Before discussing Dr Martin Luther King Jr., there are a number of matters I wish to raise. Some of what I am about to say may come across as a little radical, even extreme. I would also hope that you read the entirety of what follows before passing judgment.
With all that is going on with Muslims today, particularly with Theresa May and the Government’s ill-conceived attempt to create more legislation, such as the Counter Terror & Security Bill targeting the Muslim community, there is real need to consider non-violent campaigns in addressing the onslaught. In any nonviolent campaign, there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.
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I believe we have no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we need to decide to undertake a process of self-purification and ask ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?”
Many will say why not negotiate. You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatise the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension”. I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and discrimination to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Indeed, justice too long delayed is justice denied. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.
Many express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others? The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. 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. An unjust law is no law at all. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application.
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.
Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake.
We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” under their laws and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Muslim faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.
I must make two honest confessions to you. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the Non-Muslim moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the great stumbling block for a Muslim in his stride toward freedom is not the Non-Muslim Parliamentarian or the far right, but the Non-Muslim moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; I had hoped that the Non-Muslim moderate would understand that the present tension is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Muslim passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. Injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
There are some that will say that our actions (in protesting), even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Is this not like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Is this not like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.
Many may speak of such actions as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that people would see nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Muslim community. One is a force of complacency made up in part of Muslims who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self-respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to life; and in part of a few middle-class Muslims who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by the status quo, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses and part of the problem. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence nourished by the frustration over the continued existence of discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in Britain.
If this philosophy (of non-violence) had not emerged, by now many streets would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself. If these repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channelled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorised as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus of the bible an extremist for love? Was not Amos an extremist for justice? Was not Martin Luther an Extremist?
The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?
I am sure many of you reading the above will consider the content to sound pretty “radical” and “extreme”. What if I told you that the above are not my words at all? What if I told you that the above are actually the words of Martin Luther King? Well that is exactly what they are – I have simply used the words ‘Muslim’ in place of ‘Black/Negro/Christian’ and ‘Non-Muslim’ in place of ‘White’ and an extra word here and there (which does not even amount to a percentage) to give it some context, otherwise, it is verbatim Martin Luther King’s words.
The above is taken from a letter Dr Martin Luther King Jr wrote whilst imprisoned on 16 April 1963, in Birmingham Alabama. The letter was penned in response to an open letter from some of his fellow clergy criticising him and the civil rights movement. The clergymen (one Catholic priest, 6 Protestants and a rabbi) urged King and his fellow civil rights activists to pursue negotiations and legal procedures rather than continue their nonviolent demonstrations and civil disobedience. They regarded King as an extremist. What King ended up writing in response, is widely regarded as his manifesto for the theory and practice of social justice activism and the pursuit of nonviolent change.
So often, particularly in politics, extremism is considered “bad” and associated with anti-democratic, exclusionary, discriminatory movements. Indeed, often it is used synonymously with “terrorism” and, today, is almost invariably associated with Islām. Yet King was quite comfortable in being branded an extremist.
The main purpose of this article is to highlight just how absurd the new Bill is and the Government’s agenda in seeking to criminalise those Muslims who they refer to as “Non-violent extremists”. I hope this article highlights that the Bill does not seek to necessarily target evil individuals with twisted misconceived ideologies, but also normal people like Dr King. It is important to clarify that although the context of extremism is radicalisation referring primarily to Muslims, the impact that inhibits social justice and the pursuit of legitimate restitution extra-judicially when the Government and the system fail to give justice. In fact, if Dr King was alive today, I have no doubt that he most probably would be called an extremist under British Law and at the very least, a non-violent extremist. So, a point to note here is that not all those who will be vilified as extremist are necessarily so. In no way is this article calling for the direction action referred to by Dr King as the point is simply to highlight how legitimately held views are being vilified.
Finally, Dr King reminds us that extremism is not always bad. We must remember that simply because someone does not like what they hear does not mean the truth should not be spoken. And we must remember that when those who campaign through non-violent means are labelled “extreme” simply because they truly believe in justice and truth, it is no insult, though it is meant for one. It simply means they are in good company with those in the past that chose to stand for these things and make a difference such as Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X and, of course, Dr Martin Luther King Jr whose message can thus be summarised as “I have a dream, to be an extremist”.
Notes: Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.] http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html