Rosa Parks and the Myth of Individualism: Lessons for Muslim Activists

By Altaf Ali Bhimji

“She proved that individuals can make a difference” — was the final line on a news report about Rosa Parks.
No doubt Parks’ specific action on the Montgomery bus was an important one, but it is misleading to characterize this act as a purely individual act of defiance that somehow magically ignited the civil rights movement. Such a focus by the corporate media brushes away community social activism, and instead, perpetuates the “rugged individualism” myth that has each person in competition against another. And if you are not able to “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” then something must be wrong with “you.”

This kind of media myth making is in line with such corporate activities as the millions of $$$ spent on anti-union activities: “you don’t need a union, because you are better than them.” However, this story line contributes little towards learning from history, about the true value of individuals such as Parks, and using that understanding in our present day struggles.

Herbert Kohl, in his book, She Would Not Be Moved provides some important insights regarding Parks:

The popular view of Rosa Parks is that she was just a “poor seamstress” who, one day, decided not move to the back of the bus. While it is true that Parks worked as seamstress, this selective view totally obliterates her community activism against segregation. In fact, before this incident, Parks was one of the first women to join the NAACP - and was highly respected in the African American community for her leadership, and sense of morality.

Related to this is the notion that Parks’ act was something spontaneous, she just happened to be “tired” and so refused to move - as if this was a “first” and that changed everything. Parks herself states that this was not her “first” act of civil disobedience, and that many times before she had not paid the fare to the bus driver, and she just got evicted. The difference was that this time the bus driver called the police, and she ended up getting a lot of publicity. Parks did not just act because she was “tired” - she did so with clarity of understanding and resolve gained through her community involvement and activism.

A third myth is that because of this specific incident, the African American community of Montgomery, spontaneously began to boycott the buses. Such a view, again, ignores the actual planning that went into the action that was in place BEFORE Rosa Parks got the publicity. The Montgomery community was prepared and in the process of deliberation about when the right time would be to launch the boycott. As Kohl suggests, there is a story about “collective and coordinated action” that is far more relevant than the line about “tired frustrated individuals” that the corporate media is pushing.

Muslims seeking social change in their own communities might also take some lessons from Rosa Parks and the boycott.

First and foremost - just as Parks was respected by her community, Muslims activists must also be part of their communities. And activism does not mean engaging in cyber-battles on your favorite e-mail list or blog. Rather, it means working with, and going through all of the struggles with your community. I know and understand, and have experienced that this is easier said than done - and there are legitimate concerns that can be raised. I’ll attempt to work through some of those in a later article.

Muslim activists who would like to see improved conditions must first earn the respect of their brothers and sisters, and only then will they be in a position where their voice will have any credibility. The present day notion of wildly critiquing Muslims at every turn only further alienates large sections of our community.

A question that comes up is what part of this “community” are Muslim activists supposed to be close to? Imam Ali, in his letter to Malik Ashtar (the then governor of Egypt) gives some direction:

William Chittick translation:

“None are more disgusted by equity, more importunate in demands, less grateful upon bestowal, slower to pardon withholding (favor) and more deficient in patience at the misfortunes of time than the favorites. Whereas the support of religion, the solidarity of Muslims and preparedness in the face of the enemy lie only with the common people of the community, so let your inclination and affection be toward them.”

Rasheed Turabi has a slightly different translation:

“So live in close contact with the masses and be mindful of their welfare.”

It should be noted that this direction was sent to Malik Ashtar at a time when the area was majority Christian, and thus also applies to those of us who are living in areas where Muslims are minorities. The goal should not be to seek out, or be close to those already “favored” in society, but rather the opposite.

Rosa Parks’ understanding and resolve did not just appear out of thin air - nor was her act a reaction. Parks had significant political engagement during which strategies and their implications would have been discussed and thought through. Too often Muslim activists end up reacting to both external pressures (for example, in the US context, pressures to conform to current political conditions calling for a “Reform Islam”) as well as to the current “state of the ummah” that they view as less than ideal.

Parks example suggests that an activist’s education is not something that happens in isolation. Rather, this understanding is reached through a process of social and political engagement. Without such an involvement there is a real danger of setting up one’s self as a “know it all” and a mindset that suggests “I know best,” and everyone else (including those whose cause is being upheld) are just plain wrong, and/or misguided.

This is in addition to taking up causes that are totally unrelated to issues that are of real concern to Muslims. Or, while such a concern may have been a priority at one time, but the community has since moved on. However, the disconnected critic still lives in decades past, at a time when s/he removed herself from any involvement - other than critiquing a community that s/he is no longer part of.

As noted earlier, Parks was a respected member of her community, and, as such she participated in a process of strategic thinking that included collective and coordinated actions. The actual mass action of the Montgomery bus boycott was a product of this process of consultation, community level discussions, and decision making.

The Qur’an says, in a chapter titled Al-Shora (counsel),

“And those who answer their Lord (Rab), and perform the prayer, who conduct their affairs through consultation, and expend of that We have provided them.” (Qur’an 42:38)

Our beloved Prophet (peace and blessings upon him) was also known to have consulted his companions on numerous occasions, including strategies related to defending the community against those opposed to Islam and Muslims.

In our present day context, Muslim activists need to be in consultation with whatever community we are living with to understand the issues and priorities. But just as importantly, any idea that might need to be implemented has to be coordinated with those the activist is presumably attempting to serve. Otherwise, in the present day political context, the activist may end up being nothing more than a critic. And the corporate media may well end up showcasing her/him as the “good/progressive Muslim” critiquing all those “backward Muslims” who want to hold on to their superstitious “traditions.”

These are difficult times for Muslims all over, and those of us who have taken on the task of working on social justice issues, have a responsibility of identifying issues, and speaking our truths. However, we must be acutely aware of the risk of becoming privileged professional activists who have little or no direct connections with the communities that are being spoken about. In order to avoid this trap, we need to not just read about and praise the examples of people such as Rosa Parks, but learn from their experience of real community based social struggles.

Altaf is an amateur photographer, works 40 hours a week as a Psychiatric Social Worker and is a union steward. He is also a member of the Abu Dharr Collective.



Posts a comment

© Indian Dalit Muslims' Voice
Back to top