Comment | Activism: Powerful, Relevant, Necessary

As ‘A Call Against Arms,’ the final film in the 'Activate' series airs this week, Al Jazeera's Asim Haneef explains why activism has never been more relevant than it is today.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Wednesday, November 9, 2011 7:48 - 0 Comments

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(Photo: thehindu.com)

Global injustice is everywhere in the 21st century, but what’s historically unique to this generation is that we’ve never been more aware of it. Whether it’s through the TV and Newspapers or streamed via Facebook and Twitter we’re relentlessly bombarded with images thrust at us day and night about everything going wrong everywhere – not surprising then that so many of us feel a deep paralysis about the possibility of changing things in the short-term and finding solutions to the myriad underlying problems present in our world today.

In fact, some people actually feel so paralysed about it all that they would rather sink their heads deep into the sand and simply wait than acknowledge the nature, roots and consequences of the various injustices that are seemingly destroying this world on a daily basis – from famine to war, corruption to economic meltdown. The question often at the front of our minds seems to be: What can I do? The problems often seem so vast, intractable and complex – we wonder what an individual can really, practically do?

For people struggling to pay their bills and get by, the enormous list of calamities from foreign conflicts to social inequality at home and abroad, seemingly timeless and unchangeable, represents the inflexible established order, a status-quo with structures and systems, economic, social and cultural, so stubborn and entrenched they remain the same despite the overwhelming number of independent voices calling out loudly for change.

Not only do we feel paralysed – we’re doubtful about the point and effectiveness of activism. Many of us remember returning home from protests against the invasion of Iraq on February 15th 2003, listed in the Guinness book of world records as the largest anti-war rally in history, with an estimated 2-million people marching on the streets of London, 1.5 million in Madrid and relatively large protests and campaigns in sixty other countries. Surely such a display of people power would be listened to by the powers that be? We’d obviously avert a war through this tremendous, unprecedented act of global activism, right?

The answer to that question still haunts people today and makes them feel apathetic and hopeless, 8 years on, about ever getting politically active again. They question how effective activism is, whether it really changes anything, and ask why they should believe in it as a force for realising change in today’s ‘tough’ world. Perhaps we need to change our perspective for a second and look back through history to understand a few examples of where activism has practically succeeded. Examples make all the difference.

I remember hearing about activism and protests as a child, with the images and iconography of the famous mass movements of the 60s and 70s etched in my mind from books and news reports years later. Perhaps it was a simplistic way of compartmentalising these vast social causes, but I often seem to remember little more about these movements than the powerful faces of their leaders, symbolic icons, radiant speeches and crucial tipping points, from Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, to Mahatma Gandhi gaining Indian Independence, to Nelson Mandela and Apartheid in South Africa – none of these men would have won the rights demanded and changed the course of history positively without having been tireless campaigners and activists first, often failing in some of their initial campaigns.

Historically, we can peg significant cultural breakthroughs to the acts of large, or sometimes small group of individuals that were activists, knocking on doors, writing letters, organizing campaigns, mobilising people, rallying, demonstrating, protesting, documenting and being passionate and focused enough to have the courage of their convictions and believe they could shift the debate in their favour if they garnered enough support and backed this up by exemplifying their words through their actions. The roots of this mass mobilisation and challenging authority are historical, and serve as an example to everyone.

Even further back, the practical social change-makers who transformed societies can often be remembered as little more than symbols and snapshots – but are worth remembering as case studies too, from Emily Davison and the suffragettes seeking the vote for women in Great Britain, to the pioneers of the anti-nuclear environmental cause and the British abolitionist movement before that.

All these great social movements began with a set of ideas validated, internalised, and then shared and amplified through media, grassroots organisations, and thousands, even millions, of conversations that spread out in multiple ever-widening circles which led to what they were seeking – justice for their cause and a fundamental change in the established system.

