Friday, 17 May 2013

Civil Disobedience and The Rule of Law: Should a Loyal Citizen Oppose His Country's Laws?

New Malaysian home minister tells unhappy Malaysians to emigrate. Malaysia's newly-appointed Home Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has reportedly said that Malaysians who are unhappy with the country's political system should leave the country, stressing that loyal citizens should respect the rule of law.


Civil Disobedience and The Rule of Law: Should a Loyal Citizen Oppose His Country's Laws?

Let's consider these claims: 1) Unhappy citizens are not loyal; 2) loyal citizens should not oppose the laws of a country; 3) to oppose a country's laws is the same as to disrespect the rule of law


We can compare two different responses.

First, Socrates, as a loyal citizen and respecter of law, accepted his death punishment when he was found guilty of both corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens and of impiety ("not believing in the gods of the state"), and subsequently sentenced to death by drinking a mixture containing poison hemlock. Having knowingly agreed to live under the city's laws, he implicitly subjected himself to the possibility of being accused of crimes by its citizens and judged guilty by its jury. To do otherwise would have caused him to break his "social contract" with the state, and so harm the state, an unprincipled act.

Secondly, Gandhi was a loyal citizen, a trained lawyer of Britain and an Indian when he opposed India's colonial master's unjust treatment of Indians. If he had left India, he would have betrayed his country and oath to uphold justice. Employing non-violent civil disobedience, Gandhi led India to independence and inspired movements for non-violence, civil rights and freedom across the world.

He led nationwide campaigns for reducing poverty, women equality, religious and ethnic harmony, abolition of caste, economic independence, and above all the struggle for independence of India from English colonialism.

Gandhi led Indians in protesting the national salt tax with the 400 km Salt March in 1930, and later in demanding the British to immediately quit India in 1942, during World War II. He was imprisoned for that and for numerous other political offenses over the years.

Gandhi practiced Non-Violence and Truth in all situations, and advocated that others do the same. Martin Luther King Jr followed Gandhi's example in America's civil rights movement, which paved the way for the possibility of a black president today.

In these two exemplary lives, we can see that being unhappy is not being disloyal to one's country. In fact, a loyal citizen should be passionately upset with any injustice and impropriety in his home country.
Being privately upset is insufficient when there is a possibility of injury to life and property and when there's concern for one's society. Socrates, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, all of them did not just talk about justice and Truth, they lived out justice and Truth in public spaces., gathering large social momentum for change upsetting the entrenched status-quo. If there's no lively opposition to challenge the current situation, how can change be initiated when the populace is lethargic?

The most disturbing of the above claims is "to oppose a country's laws is the same as to disrespect the rule of law". We may begin by defining "respect" and "the rule of law". In this context, respect can mean to obey. Do we obey our conscience or a country's laws, if they are in conflict? If our conscience reflects a moral belief, then morality precedes the laws because it has
a higher calling. In short, we should do what we believe is the right thing to do and not just do as we are told. Think of the dilemma faced by German citizens when Hitler's secret police demanded to know if they were hiding a Jew in their house. The houseowner is morally "right" (reasonable) to tell Hitler's police a lie. We may call this "Civil Disobedience".

Ronald Dworkin, Prof. of Law at New York University, held that there are three types of civil disobedience:

"Integrity-based" civil disobedience occurs when a citizen disobeys a law she or he feels is immoral, as in the case of northerners disobeying the fugitive slave laws by refusing to turn over escaped slaves to
authorities.
"Justice-based" civil disobedience occurs when a citizen disobeys laws in order to lay claim to some right denied to her or him, as when blacks illegally protested during the Civil Rights Movement.
"Policy-based" civil disobedience occurs when a person breaks the law in order to change a policy (s)he believes is dangerously wrong.

Under these circumstances, a citizen shows respect for a higher Law-the Law that is above man-made laws. A Higher Law should judge Man-laws that are arbitrary,therefore, situational and changeable, subjected to interpretations and political interests.

In conclusion, with due respect, the above Minister's claims are not obviously true or clear-cut. The conclusions do not follow necessarily.


For more information, refer to these links:

http://www.asiaone.com/News/AsiaOne%20News/Malaysia/Story/A1Story20130516-423146.html
www.asiaone.com

Martin Luther King Jr Letter from jail defending non-violent demonstrations

Thoreau essay, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, has influenced Gandhi and Luther King Jr