is sleep-inducing. :-) Do you think perhaps your aversion to appearing on TV has to do with not being completely comfortable with the protest itself?

  • At 6/04/2005 07:29:00 a.m., Blogger dawud al-gharib said…

    asSalaam 'aleykum wa RahmatuLlah;

    I don't think often of protests, as i'm not angry enough (except at blog entries [sigh]) to march in the streets, and I'm with you on the futility of such. (anyone here think that Chretien was motivated against joining [the 2003 invasion of Iraq] more by internal polls in the Labour party and resentment towards the US rather than Canadian street protests?)

    I was in one protest in 2001 outside the Israeli consulate, where Arab children burned the Israeli flag, people shouted 'Jews are our dogs!', and girls linked their arms and shouted 'la ilaha il Allah!' - and then some CBC reporters asked me what I thought, and the answer (though the words in my mind were 'and thus we decreed for bani Isra'il that whosoever killed one soul, unless it be for another soul or for corruption in the earth, it is as if he killed the whole world') - 'if moderate voices are not given a hearing, then these will be the only voices you hear'... i'm saddened by my own participation in rage, and am seeking a 'way out'

    bismiLlahir Rahmanir Rahim: 'The good deed and the evil deed are not alike. Repel the evil deed with one which is better, then he, between whom and thee there was enmity (will become) as though he was a bosom friend. And no one will be granted such goodness except those who exercise patience and self-restraint,- none but persons of the greatest good fortune. And if (at any time) an incitement to discord is made to thee by the Evil One, seek refuge in Allah. He is the One Who hears and knows all things.' (Surah Ha Mim, 34 -36)

  • At 6/04/2005 10:39:00 a.m., Blogger cncz said…

    exactly...i have a problem with the protest itself. i don't want to be associated with people who might agree with me on this particular cause but totally disagree with me on another...i'm thinking of groups like ni putes ni soumises here...i could write a book about the parisian protest scene and muslims, but i won't.

  • At 6/04/2005 11:33:00 p.m., Anonymous A Friend said…

    I too protest against protests!

    In my first year of university I finally began to learn about the causes of all the injustice occuring in the world, and decided to take a stand -- I went to my first protest!

    I must admit, the energy and fervour of the crowd were quite exhilerating...and I began to believe that those protests were doing something. But when I took a look around me, I realised that most of these people were (although friendly) pretty scary.

    There were lenninists, and trotskyists, and hippies, and other weirdos...some of whom tried openly to pick me up despite my Islamic attire. After being briefly drawn into the socialist movement (by the story of brave Che Guevara and Fidel Castro and their fight against the evil americans -- woohoo!), I realised that these peoples' ideas contradicted many of my own core values and beliefs.

    Furthermore, although these people claimed to value everyone's rights, they had no limits on what they believed people should be allowed to do.

    Then came the stark realisation that had they been the dominant political powers of the day, they would likely have abolished organized religion in the name of freedom.

    These reflections, along with disturbing occurances like those mentioned by everyone else above, were enough to convince me that I was certainly *not* an activist (at least not of that variety).

    People who attend protests definitely need to get rid of the idea that they are making positive change, and channel their resources into more useful projects.

  • At 6/05/2005 05:17:00 p.m., Blogger Safiyyah said…

    My dear "friend": I was a bit surprised to see your post. Somehow I didn't expect you to agree with me. Thanks for adding your comments. The "organized religion" bit is so true.

  • At 6/07/2005 12:13:00 a.m., Anonymous aasim said…

    it was an anthropological fieldwork exercise ;).

    but seriously, i would advise you to look at protests as a cultural expression rather than a forum for reasoned dialogue. no one claims to be rational at protests and i don't think we should hold rationality in debate as a universal 'must.'

    furthermore, as a believing muslim, i find no qualms standing side by side with a trotskyist because i am not responsible for their opinions or actions. nor am i affected by their suffocated and far fetched ideas. they have their din and i have mine. unless they are making you physically uncomfortable (as in the case of the girl who was being hit on), i dont think the "they are weirdos" response is a good enough reason for not attending. it is a hegemonic fault to typecast protesters as a monolith (something which your fellow blog commentators dont seem to have a problem with) as it does a great injustice to the many 'average,' concerned citizens at the rallies. consider that many fellow protesters at the quran day rally were (non muslim) professionals, professors of universities and even children of esteemed toronto shuyukh.

    i agree totally with your statement "protests are at best the beginning" though i dont think it is fair to COMPLETELY lay blame on the 'foot soldiers' for failing to EXTEND their expressions through more intellectual channels. not to apologize for their often overzealousness and extra-protest laziness (wrt to changing the 'structures') but it's asking too much for a taxi cab driver (believe me there were cab drivers there) to work for macro-level changes. in that regard, i think its the intellectuals to crystallize the on the ground sentiments for our political officials. and in that sense, it is vital to attend and get a feel of the common if not outlandish concerns of the protesters.

    all in all your concerns about it being 'too loud' and 'not enough' are well taken but there is more to protests than clamour and if you come to protests honestly you will see that the flag burning wackos are anything but the majority.

    ps- tariq ramadan has some articles on making muslim 'space' in the anti globalization rallies.

  • At 6/14/2005 11:19:00 a.m., Blogger Safiyyah said…

    Aasim: I just wanted to say thank you for your comment. I really do appreciate and respect your opinion. I'll tell you a secret (which, ironically, will no longer be a secret after this). Sometimes I write for the shock value. Take this post, for example. I was actually disappointed that all my readers seemed to agree with me. I was expecting a little dissent, and I was quite surprised when there was none. Truth is, I often test out ideas, and this time people bought it. I do believe protests are overrated and you will likely never find me at another one, but I think they do serve a community purpose, particularly for those who have no other avenue for pursuing change.
    It is always a pleasure to hear from you.


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