Jehovah’s Witnesses, the publishers of this magazine, are politically neutral. (John 17:16; 18:36) Thus, while the following article reports on specific examples of civil unrest, it does not endorse one nation over another or take sides on any political issue.
ON December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi reached his limit. He was a 26-year-old street vendor in Tunisia who was frustrated with being unable to find a better job. He was also aware of corrupt officials’ demands for bribes. On that particular morning, inspectors confiscated Mohamed’s supply of pears, bananas, and apples. When they took his scales, he resisted; and some witnesses say that a female police officer slapped him.
Humiliated and enraged, Mohamed went to the nearby government office to complain but could not get a hearing. In front of the building, he reportedly shouted, “How do you expect me to make a living?” After dousing himself with a flammable liquid, he struck a match. He died of his burns less than three weeks later.
Mohamed Bouazizi’s desperate act resonated with people in Tunisia and beyond. Many consider his actions the trigger for an uprising that toppled the country’s regime and protests that soon spread to other Arab countries. The European Parliament awarded Bouazizi and four others the 2011 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, and The Times of London named him its 2011 person of the year.
As that example shows, protest can be a powerful force. But what is behind the recent wave of protests? And are there any alternatives?
Why the Surge in Protests?
Many protests are ignited by the following:
Dissatisfaction with social systems. When people believe that the local government and economy serve their needs, there is little desire to protest—people work within the existing order to address their problems. On the other hand, when people feel that these systems are corrupt and unjust and rigged in favor of a select few, conditions are ripe for social unrest.
A trigger. Often, an event moves people to action, to change from resignation to a belief that they must do something. Mohamed Bouazizi’s case, for example, set off mass protests in Tunisia. In India, a hunger strike against corruption by activist Anna Hazare set off protests by his supporters in 450 cities and towns.
As the Bible long ago acknowledged, we live in “a world where some people have power and others have to suffer under them.” (Ecclesiastes 8:9, Good News Translation) Corruption and injustice are even more widespread today than they were back then. Indeed, people are more aware than ever before of how political and economic systems have failed them. Smartphones, the Internet, and 24-hour news broadcasts now allow events even in isolated places to trigger a response over a large area.
What have protests accomplished?
Proponents of social unrest would claim that protests have accomplished the following:
Provided relief for the poor. In response to so-called rent riots in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A., that occurred during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, city officials suspended evictions and arranged for some of the rioters to get work. Similar protests in New York City restored 77,000 evicted families to their homes.
Addressed injustices. Ultimately, the 1955/1956 boycott of city buses in Montgomery, Alabama, U.S.A., led to the overturning of laws for segregated seating in buses.
Stopped construction projects. In December 2011, tens of thousands of people protested the construction of a coal-fired power plant near Hong Kong because of concerns about pollution, so the project was canceled.
Of course, protesters do not always get what they want. For example, leaders may crack down rather than give in to demands. Recently, the president of one Middle Eastern country stated regarding the protest movement there: “It must be hit with an iron fist,” and thousands have died in that uprising.
Even when protesters accomplish their aims, the aftermath invariably brings new problems. A man who helped depose the ruler of an African country told Time magazine about the new regime: “It was utopia that immediately descended into chaos.”
Is there a better way?
Many well-known people have felt that protesting oppressive systems is a moral imperative. For instance, the late Václav Havel, a former Czech president who spent years in prison for his human rights activities, wrote in 1985: “[The dissident] can offer, if anything, only his own skin—and he offers it solely because he has no other way of affirming the truth he stands for.”
Havel’s words foreshadowed the desperate acts of Mohamed Bouazizi and others. In one Asian country, dozens have set themselves on fire recently to protest religious and political repression. Describing the feelings behind such extreme actions, one man told Newsweek magazine: “We don’t have guns. We don’t want to harm other human beings. What else can people do?”
The Bible offers a solution to injustice, corruption, and oppression. It describes a government that God has set up in heaven that will replace the failed political and economic systems that lead to protest. A prophecy about the Ruler of this government says: “He will deliver the poor one crying for help, also the afflicted one and whoever has no helper. From oppression and from violence he will redeem their soul.”—Psalm 72:12, 14.
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that God’s Kingdom is mankind’s only true hope for a peaceful world. (Matthew 6:9, 10) Thus, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not engage in protests. But is the idea that a government by God could eliminate the reasons for protest unrealistic? It might seem to be. Yet, many have developed confidence in God’s rulership. Why not look into it for yourself?