I have just spent a few days in Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama, in order to better understand the parallels between the epic movement for civil rights in the United States that peaked half a century ago and the two great revolts that define the Arab world today -- the Palestinian people’s resistance to Israeli racism and colonialism, and Arab citizen uprisings against their oppressive governments. I sensed that the two Arab movements for rights, dignity and freedom that now focus heavily on non-violent civil disobedience connect deeply with the struggle for the same rights, dignity and freedom that Black Americans waged for many decades.
What I have discovered in my visits to historical sites, museums and memorials, and discussions with civil rights activists who as children participated in the street marches against segregation and racism in Birmingham in the early 1960s, are profound parallels between the political dynamics then in Alabama and now in the Arab world. The most moving and relevant visits I made were to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the adjacent 16th Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park -- where children marched peacefully in the face of police dogs and water cannons -- and in Montgomery to the Rosa Parks Library and Museum and the newly opened Freedom Riders Museum. That museum commemorates the spring 1961 movement of white and black students who rode public buses into southern cities to challenge the segregation laws that barred blacks from riding on buses with whites.
By coincidence -- or more likely, historical inevitability -- I was at the Freedom Riders Museum at the same time as when Palestinian activists launched their own “Freedom Riders” movement in early November to challenge the racist segregation of Israeli buses in the occupied Palestinian areas in and around Arab East Jerusalem. Palestinians who boarded Israeli commuter buses linking Jewish settlements in the West Bank to Jerusalem were arrested at Israeli checkpoints as they tried to enter Jerusalem.
“We are using civil disobedience to disrupt the status quo,” one activist told an interviewer before boarding an Israeli bus that only served Jewish settlements north of Jerusalem. The T-shirt he wore said: “We shall overcome.”
The millions of Arab men and women who struggle peacefully against their own oppressive regimes are motivated by the same spirit of determination to change their unjust political systems and allow all citizens to live normal lives, with freedom and equality. When I immersed myself in the American civil rights experience and spoke with black and white Americans who devote their lives to commemorating that moment of successful resistance, I saw the following seven striking parallels between the struggle for freedom in America then and the same struggle in the Arab world today.
1. Children and young people play a critical role in both cases, leading street protests in many instances that escalate into regime-changing events.
2. The deliberate determination by protesters to use non-violent civil disobedience is a critical element of success in both worlds, but needs time and quality leadership to succeed.
3. Religious institutions and leaders – the churches in Alabama, the mosques in Arab countries – play a pivotal role in organizing and sustaining non-violent resistance, making it impossible for the oppressive Arab, Israeli or American political elites to totally eradicate the populist civil disobedience they face.
4. The violent over-reaction of police and security agencies in all three situations only stimulates a greater determination by ordinary people to resist oppression and continue struggling for their rights.
5. The instruments of police violence against peaceful demonstrators are strikingly similar, especially the use of heavily armed vehicles like armored jeeps and personnel carriers. In Birmingham the young demonstrators spoke of police “tanks” being used to disperse them, and the same language is used by Palestinians about Israeli tactics, and by Arabs against their own regime.
6. Mass arrests and jailing thousands of people are common to all three instances of resistance, but always without achieving their objective of stopping the resistance. In Birmingham, as in Deraa or Jenin, for every person arrested and jailed, two other people are radicalized and take to the streets to continue the struggle.
7. In all such situations, the ruling authorities try to discredit the demonstrators by charging that they are manipulated by foreign agitators or conspirators. Every Arab government, Israel and the racist American officials in Alabama, or even in Washington at the FBI, have claimed that they must put down a foreign plot that threatens the peace.
These are only the most glaring parallels among these three instances of mass movements for human rights and freedom. We should not be surprised by any of this. The human will for liberty and dignity is universal -- and indomitable -- as the practitioners of American racism, Zionist colonialism and Arab authoritarianism continue to learn every day. This occurs appropriately at a moment when we experience the Christmas spirit these days, which is all about love and hope, but also sacrifice leading to fulfillment. Indeed, we shall overcome.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut,
Middle East Online