Thoreau’s Advice to Syria

A little less than a year ago, the Arab world experienced a social and political revolution known as the Arab Spring.  Tired of the oppressive regimes they lived under, Arab people felt there was need for change.  After watching the Tunisians overthrow their unjust and corrupt leader, people in other nations realized that they had the potential to change their governments too.  Using social media, they were able to spread the movement, join together, organize protests, and effect political change.  The movements were largely nonviolent, although there were some exceptions.

In some countries, the protesters were successful in ousting their rulers.  In Egypt, massive protests caused President Mubarak to resign.  In Libya, Gaddafi was overthrown and then killed.  In other nations, the protests varied in magnitude and effectiveness.  Some movements have by now died out, some have prompted change in their governments, and for others it is still unclear what the end result will be.

One such nation is Syria.  In January 2011, Syrians began to protest for civil rights, and demanded that President Assad resign from office.  The government retaliated by using military force – tanks rolled through streets and snipers threatened to shoot anyone who continued to protest.  The government even cut off supplies of food, water and power in some areas.  Despite the government’s attempts to quell the rebellion, there is still a great deal of tension and unrest in Syria.  President Assad has agreed to create a new constitution, but at present it is unclear what that constitution will be like.

Square of Homs - Syrians gathered in protest to pray for the resignation of President Assad.

The situation in Syria is similar in many ways to the pre-Civil War atmosphere in the United States.  In both situations, there was much tension between the people and the government.  Both also dealt with great injustice – in Syria, citizens are mistreated and denied rights, and in the US, the institution of slavery robbed people of their freedom.  I think most people would agree that depriving a person of basic rights and freedoms  is morally wrong.

Here’s where Thoreau comes into play – in “The Higher Law,” Thoreau writes about a person’s obligation to honor their moral code and abstain from actions that are immoral.  In situations where the law itself is immoral, a person must break the law and refuse to commit an immoral act.  In the case of slavery, he believed that people at least should refuse to own slaves because doing so is immoral.  I believe that by this line of reasoning, Thoreau would support and encourage the protesters in Syria.  He would say that the Syrians are morally obligated to refuse to obey laws that restrict their basic rights.

If the Syrians are right to protest, what is the best way for them to go about doing so?  To date, most of the demonstrations have been peaceful, and most of the violence was committed by the government against the people.  Would Thoreau encourage Syrians to continue with their peaceful protests, or choose a different course of action?  Interestingly, Thoreau is a huge supporter of John Brown, who led a raid of a government armory.  Does this mean he believes protesters have the right or obligation to become violent in certain situations?  Personally, it seems to me that Thoreau praised Brown because he was willing to take action, rather than just talking about injustice and doing nothing to change it.  I think Thoreau believes violence can be condoned when used for the right causes, but protesters are not obligated to be violent.  What do you think?

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