By Babatunde Jose
“O ye who believe! Obey Allah, and obey the Apostle, and those charged with authority among you. If ye differ in anything among yourselves, refer it to Allah and His Apostle, if ye do believe in Allah and the Last day: That is best, and most suitable for final determination.”(Quran 4:59)
Islam makes no sharp division between sacred and secular affairs; it expects governments to be imbued with righteousness. Likewise Islam expects Muslims to respect the authority of such government for otherwise there can be no order or discipline. This however, is the bane of religious precepts in a secular environment. It is not in consonant with participatory democracy and the qualities desired from followers in modern democratic society. This is the origin of the proverbial docility, acquiescence and unquestioning acceptance of leadership and the ‘rankadede’ syndrome; an unquestioning obeisance of leaders. The above verse of the Quran is based on the assumption of a theocratic state.
Modern nation states demand a different set of qualities and paradigm. Unfortunately, most of these qualities are wanting in the followership in our society.
As followers we are too timid and complacent. Starting from the issue of social services such as water and electricity, we do not make forceful demands on our rulers. We acquiesce and resort to self help. We make little or no demands on our leaders for accountability and limit our complaints to rancorous discussions at the beer parlor or at social events over plates of ‘jollof rice’ and Coca Cola. Yet a culture of protest is a sine qua non of democracy.
Protest movements are struggles to be seen and to be heard. In the last 60 years protest movements around the world have mobilized against injustices and inequalities to bring about substantial sociocultural, sociopolitical, and socio-economic changes. Whilst familiar repertoires of action persist, such as strikes, demonstrations, and occupations of public space, the landscape is very different from 60 years ago when the so-called ‘new social movements’ emerged.
Protest movements are a key function of democracy. They represent an expression of ideas and principles to challenge dominant orthodoxies and have resulted in significant changes to policies and legislation as well as to attitudinal transformations in local, national and international contexts. Protest movements show no signs of abating in the twenty-first century as people challenge governments, regimes, economic structures, austerity, material inequalities as well as advocate for global issues such as food, water, energy, healthcare, and climate change.
Protest is an operation of democratic power which can be performative; it is both an act and an enactment. Protest is a collective struggle which calls into question ‘the inchoate and powerful dimensions of reigning notions of the political’. The democratic public performs its existence through resistance: it demands recognition, embodies visibility, articulates a political voice, and communicates ideas/demands. In doing so, protest constitutes ‘the people’, and through the aesthetics of protest, ruptures conventions of doing politics.
Protests emerge when people come together to react against exclusion, inequality and injustice, usually propagated by the state or government, though other actors or structures including environmental precarity or economic instability can mobilize people to act. “The founding moment of French political history was the Revolution. Since then, French people speak directly to power through protest: Although not necessarily in such a bloody way.”
Protest movements have been recognized as significant contributors to processes of political participation and transformations of culture and value systems, as well as to the development of both a national and transnational civil society.
In the words of Prof Wole Soyinka: “Let us begin with some collective introspection. I have become increasingly convinced that, between leadership and the led, there is only a very thin dividing line, often nearly indistinguishable. There is no question in my mind that, most often, the so-called led are their own worst enemies, even to the point of self-betrayal and treachery to their own existence. . . . .” Wole Soyinka: ‘Handshake Across History’.
Public participation therefore, as a political principle or practice, and may also be recognized as a right. … It implies that the public’s contribution will influence the decision. Public participation may also be regarded as a way of empowerment and as vital part of democratic governance. The key role of citizens in a democracy is to participate in public life.
Protest is possible because we have inalienable rights to assemble, to associate, and to speak. Rather, the enactment of protest signifies democracy in its most essential form, one that is founded on action and enactment: ‘Democracy is, properly speaking, the symbolic institution of the political in the form of the power of those who are not entitled to exercise power – a rupture in the order of legitimacy and domination. Democracy is the paradoxical power of those who do not count’ (Rancière and Panagia 2000: 124).
Protest is not only concerned with seeking recognition; protest seeks to disrupt the existing political order, transcend or abandon its ideological trappings, and create new possibilities.
Protests invoke images of mass demonstrations, riots, and sit-ins, all of which common tactics used by civic activists, often to advocate for a cause or protest a government policy. At the heart of protest culture is a firm belief in the value of free speech, and the power of the collective in making demands on the state. Protest culture thus has its roots in the democratic ideals that enable them to take place: justice, equality, and fraternity, to name some of them.
