In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. discusses civil disobedience as a method of resistance to the discrimination and segregation imposed by the US government. Dr. King enters a discussion about the justice of laws. He writes:
I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
Dr. King advocates in his letter a disobedience of laws, but an acceptance of the consequences. He does not believe that people should resist arrest, but that they should disobey unjust laws and accept the punishment established by these laws. He writes:
One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
The hope with this sort of civil disobedience is that eventually, the unjust laws within a system will be changed while still maintaining the aspects of the system which are just. Dr. King’s adherence to nonviolent resistance stemmed from this mentality since the laws that prevented people from engaging in violence were seen as just. However, what if the system that one is operating under is unjust as a whole? Would one then be justified in advocating a violent resistance?
The Middle East is currently facing this dilemma. Facing an unjust system, many Arab nations are revolting in order to topple the entire systems that they live under. Some countries have reacted with non-violent movements, while others have felt the need to resort to violence in order to achieve their goals.
The Egyptian people have chosen the non-violent route. They have held non-violent protests in Tahrir Square on and off for months now. Even when faced with violence from the military and other security forces, the Egyptians refused to take up arms, and they have achieved a great deal. Mubarak has stepped down, but they still have a long road ahead of them before they have a just system.
On the other hand, the Libyan people took up arms against their government, leading to an all out civil war which killed tens of thousands of Libyans. One could argue, however, that the Libyans could not revolt non-violently as the Egyptians did. Gaddafi met non-violent revolts with a brutal crackdown, killing protesters with helicopter gunships among other things.
One can also argue however, that Dr. King was faced with violence from the government, but that he remained non-violent. African-Americans during the civil rights movement were arrested and treated brutally. Although, this treatment may not have been quite as bad as that in the Middle East. In the Middle East, if a person is arrested (say for civil disobedience) he is likely to be tortured and to remain in prison for decades before being released. In a system with such little justice, it is difficult to succeed in non-violent revolt.
I think many questions arise from the Arab Spring in relation to Dr. King’s letter. When one lives in an overwhelmingly unjust system, where peaceful demonstrators are met with brutal military crackdowns and the deaths of hundreds if not thousands, is it legitimate to turn to violent means of resistance? If so, at what level of violence does it then become legitimate to resist violently? Would it have been legitimate for Dr. King to turn to violent resistance, and is it legitimate for Arabs to revolt against their governments violently?