The Arab Spring Between a Ballot and the Bullet

Black History Month- a lens of analysis for the Arab Spring

February is Black History Month here in the US.  Its an opportunity for Americans to give special attention to the contributions of Black Americans to our country.  You might wonder whats the purpose of it?  I will leave the answer for another post, here I want to focus on one of my favorite Black History leaders and how he would observe the world today- Malcolm X.

Malcolm is an fascinating figure for me because he embodies the transformative nature of man.  We get leaders who, as Chris Matthews presents it, should be “thinking adults” fully formed and grounded and to an extent infallible.  But leaders aren’t born that way.  They get to a point where they are recognized as leaders, but we don’t really see what the process was for them, in terms of their intellectual and psychological process, until we read about their lives in a  biography.  I feel we tend to idolize our leaders in a wholly unnatural way (and Islamically speaking shirk fashion) so that it prevents us from seeing their faults and their weaknesses and appreciating their struggle with that aspect of human nature.  Malcolm’s appeal to me, when seen from this perspective, is that removed from his Blackness and his religion, he was a person who was changing, developing and critically examining himself in a way that was publicly visible.  His most famous speech given during that time of public change, or as Marable calls it- “reinvention”- actually frames my presentation of the idea that the Arab Spring pits us between two simple choices as Malcolm laid them- The Ballot or the Bullet (which is ranked as the 7th most influential speech in the US, out of a 100).

Malcolm gave the “Ballot or the Bullet” speech to an audience at the Cory Methodist Church in Michigan on April 3, 1964, right after his public split with the Nation of Islam.  In the speech he explicitly presented that this was the direction that the Black civil rights movement needed to take- to secure voting rights for Blacks in America- or else the only choice left would be to take up arms to protect the security of the 22 million Black Americans that lived in the US in 1964.  When reading this post I would like you to bare in mind that I take some liberties in comparing the Black American experience in the US in 1964 with the experience of various Arab populations, also I am assuming that the Arab protest movements central call is political engagement which for me translates into electoral politics, i.e. the vote that counts.

A Ballot is Like a Bullet

I find it ironic that Muslims in the West are supportive of the political engagement being sought by the Arab masses, yet the issue of voting and civic engagement in politics is contentious or at best fragmented, leaning toward apathy.  But anyone who respects Malcolm would find that he was very much supportive of the idea of political involvement and specifically the fight to get the right to vote (Man, how we take things for granted today), and the Black Civil Rights movements rallying call by 1964, was to push for full rights, dignity and integration in the US by securing the unfettered right to vote.  The ballot box in their eyes represented a source for ultimate power shift, a means to inflict a crushing defeat to Jim Crow and segregation.  Voting was a powerful tool, one that would transform the lives of the average Black person in America.  Today, the ballot is seen with great skepticism and disdain, but, even today people in the world are dying to have that simple right.  Here’s a excerpt to frame the discussion:

These 22 million victims [Blacks] are waking up. Their eyes are coming open. They’re beginning to see what they used to only look at. They’re becoming politically mature. They are realizing that there are new political trends from coast to coast. As they see these new political trends, it’s possible for them to see that every time there’s an election the races are so close that they have to have a recount. They had to recount in Massachusetts to see who was going to be governor, it was so close. It was the same way in Rhode Island, in Minnesota, and in many other parts of the country. And the same with Kennedy and Nixon when they ran for president. It was so close they had to count all over again.

“No, I am not American” but rather part of the 22 million people who are “victims of Americanism.”  He frames himself as a victim- “I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”-  suggesting that something basic is lacking in what makes him a victim and what entitles “everything that came out of Europe” as American was the right to vote.  In Malcolm’s eyes being born in the US didn’t privilege Blacks with the vote, they were effectively disfranchised by Jim Crow legislation, and not having the power to repeal the legislation or to send people to speak for their interests perpetuated the second class status of Blacks in America.  In my perspective, I feel Malcolm saw that as the foundation pillar holding up the racist double standards of American society.But in Malcolm style he warned that if the right to vote was not secured for Blacks, by the United States government, there would be consequences because for Blacks the ballot represented a metaphorical bullet that is “thrown when you see a target, and if that target is not within your reach, you keep your ballot in your pocket.”  Malcolm’s metaphor portrayed his sophisticated understanding of what the right to vote could mean to the Black community.  He envisioned the transformative nature of the vote on the Black psyche and its ability to shift power to a group of people who had no power.

What does this mean? It means that when white people are evenly divided, and Black people have a bloc of votes of their own, it is left up to them to determine who’s going to sit in the White House and who’s going to be in the dog house.

To Malcolm the bullet was just another weapon in his toolbox to arm the disenfranchised, abused and segregated community.  If Malcolm were alive today he would recognize the importance of the Arab popular uprising not as a means of ousting the regimes, but rather as a means of shifting the power to those who are most oppressed by franchising them.  By holding a population responsible for their own fate, as Malcolm described it in his speech, the resulting political maturity would give control over their lives, their economy and their communities and root out the vices that plagued the Black community at the time.  Malcolm’s espousal of Black Nationalism is in essence the desire of the Arabs that is being expressed in the streets- their ability and right to exert control over their own affairs.