Protest culture, however, need not lead to a slippery slope of divisive identity politics, if it is rooted in a thoughtful, engaged citizenship. This cuts to the heart of the state’s distrust of protests – a fundamental lack of respect for, or trust in, the citizenry by the state due to paternalism. Such paternalism views protestors as petulant children who make demands without considering the complex challenges that policymakers face and inevitable trade-offs they have to make. Protests are seen as outlets for populism and xenophobia, rather than a meaningful intervention into existing debates.
In other climes they protest and riot over increase in the price of bread or rice, fuel and other issues that impinge on the welfare of the people. Here we are content to accept all that they throw at us with equanimity. What have we done about the fantabulous take home pay of our legislators? Nothing! We do not protest the potholes on our streets or the delay in refuse disposal. We make little or no demands on our leaders and do not hold them responsible for our degradation impoverishment and accelerating poverty.
Political apathy can be categorized as the indifference of an individual and a lack of interest in participating in political activities. Political apathy can lead to low voter turnout and stagnation in government.
It has been argued that religion; in particular Islam is a contributing factor to the situation of political docility and lethargy of its adherents. Obedience is a divine command from al-Qur’an and Hadith likewise Islamic history records many instances as far as obedience is concern.
On the authority of Ibn ‘Umar, The Holy Prophet (s.a.w) said: It is obligatory upon a Muslim that he should listen (to the ruler appointed over him) and obey him whether he likes it or not, except that he is ordered to do a sinful thing. If he is ordered to do a sinful act, a Muslim should neither listen to him nor should he obey his orders (Sahih Muslim, Book 20, Hadith 4533).
This perhaps account for the proverbial acceptance of some of our brothers in the faith for the misrule of their leaders and why they have remained a-political.
This thesis is however faulted in the light of the ‘Arab Spring’ and other uprisings and protests in patently Islamic climes. It is therefore not Islam or Christianity that makes a citizen apathetic, irresponsible to his political duties and obligations; rather it is the political culture of lethargy and political de-participation.
Despite the suffering and challenges we face, we lack the culture of protest and rejection of bad governance. People are not prepared to make sacrifice on the barricades and as such resign their lives to fate.
Even if it were to lead to “identity politics”, however, it might not necessarily be bad for the state. Protests and counter-protests are all products of a healthy democracy, and thus help engage a wider public in important discourse that is often overlooked because it involves only a small minority of people. Particularly on divisive issues without clear normative positions, protests could serve as proxies on public opinion and might help the state weigh in on issues where it is uncertain how to act.
This is not to say that protest for protest sake should be encouraged, but that thoughtful, civically minded protest culture should be allowed to flourish and even cultivated. To do so, the state should promote the kinds of critical thinking in its educational framework, and allow civil society to generate the kinds of productive conversations that might lead to more diverse and inclusive policies. Protests fundamentally shift the culture of decision-making from a top-down bureaucratic one to one that is ground-up, participatory, and collective, which is not only not a bad thing, but a decisively good one. The idea of an all-knowing state that views itself as the pinnacle of knowledge is outdated, as even top government leaders say regularly in public. In an age of increased complexity and in which the population has grown to demand more of a say, protest allows all people to make their voices heard, helping to surface opinions that might change Nigeria for the better, but might otherwise never be heard or taken seriously by the state.
Even in Islamic history, there are instances of the importance of followers asking questions and making demands on their leaders. A person cannot be a functioning member of his community if he or she lacks knowledge and wisdom. Equally a follower is expected to be courageous. According to Mohammed “courage is a quality of the soul, its heart’s strength against shock and composure when experiencing fear.” (Mohammed, Y. (2006); The Path to Virtue: The Ethical Philosophy of AlRaghib Al-Işfahani: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization, p 275)
The earliest followers in Islam were credible, honest and courageous. Therefore, they established themselves as independent, critical thinkers whose knowledge and wisdom are dependable. Bashir bin Sa‘ad (r.a) was a courageous follower during ‘Omar’s (r.a) regime. He was bold enough to tell Caliph ‘Omar that they will straighten him as they do with their arrows if he fails to properly perform his duties as a leader.
Caliph Omar said, “It is the duty of the leader and followers to listen to each other and to voice out their concern.” He added, “When followers do not participate and provide input, they are not contributing something useful. And we are not useful if we do not consent to their contributions.” (Ali, A.J. (2005), Islamic Perspectives on Management and Organization. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar. P 135)
Barka Juma’at and a happy weekend