(Note: this week is “Summer Experience” at UMF, where incoming first year students have an intense week of discussion oriented work, with each class reading the same material — an ecclectic interdisciplinary set of works designed to stimulate thought and discussion. This week I will blog about one of the writings each day. Last year for day two I wrote about Paolo Friere’s piece on the Banking Concept of Education.)
As we watch the protests grow in Iran, as average people try to stand up to a government that has not been open or honest with their citizenry, an appropriate piece to discuss is Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King was jailed for civil disobedience, and was responding to others in the clergy who criticized King for being too confrontational, using demonstrations, sit ins, and marches to try to push forward their demand for equality. They believed that dialogue and slow progress would be a better path to change, and that King’s approach was overly contentious.
King’s patient response nonetheless had a strong accusation: it is easy for people not feeling the pressure of injustice to call for moderation and avoidance of confrontation. If the injustice has been going on for a long time, those who don’t suffer see no problem with a gradual correction of that injustice. Those experiencing it, however, recognize that it must end as soon as possible.
King noted that direct action came only after collecting the facts, negotiating, and self-purification. As he put it: “You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”
This is what is happening in Iran, as the world watches to see whether or not the religious leaders in Iran will respond to the protests with negotiation and change, or will clamp down with ferocity. King notes that freedom is not given up by an oppressor but must be demanded by the oppressed. The Iranian people have been patient. They have a partial democracy, a modicum of political and social freedom, and they certainly do not live in a totalitarian state. The level of democracy and freedom in Iranian life is high enough that most citizens have been willing to tolerate the regime’s desire to maintain control. Now, however, many have had enough and are trying to force the Guardian Council and Supreme Leader to negotiate away from their attempt to maintain conservative control at all costs.
Are they justified? King’s answer back in 1963 was to ask whether or not the laws being enforced are just. As King put it: “A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
In Iran, the leaders claim that the protests are unjust. While they admit some vote fraud, they do not believe that the amount of fraud could overcome the difference between the candidates. In that they may be right — we have no way to know for sure if Mousavi is even close to Ahmadinejad in the final tally, many pollsters doubt it. But that’s not the point. The protests are not just about the election or about Ahmadinejad. Rather, it is about trying to change an unjust system.
Another argument Iran’s leaders make is that they do provide just rule; they are clerics making sure that God’s laws are being properly followed in the Islamic Republic. Yet when one looks more closely at Iranian politics, it appears less about religious purity than rivalries between various clerics, oil revenue, and corruption. Moreover, the Koran does not condone a leadership lying to its people, promising one thing and then working behind the scenes to make sure it doesn’t happen. A true Islamic Republic would govern in an open, just manner. Claims of religious justice are contradicted by reality — the leadership in Iran is not true to basic values of the Koran.
Some might object to using King as an example for Iran because he was a Christian, and his values are therefore western and foreign to Iran and Islam. Yet King’s inspiration was Gandhi, a Hindu, who himself was inspired by Thoreau. King and Gandhi would argue that timeless universal laws are valid across faiths, and not the sole propriety of one particular religion. Iran’s leaders would no doubt disagree, yet within the Koran itself the values King holds dear — freedom, accountability, justice and equality — are fundamental. Muhammad’s core message was to end oppression, especially of women and the poor, and Iran’s regime often seems far distant from those basic Koranic values.
What can we in the US do? As citizens, we can show as much solidarity as possible with the Iranian people who are trying to have control over their own destinies. I still think Obama’s approach makes sense. There is nothing we can do to force change onto Iran, and an effort to meddle might make it less likely that the regime will negotiate fairly with the protesters. But the clerics in the Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader would be wise to take seriously another statement by Martin Luther King in his letter from a Birmingham Jail:
“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come.”