Violence or Non-Violence in the Arab Spring

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. Martin Luther King Jr.

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.

Libyan rebels during the Libyan Civil War (2011)

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?



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3 Comments on “Violence or Non-Violence in the Arab Spring”

  1. maddycaroline Says:

    I think that the situation which Dr. King was facing is hard to relate to the Arab spring in Libya. Martin Luther King Jr. found that non-violent protest could work to achieve his goal of equality in all forms of the law, and in society. He was going against the ideas of the american people of the past and the laws of the government, not the government (as a whole) itself. In Libya, they quickly learned that non-violent protest would not get them anywhere because, unlike America during the civil rights movement, it has never been a democracy so the government wouldn’t listen to the people of it’s country anyways, because it had no reason to. Since we were (are) a democracy, we are allowed to go against out government and try to change it which can be done non-violently, but in a society where citizens cannot speak out against government in any situation, there really is no choice but using violent forms of protest. Now, I am not saying that I support the killing of hundred of innocent people along the way, but I can easily see the reasons why it has to happen. A democracy allows all citizens to be involved in their government so protests are bound to happen frequently, and if those protesters become violent then it is unacceptable but the Libyan people under control of Gaddafi had no such option. Even those who tired to revolt non-violently were faced with violence by the government, so in the end the only way to get what they wanted was to fight fire with fire.

  2. Karsten Smolinski Says:

    I believe that the people of a country have a right to respond to the government with violence if the government first uses deadly violence against them. I do think, however, that it is very difficult to establish EXACTLY what would justify responding with violence. Resorting directly to violence to obviously a bad idea that will probably lead only to more violence and death. However, I do think that people have the right to rebel against an absolutely unjust system that refuses to accommodate democratic change and inflicts massive amount of violence and suffering on its own people. The reason non-violent protest worked for Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, or Gandhi and the Indian Independence movement is that the were dealing with just governments. They were able to work with these just governments to make changes to the unjust laws through the institutions of the government itself.

  3. ymsyed Says:

    I believe that violent revolt is only appropriate if authority put the lives of protesters at risk. For example, while Martin Luther King dealt with various forms of violence against him while he ‘civilly disobeying’ segregation laws, I do not (and this is my personal opinion), that his life was in constant danger by the authority that he was protesting against. While I am not at all saying that MLK’s life wasn’t in danger, the US government–the institution that had enacted the laws he was protesting–was not the one trying to kill him. On the other hand, the Libyan government seemed to be willing to do whatever it took to silence revolutionaries, even if that meant killing them. In such a case, I believe that violent protest is permissible.

    I think this brings us to a larger point: While civil disobedience is a tried and tested means of bringing about legitimate change, it is not always the answer. In my opinion, even Ghandi and MLK would not have been able to protest peacefully in a country such as Libya. What do you guys think?

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