Those who took part (and continue to take part) in the civil rights movement in the USA, especially the seminal Birmingham events of 1963, should appreciate how deeply their sentiments, actions and ethics resonate around the world until this day. Birmingham activism was not just a pivotal historical moment in one location; it marked the birth of a style of non-violent resistance that was born and successfully applied there, but that endures in the hearts of subjugated people across the world. What Birmingham gave to the world turns out to be universal and timeless, transcending religions and cultures. Those school children who marched two-by-two and then stood out in the cold prison yards in the rain, and sang freedom songs, and came back to do it again a few days later....those children who are adults today continue to provide examples for people around the world who also yearn to be free and whole.
I will speak more at the symposium next week in Birmingham about some core parallels I see between the civil rights struggle and the various struggles for rights, dignity and full citizenship by various Arab populations in recent years, in places like Palestine, Lebanon, Sudan, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and others, some going back to the 1930s and 1950s. We will explore together the mutual lessons of how citizens achieve their rights, and, equally importantly, how those rights are preserved forever under the rule of law, and not eroded over time.
The Arab uprisings today in half a dozen countries are the most recent example of citizens subjugated by their own authorities who respond by resisting oppression and seeking full rights. But the activism of citizens in the rich Gulf state of Kuwait is the one that strikes me as most dramatic in reflecting some of the same attitudes and activism techniques that we saw in Birmingham, including mass non-violent defiance and a willingness to "fill the jails." Kuwait is meaningful because the demonstrators are mostly wealthy, with all their basic needs fully taken care of by the Kuwaiti government—and still they dare the state to arrest them for demanding their rights. I mention the several reasons for grasping the symbolism of Kuwait in the excerpt below from my syndicated column today; the link to the full column is also below.
“A parallel important new political dynamic is the convergence among demonstrators of several opposition groups that had formerly mostly worked on their own, including Islamists, tribalists, nationalists, youth groups, human rights activists, and “bidoun” Kuwaitis who lack full nationality and rights. This kind of multi-constituency, non-violent, mass civil disobedience and open defiance of the emir and the police reminds me of the civil rights protests by schoolchildren in Birmingham, Alabama 50 years ago. There, thousands of youngsters who marched peacefully and sang protest songs in defiance of police orders also took their toothbrushes with them, knowing they would go to jail for at least a night. When the packed jails of Birmingham and adjacent towns eventually could hold no more protesters, and peaceful demonstrators demanding nothing more than their civil rights showed by their behavior that they were prepared to be jailed over and over again, the racist power elite gave up and negotiated an end to the protests by recognizing the citizens' demands.
It is not clear if mass civil disobedience will move Kuwait in a similar direction. What is clear is that we witness in Kuwait an unprecedented situation of anti-autocracy mass civil disobedience by elements of a population that is not poor, hungry or lacking in basic services. Unlike Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, these protesters do not demand the overthrow of the regime, but rather seek constitutional reforms that give citizens their basic rights to participate in decision-making and hold power accountable.
The modern Arab security state has always responded to such movements with massive police action, including imprisonment, exile or even withdrawing nationality (as has happened in several GCC states in the past few years). Tens of thousands of Kuwaitis seem to be challenging this modern Arab legacy, suggesting instead that genuine security and stability must be anchored in that one phenomenon that the Arab world has never seriously tried to create: a satisfied citizenry that shapes state policies, enjoys the protection of the rule of law, and is the source of the legitimacy of public authority."
The full column is at http://www.agenceglobal.com/index.php?show=article&Tid=3015
Indeed, the struggle goes on, across the world, often reflecting and remembering Birmingham.