How to Bring Positive Social Change

Fighting for social justice is a huge part of Islam but unfortunately is ignored by the Muslim masses. The term has been given various definitions but generally refers to justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, privileges within a society, challenging injustice, and valuing diversity. We are told in the Qur’an:

Oh you who believe! Be standard bearers for Justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, Or your kin, whether it be rich or poor” [Qur’an 4:135].

In another verse of the Qur’an, we are told:

We have already sent Our messengers with clear evidences and sent down with them the Scripture and the balance that the people may maintain [their affairs] in justice.” [Qur’an 57:25]

And it is reported by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) that:

Whoever among you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; if he cannot, then with his tongue; if he cannot, then with his heart – and that is the weakest of Faith.” [Reported by An-Nasa’i]

Social change is a huge part of establishing social justice in society. This type of change refers to any significant alteration over time in behavior patterns and cultural values and norms. I’ve been thinking about how we can be part of effective positive social change in the world. By effective I mean that doing things which actually lead to some positive change rather than just make noise or give us a good PR. During my search for answers, I came across a very intriguing comment made by a user on TED Conversations in August of 2011 which I believe answers the question perfectly:

Too many people think of power flowing downwards. The king/president/prime minister being at the top of the pyramid, and making the calls he wants, the rest of us having no choice but to obey, or we could be severely repressed. We can ask for social change, and hope the elite will give it to us, but if they don’t there’s nothing we can do short of taking up arms, right?

Wrong. Power flows upwards. A tyrant’s ability to rule is directly dependent of everyone else’s willingness to cooperate. This is what was discovered by Eugene de La Béotie, David Henry Thoreau, Ghandi, Martin Luther King and several others.

Protests don’t work because they have no coercitive value. Tyrants don’t change their policies just because you ask nicely. They have to be made to change. They have to be made to understand, they will lose more from keeping their policies than changing them.

Protests are still useful as a means to get the message across and gaining public support. You need that to win. By all means, use all institutional devices at your disposition : protests, petitions, marches, letters to the media, letters to your local officials, etc. Try these in good faith. If the government gives you what you want, you win. If he doesn’t, it becomes more obvious to the casual observer that they are ignoring the will of the people.

What changes governmental policies are massive amount of people refusing to cooperate with the system. Boycotts, strikes, blockades… A protest can work if everyone there is resolute about refusing to leave until their demands are met. Numbers have to be big. Arrestations and police brutality is to be expected, but this will just help your cause in the end (“Wait, the government would rather arrest hundreds of citizens who are peacefully protesting, rather than ordering a public investigation on matters of corruption?”)

In the end, if your strategy is sound and you persevere, you stand a pretty good chance bringing about social change in your community.

If we thoroughly think about the above, it makes a lot of sense. The only reason we are having discussions on race problems in the police force at a national level is because of Black Lives Matter protests. These protests are seen by critics as violent, thuggish, uncivilized, etc. because they impacted the public opinion and forced a national discussion on the issue. They were done across the nation in mass amounts with civil disobedience. This is what drives change and public opinion. They were basically saying, “You think you can ignore us? We’ll make you see that we exist and that there is a problem that needs to be fixed!” Today, even though police shootings continue to exist, the authorities are forced to mention issue of race and more of the public is suspicious of the police’s excuses for why they feel they are not at fault. The same can be said about the North Dakota pipeline issue. The protesters have refused to move even though numerous protesters have been arrested and even violently assaulted by police and this has forced a delay in the pipeline project. Their civil disobedience and refusal to comply with the status quo is leading to change and what started as a few hundred people has turned into a nationwide support and discussion over the rights of the indigenous people and climate change.

social-change-2There is also a very interesting research paper written on paths to social change where the author examines three paths to social change (conventional politics, violence and nonviolence) that have occurred in history and concludes that non-violent actions (rallies, vigils, ostracism, strikes, work-to-rule, boycotts, sit-ins, fasts and setting up alternative political structures, etc.) have historically the best and most effective track record. This is exactly why popular social media activist Shaun King has recently called for economic boycott to end police brutality and injustice. He argues, “The protests build awareness, be they on the football field, the basketball court, the soccer pitch, or in the streets — but they don’t build the political and economic pressure required to force the hand of politicians to bring about the change. We need to force their hand.”

Meeting together once in a while in front of the White House and holding up signs is not going to change anything. Let us be different. One example could be regarding the North Dakota pipeline issue is that we can work with organizations that fully support the protest and wish it success. If we are able, we should join the protest for a few days to sit with them and share the same air and face the same trials as them. If we cannot, then we should reach out to the organizers of such protests and ask how we can help without being on the ground. And we should definitely finance it with whatever items we can give to keep it going. Similarly, for criminal justice reform, we should do campaigns against prosecutors who have been responsible for sending most people of color behind bars for nonviolent crimes. They often run unopposed. We should build alliances around these and other such effective nonviolent means that eventually do lead to some change.

social-change-3Finally, there is some criticism over such methods because people do not see immediate change. I think being patient and realizing that true social change takes a long time is key. We may not see the change in our lifetime but we must lay the seeds and nourish it with optimism that it will eventually lead to the desired result. As Alberto Ibargüen, President and CEO of a non-profit organization, puts it, “Social change takes time…We tend to work as organizations that have calendar years or fiscal years, and social change doesn’t work on those schedules.”

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