Civil Resistance-Resistance Theory-Civil Rights Movement-Alternatives.
Foto: Center for Jewish History, NY, via Wikimedia Commons | Lizence: Public Domain

We have to look for viable alternatives

Recently a video recorded in Samsun, Turkey in 2016 was uploaded on YouTube. The video showed Shaykh Hamza Yusuf criticising the Syrian Revolution and caused a twitterstorm. As a result, articles exploded both attacking and defending Shaykh Hamza. However, they missed the point. This article will address the crux of the matter – Resistance theory. And, it will look at the history of resistance theory during the 16th and 17th century Europe and during the 20th century in the United States and in South Africa. In conclusion, the article will draw two lessons for us.

Resistance theory is part of pollical thought and it is concerned with discussing why and how can authority be resisted by an individual or a group. In Europe it came to prominence following the Protestant Reformation.

During the period, there were verbal and martial confrontations between the Catholic Church and the new Protestant religions. To achieve civic peace, in 1555 the Peace of Augsburg was signed which recognised Lutheranism and Catholicism as officially recognised by the Holy Roman Empire. Crucially the treaty did not include the Calvinism. This forced Calvinist thinkers to consider their options.

The pendulum of resistance theory moved from passive resistance, as championed by William Tyndale’s Obedience of a Christian Man and crashed on the other side, a generation later, as open rebellion as put forth by John Ponet. This change of Protestant thinkers set the scene for the Thirty Year’s War, which was fought between 1618-1648 and is considered by historians to be the most destructive war in history. The mortality rate of that War would be eclipsed three centuries later by World War II.

The disaster of the Thirty Year’s war forced Protestant thinkers to once again rethink resistance theory. The challenge facing these thinkers was to somehow avoid the obvious weaknesses of Tyndale’s passive resistance and the potential chaos of Ponet’s open rebellion. The thinker who best gave expression to this was the Duplesis Mornay in his work the Vindicae Contra Tyrannos.

“The Vindicae,” Harold Laski notes, “deals directly with four great questions of the time. Are subjects bound to obey princes if they command what is contrary to the law of God? Is it lawful to resist a prince who infringes the law of God, and ruins the Church, and, if so, who ought to resist him, by what means, and how far should resistance extend? Is it lawful to resist a prince who ruins the state, and, if so, to whom should the organisation of resistance, its means and limits, be confided? Are neighbouring princes bound by law to help the subjects of princes who afflict them either for the cause of religion or in the practice of tyranny?”

The first question, the Vindicae says no. In summation, man has degrees of duty, the highest being his Lord and second to the that a leader. If the King’s laws forces one to contract Divine Law then the individual ought to resist.

On the second question, the Vindicae teaches that resistance should be challenged through the magistrates. This idea was given best expression by the Magna Carter Libertatum which was signed in 1215 and sought to limit the power of the King by instituting Barons as the both a check on the King’s power and as an interface between the King and the masses.
This version of resistance theory has been used successfully throughout history. In the 20th century it was used best by two organisations the – the Civil Rights Movement and the African National Congress (ANC).

The African National Congress was founded on the 8th January 1912 in Bloemfontein by six men with the aim of advancing the rights of Black South Africans who were under white rule. This organisation began as a lobby group that represented and advocated for the rights of Africans in the South African Colony to the British Crown. On the 31st May 1961 South Africa left the commonwealth and chose independence. At first, the ANC put forth the idea that the African could adopt the ways of the white man if only given a chance.

Increasing repression and the entrenchment of apartheid, its aversion to dissent by Black people and a brutal crackdown of political activists, the ANC together with the SACP formed a military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1961. Through the MK, the ANC waged an armed campaign and obtained support from African countries for its activities. Increasing internal dissent and international pressure forced the Apartheid government to negotiate with the ANC. This resulted in the collapse of Apartheid and the full enfranchisement of Black South Africans.

During the 1950s and 1960s the Civil Rights movement swept through the United States. It aimed to give full citizenship to African Americans. During the time there was a huge surge of activism taking place to reverse discrimination and injustice. Activists worked together and used non-violent protests and specific acts of targeted civil disobedience, such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Greensboro Woolworth Sit-Ins in order to bring about change. After a decades long struggle by activists, laws granting full citizenship were passed year by year.
These two movements are used as proof on how power could be resisted – by having the masses gather around representatives to further their cause. In South Africa, the ANC achieved that purpose and, in the US, activists.

In the controversial video Shaykh Hamza criticised the Syrian uprisings. He argued that Shaykh Ahmad Az-Zarruq did not criticise the rulers of his time because he felt incapable of doing a better job. “We are not ready,” Shaykh Hamza noted, “we do not have a civil society.”
When one observes the Arab Spring, especially in Egypt, we saw the same uprisings that deposed one dictator, Hosni Mubarak, re-instituted another, al-Sisi. Libya, Tunisia and Syria are engulfed in ashes. To arrest the chaos, military dictators will likely be given absolute power. In short, the Arab Spring has been a disaster.

In his book, Violence, Slavoj Zizek wrote: “Better to do nothing than to engage in localized act whose ultimate function is to make the system run more smoothly. The threat today is not passivity, but pseudo-activity, the urge to ‘be active,’ to ‘participate, to mask the Nothingness of what’s going on.’”

This is the disease of our age. Muslims must revaluate their stratagem. Revolutions are sexy, but oftentimes, such as the French revolution, they start by aiming to remove one dictator, Louis XVI, only to end up with another dictator, Napoleon. The same was true during the Russian Revolution, it removed Emperor Nicholas and ended with Lenin. In China, it aimed to remove Emperor Pu-Yi and ended up with Chairman Mao. In short, mass uprisings have been a historic disaster.

The challenge for Muslims is to look for a viable alternative. And that can be done by revisiting the role of a civic society – an aggregate of non-government organisations that represent the interests of their constituents to the Leader of the land. When the dictator is brutal, as in Apartheid South Africa, perhaps lessons could be drawn from the history of the ANC under the leadership of Albert Luthuli. When the leader is relatively accommodating, as in Eisenhower’s America, perhaps the civil rights movements could be studied.

The last lesson, Abdassamad Clarke, a Muslim scholar, translator and publisher noted: Extricating ourselves from the mire of discussion around celebrity scholars, we note that the following, disillusionment and rejection of them are symptomatic of our abandonment of leadership and our elevation of scholars and imams to a position they don’t have. When we restore leadership in our communities, we might actually have communities, and our scholars and imams will have their rightful place.

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