In fact Malcolm points out in his speech that the ballot means freedom, which he shows through his example of  the UN, where four nations- poor and dark skinned- can get together with their “voting power and keep the rich nations from making a move.   They have one nation- one vote, everyone has an equal vote…and when the brothers from Asia, and Africa and the darker parts of this earth get together, their voting power is sufficient to hold Sam in check.  Or Russia in check…So, the ballot is most important.”

The Ballot Appeasement

In Morocco we see how the recognition of the King of this desire staved off the types of mass movement protest that rocked the rest of the Arab world.  On Feb. 20, 2011, Moroccans took to the streets to demonstrate (like the spark in Tunisia and Egypt- a youtube video) against the crippling poverty (15% of the population lives off of $2 a day), soaring unemployment and substandard living.  King Mohammed VI moved quickly to placate the protesters by offering constitutional reforms and calling early elections- the ballot appeasement.  The elections brought in the  the Justice and Development Party (a Islamic leaning political party) but nothing has changed, in fact, things have gotten worse.

In the placating gesture the King gave people the ballot, yet retained the authority to veto any law he wished, without reason and also preserved the status quo of the political and business elites, namely himself.   Now on a weekly basis there have been protests in Morocco, namely by college graduates (watch the grisly video of 5 unemployed graduates who lit themselves on fire on January 19th, 2012).  Unlike Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen (as well as Syria) last years protest weren’t to destroy the system, but rather to shake it up by seeking a electoral power shift in who controls the fate of the nation and individual lives.

Malcolm rightly criticized this idea of “feeling fulfilled” in getting something that already belonged to you, he said tot he crowd:

Whenever you’re going after something that belongs to you, anyone who’s depriving you of the right to have it is a criminal. Understand that. Whenever you are going after something that is yours, you are within your legal rights to lay claim to it. And anyone who puts forth any effort to deprive you of that which is yours, is breaking the law, is a criminal. And this was pointed out by the Supreme Court decision. It outlawed segregation.

In Morocco this ballot appeasement is a failure on the King’s part because he’s given something that was already rightly owed to the people of Morocco.  The failure of the process to gain results would inevitably lead to, what Malcolm would refer to as the need to seek out alternative weapons.  Here the streets and self emulation present the escalation, however the next confrontation could be pronounced and specific — against the monarchy itself, much like that in Bahrain and Syria- however, for Morocco that step could be fatal in that the ballot option has run its course leaving the option of civil disobedience bordering blatant attack on the monarchy as an institution and authority.

Casting the Bullet

Malcolm was a controversial figure from the get go because of his hard stance on having all options on the table, but more specifically for calling the “peaceful civil disobedience” option as ineffectual.  Most people listening would rightly then assume that Malcolm only advocated for one option- violence.  But in “Ballot or Bullet” Malcolm spelled out the nuances in his argument and presented a fairly sophisticated analysis to human nature and a critical attack on democracy in America.

“You don’t have anybody putting blocks in your path but people who are a part of the government. The same government that you go abroad to fight for and die for is the government that is in a conspiracy to deprive you of your voting rights, deprive you of your economic opportunities, deprive you of decent housing, deprive you of decent education. You don’t need to go to the employer alone, it is the government itself, the government of America, that is responsible for the oppression and exploitation and degradation of black people in this country. And you should drop it in their lap. This government has failed the Negro. This so-called democracy has failed the Negro. And all these white liberals have definitely failed the Negro.”

Malcolm reasoned that if the Blacks were denied the right to cast the ballot, the existing conditions within America where an “African from Africa” is treated with indifference and “Negro child of a former slave” lives a life below a second class citizen, there was little room to negotiate.  He also astutely observed that there were elements in the Black community who were now unwilling to “turn the cheek” especially if the government was “unwilling or unable to defend the lives and the property of Negroes,African-Americans should defend themselves.””- in essence Malcolm was tapping into a large unacknowledged reservoir of Black sentiment- like the Arab street, except this was America’s Black ghetto’s.   Malcolm expresses this passionately when he was relating to his own visceral reaction to violence against himself or his family:

“But when you drop that violence on me, then you’ve made me go insane, and I’m not responsible for what I do. And that’s the way every Negro should get. Any time you know you’re within the law, within your legal rights, within your moral rights, in accord with justice, then die for what you believe in. But don’t die alone. Let your dying be reciprocal. This is what is meant by equality.”

You have to understand that during that time in American history lynching was a common day occurrence in large segments of America.  Malcolm’s own childhood experience relates the insecurity with which Blacks existed, so the idea of self defense- owning and using guns- was particularly appealing for Blacks and incredibly unnerving for Whites.  In his speech Malcolm soothed this nerve by expressing: “This doesn’t mean you’re going to get a rifle and form battalions and go out looking for white folks … that would be illegal and we don’t do anything illegal” and that “if white people didn’t want African-Americans to arm themselves, the government should do its job.” (I guess they discriminated even when applying the Second Amendment back then.)

