What’s the point of a protest?
What’s the point of just making noise, shouting slogans and delivering rousing speeches?
It doesn’t achieve anything practically. It won’t stop the war or oppression your speaking against. It won’t help those being killed or alleviate their condition in the least.
The answer is, yes, of course protests work, but usually not in the way and timeframe that many people think. Protests sometimes look like failures in the short term, but much of the power of protests is in their long-term effects, on both the protesters themselves and the rest of society.
In the short term, protests can work to the degree that they can scare authorities into changing their behavior. Protests are signals: “We are unhappy, and we won’t put up with things the way they are.” But for that to work, the “We won’t put up with it” part has to be credible.
Nowadays, large protests sometimes lack such credibility, especially because digital technologies have made them so much easier to organize. When it can take as little as a few months or even weeks to go from a Facebook page to millions in the street, as we saw with the Women’s March in 2017, a protest doesn’t necessarily make the kind of statement it did in the past, when they were much harder to organize. In comparison, the historic March on Washington, in 1963, took more than 10 years to go from idea to being organized, with many months dedicated to the logistics and with many obstacles before and during. When it’s that difficult to do something, just pulling off the march itself serves as an exclamation mark to those in power, whereas something that’s easy to organize is a mere question mark for the future: Maybe it will go somewhere, but maybe it won’t. Unsurprisingly, low-effort things don’t communicate credible threats. That’s also why things like apps that make it easy for people to contact their representatives don’t do much to help anyone’s cause—if an action is easy to do, legislators can also easily discern that it doesn’t necessarily represent a threat to their re-election. Showing up at their office in large groups, though? That still bites because it represents a lot more work.
Large numbers of people marched around the country in early 2003 to oppose the impending invasion of Iraq, but the war and the occupation proceeded anyway in March of that year. The Occupy movement in the United States saw marches in 600 communities and 70 major cities but inequality has become much worse since then.
So what’s the point? Well, there’s numerous points.
1. Raising awareness about an issue in a collective and public manner;
2. Breaking the silence that shackles a community out of fear or inability to act;
3. Publicly calling others to the truth, which has greater projection than individual invitation;
4. Accounting tyranny, oppression and their perpetrators; the path to the peak of martyrdom;
5. Paving the way for future material change through the influence on public opinion.
Each of these is a worthy deed on its own.
A protest is, in essence, a form of public expression, and as such it seeks various ends, such as those listed above. The problem with the line of thought that finds protests pointless because they don’t directly result in some material change is that it is measuring an action by the wrong criteria. If material change were possible, there would be no need for a protest. Indeed, he who can achieve direct change but merely protests reneges on his duty. The role of protests arises precisely where direct material change is not possible.
The hadith of the noble Prophet (saw) is clear:
“Whoever sees an evil, let him change it by his hand, but if he is not able then by his tongue…” [Muslim].
Indeed, this line of thinking is in complete discord with the noble Prophetic model and instruction. The Prophet (saw) names Umar (ra) al-Faruq [distinguisher of truth from falsehood] precisely because of his public airing of the truth. He pushed to go out and publicly express the deen, so the Sahaba did so: a procession of forty in two rows marched to the Ka’bah as a public expression of the new deen. Abdullah ibn Masud (ra) goes to the Ka’bah to recite surat al-Rahman openly and loudly to Quraysh, knowing full well that the result would be physical violence against his person. Abu Bakr (ra) prefers to pray and recite Qur’an openly in his front yard so that people can hear him as opposed to inside his house, even when the consequence is that he loses protection and is now open to attack by Quraysh. The instances abound.
With all these, one may ask: what’s the point?
What's the point of a march or reciting Qur’an in public or praying in the open?
Especially when some form of harm is likely?
The point is that the public expression in and of itself is powerful to the end of all the things noted above. The noble Prophet (saw) himself is emphatic:
“If you see my Ummah in dread of saying to an oppressor ‘You are an oppressor!’, then she has been farewelled” [Hakim]
meaning Allah has left them to their own, taking away His support.
“By the one in whose hand is my soul! You will enjoin the good and forbid evil, or else Allah will soon send upon you a punishment from Him, then you will call upon Him but He will not respond to you.” [Tirmidhi]
Not only, thus, do protests have a point, they are virtuous deeds pleasing to Allah, the exalted, if done with the right intention, manner and message.
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