What’s the point of a protest?
What’s the point of just making noise, shouting slogans and delivering rousing speeches?
It doesn’t achieve anything practically. It won’t stop the war or oppression your speaking against. It won’t help those being killed or alleviate their condition in the least. So what’s the point?
Well, there’s numerous points.
1. Raising awareness about an issue in a collective
and public manner;
2. Breaking the silence that shackles a community out of fear or inability to act;
3. Giving force and expression to the truth, which if kept hush hush gives way to falsehood over time;
4. Enjoining the good and/or forbidding evil, one of the most virtuous good deeds in Islam;
5. Publicly calling others to the truth, which has greater projection than individual invitation;
6. Accounting tyranny, oppression and their perpetrators; the path to the peak of martyrdom;
7. Paving the way for future material change through the influence on public opinion;
8. Offering the oppressed moral support by showing them that they are not alone;
9. Being the voice of the oppressed where they have been made voiceless.
Each of these is a worthy deed on its own. So what of many of them combined, or all of them together!
A protest is, in essence, a form of public expression, and as such it seeks various ends, such as those listed above. The problem with the line of thought that finds protests pointless because they don’t directly result in some material change is that it is measuring an action by the wrong criteria. If material change were possible, there would be no need for a protest. Indeed, he who can achieve direct change but merely protests reneges on his duty. The role of protests arises precisely where direct material change is not possible. The hadith of the noble Prophet (saw) is clear: “Whoever sees an evil, let him change it by his hand, but **if he is not able** then by his tongue…” [Muslim].
Indeed, this line of thinking is in complete discord with the noble Prophetic model and instruction.
The Prophet (saw) names Umar (ra) al-Faruq [distinguisher of truth from falsehood] precisely because of his public airing of the truth. He pushed to go out and publicly express the deen, so the Sahaba did so: a procession of forty in two rows marched to the Ka’bah as a public expression of the new deen.
Abdullah ibn Masud (ra) goes to the Ka’bah to recite surat al-Rahman openly and loudly to Quraysh, knowing full well that the result would be physical violence against his person.
Abu Bakr (ra) prefers to pray and recite Qur’an openly in his front yard so that people can hear him as opposed to inside his house, even when the consequence is that he loses protection and is now open to attack by Quraysh.
The instances abound.
With all these, one may ask: what’s the point? What's the point of a march or reciting Qur’an in public or praying in the open? Especially when some form of harm is likely? The point is that the public expression in and of itself is powerful to the end of all the things noted above.
The noble Prophet (saw) himself is emphatic:
“If you see my Ummah in dread of saying to an oppressor ‘You are an oppressor!’, then she has been farewelled” [Hakim], meaning that Allah has left them to their own, taking away His support.
“By the one in whose hand is my soul! You will enjoin the good and forbid evil, or else Allah will soon send upon you a punishment from Him, then you will call upon Him but He will not respond to you.” [Tirmidhi]
Not only, thus, do protests have a point, they are virtuous deeds pleasing to Allah, the exalted, if done with the right intention, manner and message.