2011 has already been an unprecedented and explosive year for people power – besides the paradigm-shifting events of the Arab Spring and the long-awaited global ‘Occupy’ movements spreading across the western world against the 1%, there have also been street protests and campaigns in opposition to austerity cuts and student fees across Europe in Greece, Italy and the UK in particular.

These have included mass anti-corruption rallies and hunger strikes by those like Anna Hazare in India, sizeable opposition to the union clampdowns in the USA, a political 180 degree spin from the Westminster political elite on dealing with press corruption within the Murdoch press, activists against corporate tax avoidance and the emergence of a whole new kind of digital activism laser-targeted against companies, countries and individuals prevalent in stateless groups like Wikileaks and Anonymous.

However, just as the conventional media largely covers these big movements from a bird’s eye view, placing a firm geo-political spotlight on all of them, there have been other activists making waves this year too – probably just not the ones you’ve heard much about.

In the past 12-months, would you believe that there’s been countless grassroot activist movements fizzling under from Pakistan to Sudan, China to South Korea headed by strong-minded individuals and groups seeking change in their respective countries and communities?

From students demanding an end to labor rights abuses in Chinese factories producing tech gadgets for western consumers, to social activists demanding an end to the religious and political fanaticism spreading through Pakistani civil society, from a small island community in South Korea resisting the construction of a military naval base to a pro-democracy youth movement in Sudan demanding their basic human rights and an end to the violent rule of their President.

I know all this because I’ve been tracking them along with my colleagues for a brand-new series on Al-Jazeera English called ‘Activate’ (@AJActivate) which is a window on these new grass-roots, non-violent activist movements across the planet challenging conventional, age-old norms, traditions, dictators, injustice, oppression, intolerance and more, whilst showcasing the often interconnected ways in which these newly-formed activist groups around the globe are working with each other using technology and innovative social media tools to challenge the old ways and bring about change in a way activists from the 1960s and 1970s never could dream of.

These activists, with their specific practical goals and strategies are still hopeful about the effectiveness of activism, and know that whilst they’ll undoubtedly be events and activities that will not be successful, they’d rather try to do something than nothing at all. The aim for this series was to look at activism through a different lens – one that the mainstream media hasn’t focused on much recently.

For instance: How much do we really know about the individual activists behind the headlines today? When did they decide to become activists? What inspired them? How do they deal with the challenges thrown at them every day? How do they break the news to their parents of what they wish to pursue? How does their activism affect their relationships? Why do they even want to change the world and what makes them bold, courageous and fearless enough to take that step from passive spectator watching injustice from afar to a totally involved instigator at the heart of a movement for global change?

We want to know what the human face of activism looks like, and we’re hopeful we’ve managed to shine some light on for those interested – from the activists we’ve met in Argentina, South Korea, Pakistan, Sudan, China, Venezuela, USA, Azerbaijan and India.

If 2011 really is the year of activism, and we’ve become used to seeing the official face of an activist movement through a bright flag, a slogan, the fist-pumping and cheering crowds – why is it that we rarely see the activists as human beings, struggling with their own personal problems, trying to follow their ideals practically, dealing with mundane office administration, logistical complexities, parental interference, strained relationships, the pressure to succeed, dealing with anxiety, confusion, fear of failure? All of which are things that make them extraordinary human beings, and eventually successful activists. ‘Activate’ is the story of some of those remarkable individuals, told through their own eyes – don’t miss the chance to discover it and debate for yourself whether you think activism still matters today or not.

Watch ‘Activate’ a new series on Al Jazeera English following activists as they fight for social change and justice – @AJActivate #AJActivate

You can also read “Why activism (still) matters”, by Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi, who also featured in the series.

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Asim Haneef

Asim Haneef worked extensively on Al-Jazeera’s ‘Activate’, a brand-new eight part series exploring grass-roots activists across the globe as they challenge authority, take direct action and fight for change in their countries. You can follow him on @Asimhaneef.

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