In Malcolms world, Blacks had very few options left to them and the White politicians at the time were not recognizing this reality and Black civil rights leaders were sweeping it under the rug.  After Malcolm’s assassination America saw the arming of Black youths, the riots and the burning of the ghettos as violence and rage swept America.  For Malcolm this was the foreseeable consequence of political appeasement and denial of human rights.  The Arab world- in fact any place with popular protest movements- is on the brink of the political equation Malcolm presented- its either the ballot or the bullet, but appeasement is not a long term solution just a short term way to increase the pressure and explode in ways that are not reconcilable.

Bloody hands, Hypocrisy and an Appeal

Let the world know how bloody his hands are. Let the world know the hypocrisy that’s practiced over here. Let it be the ballot or the bullet. Let him know that it must be the ballot or the bullet.

I have blogged about Syria recently, you can go here to read it but a quick summary of the article focused more on how Muslim leaders in the US- particularly in Southern California- are using other struggles, in particular Kashmir, to frame the Syrian situation.  That in itself is nothing new or problematic, what I took issue with was more the tone and almost ritualistic or “as a second thought” nature of the comparison or worse to the compelling motivator behind bringing up Kashmir- large South Asian crowd in the audience.  To me this was disingenuous use of a struggle very few people in the American Muslim community know about or even understand.  My bottom line was that as an American Muslim you don’t need to sell me on supporting Syria by doing a marketing pitch framed within the Kashmir struggle, its our duty as Muslims to care about the larger Ummah, but lets recognize that there are certain priorities placed on certain suffering groups versus others that are outside the time and event context.

Media for the most part is blocking coverage of the most gruesome and disturbing atrocities coming out from Syria right now.  Someone denying an adult a right could be questionable in terms of whether they acted criminally, however, what about punishing to death 18 premature babies, or the torturing of children– where are all the Christian right to life activists?  We don’t need to apply the criminal label by ourselves, the Assad regime is through and through criminal just read the UN Report.  Of coarse China and Russia would veto any UN resolution, what do you expect when the principal values those two nations function on are self-interest and monetary value?  Just because you get 3 good votes (hypothetically speaking) on issues doesn’t mean you should be rooting for them, its called hypocrisy and as Muslims we shouldn’t be relative in our analysis of situations.  The US and Western allies are not less hypocritical, but at least we call it like it is.  La, la, its Realpolitik comrades.

The end result though is exactly how Malcolm envisioned the Black struggle for civil rights in the US- if the government fails to do its job, lacks the insight to understand that there are shifts in power and that there is an opportunity to negotiate that ends at critical juncture, once that juncture is reached, there is no longer a choice, just the cold hard reality of the situation that bitter steal will resolve the conflict.  Its a call to arms, because the world has failed to address the inequity in power that is concentrating death, murder- dare I say genocide?- torture, rape and countless war crimes against an unarmed, peaceful population demanding nothing out of the ordinary, but rather simply and beautifully, the rights that already are theres.  There is a point of no return for Syria and with all the actors having failed it, we should no longer expect the outcome to be in our favor- such transparent hypocrisy is like us parading around the UN without our new fancy robe on, the world can see how useless we have been and how caught up we are in our own machinations to realize the golden opportunity that these movements bring to the our future.

So the people of Syria have every right to defend their children, their loved ones, their neighbors and their neighborhoods, their cities and their fate.  Screw those who think that their is any further negation or reconciliation that is required, people have the right to bare suffering and oppression and then that line is crossed their is no room for turning the cheek, and anyone who says that should first be placed in the shoes of an oppressed person- have their rights stripped, have their family tortured, have their children killed, their house destroyed, be imprisoned, be bombarded for days on end, forced to live in a basement with no food or electricity or water, shot at while they bury their loved ones- maybe at that point they should be asked if they still believe they can negotiate and reconcile with the people who put them through all of that. Will there be room for hope?

The actors on the world stage aside, there is something really important you can do that doesn’t require to much on your end.  Its prayer- the most humbling of things is to put your complete trust into God over a situation you already have no control over, to implore that God give people you might not even have any relationship or kinship to the grace to weather the storm of tyranny, dignity to face oppression head on, strength to stay the course and victory against all odds in a situation that to us and them, appears hopeless.  Pray for Syria, pray for humanity- join with others for the Global Day of Prayer on February 20, 2012- but remember until the tyrant and oppressor is swept aside, the people of Syria still need our prayers, at the BARE MINIMUM.

If you read all this, here’s a treat for you, enjoy Everlast- Stone In My Hand- the ultimate revolution anthem in my mind.

4 thoughts on “The Arab Spring Between a Ballot and the Bullet

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