Teaching Martin Luther King in Beirut
Whether online or in-person, the classroom is never separate from the social anxieties that come to us through screens and texts. For generations, Lebanese people have dreamed of dignified life in a truly democratic state. But instead of dismissing this dream in our current situation, I continuously attempt to bring about critical discussions of national and political issues through texts. Works such as Gender Trouble by Judith Butler, Orientalism by Edward Said, and Gary Slutkin’s essay “Violence is a Contagious Disease,” for example, engage students’ curiosity and inspire them to challenge often-accepted narratives.
Although Lebanese students are very familiar with corruption and political impunity, detaining those exercising their freedom of speech, and meeting protests with violence, they were consequently reluctant to embrace solutions that promoted non-violence to overcome oppression. By using a selection from the book The Stride toward Freedom, I invited my freshman English students to discuss Martin Luther King’s non-violent approach. I hoped King’s rhetoric, style, and reasoning could connect the American civil rights movement with the current resistance against corruption in Lebanon today, despite historical and political differences.
After providing my students with a brief background on the Civil Rights Movement, I asked them to critically analyze and respond to “Three Ways of Meeting Oppression.” I first asked what they thought of the words “oppression”, “violence” and “power.” While participation is often a struggle in online classes, the topic instigated a heated discussion that delighted me. They spoke about how oppression denies people their rights and voice, most likely through violence; how violence can create and reinforce power, politically, socially, and in the domestic sphere. They also feared, like King did, that people were “so worn down by the yoke of oppression” that they have surrendered to their deteriorating reality.
One point most students could not comprehend was King’s idea of responding to violent oppressors with “non-violence” and “love.” One student, Fouad, noted that “No human with dignity will forgive the oppressors who made these people suffer. That is why it is impossible to love people who kill and hurt…your family.” Hassan adds that “Sometimes violence is required to stop oppression where there is no solution.” Mentioning the Syrian Conflict, another student, Qamar explained how “Oppression devours people on the inside to the point where they reach their threshold and erupt by destroying everything.”
Many of my students, like the majority of the Lebanese population, have lost hope in any non-violent solution to overcoming the oppression that assails Lebanon; that justice and accountability for crimes such as the devastating Beirut explosion are far-fetched concepts. These students’ lack of belief in the functionality of non-violence is disheartening yet understandable when generations of Lebanese have tried to instigate change in a regime mired in quicksand, easily burying any who dared to step forward.
One student, Sirine, however, had hope, and advocated for civil resistance by referring to the research of Stephan and Chenoweth. This research analyzed data of non-violent campaigns from 1900 to 2006, and findings showed “that major nonviolent campaigns have achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns”. All that is needed is 3.5% of the total population, and when the campaign is non-violent, more diverse people are likely to turn up, especially those reluctant viewers in front of their television sets. This reaffirms King’s belief that “public support is magnetically attracted to the advocates of non-violence.”
The power and resoluteness of non-violence becomes more resilient when there is true belief in this strength. Although one student criticized the idea that “might makes right,” what worries me most is how many of my students believe that violence is the only solution. If we are ever to become a “community at peace with itself,” we need to “try to persuade with our words, but if our words fail, we will try to persuade with our acts.”
How far will the Lebanese go to finally become “witnesses to the truth,” witnesses who have been buried under the recent glass and rubble from the Beirut explosion and under the reconstructed gentrified buildings bullet-ridden from the Lebanese Civil War? With Martin Luther King’s literature, I attempt to prove that there are alternatives to violence that have shown to be more successful in overcoming oppression. We tend to believe that our suffocating situation and constant struggle for justice and democracy are unique. More insight into the literature on civil resistance would challenge preconceived notions of resistance and encourage students to see themselves as part of a global movement against oppression, learning from the experiences of others and, more importantly, distancing themselves from the concept of violence as a stepping stone to a more democratic state.