Protesters in Hong Kong, Creative Commons
Protesters in Hong Kong, Creative Commons

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.

The Reiff Center at Christopher Newport University is partnering with The Center for Community Engagement and the Rumi Forum for Interfaith Dialogue to host a conference this Saturday, November 7, on Civic Movements and their Impact on Democracy. Students and faculty from all areas of study are invited to join and participate.

The second annual conference encourages people from the campus and community to educate themselves on social movements and how they too can be a part of efforts that can positively impact or improve the state of democracy. The conference provides an opportunity for undergraduate students to engage and discuss topics that are relevant to issues we face in the world today. It also encourages students to present papers and gain experience in research or field studies.

Civic and social movements that have championed basic rights such as right to free speech, freedom from slavery, and gender equality have long been a vital part of the political process both in democratic and authoritarian states.

The American democracy has been shaped by powerful civic movements including non-violent civil rights protests led by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the women’s suffrage movement led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton, and the abolition movement that preceded the Civil War. Less peaceful protests have also rocked this nation to its core, such as the Eco-Terrorists of the 1970s, and the well known battles in Ferguson, MO. 

Today, with the help of technology and social media, it has become easier to start and sustain civic movements. In the United States, petitions initiated online addressing specific incidents or protests against police treatment of African Americans leading to the Black Lives Matter movement, have given a new impetus to civic participation and forcing political leaders and institutions to reform.

Arab Spring protesters, Creative Commons

In 2011, as many as one million people peacefully protested in Cairo’s Tahrir Square against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year long rule leading to his resignation.  Elections in the next year led to Mohammed Morsi becoming president in June 2012. But Morsi’s presidency was short-lived after he amended the constitution to give himself unlimited powers – which led to further protests and a military coup. Then, peaceful protests in Syria against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad were also violently suppressed and has led to various rebel and militant groups. These groups, which are now battling each other, have led to more than 300,000 deaths and millions of refugees fleeing the country – resulting in the current Syrian Refugee Crisis. The militant group known as the Islamic State has benefited from the chaos and has taken over parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq.

Elsewhere in the world some civic movements have been more successful than others. The anti-apartheid protests against minority white rule that began in the 1950’s in South Africa ended peacefully in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected as president. More recently in Tunisia, a shop vender set himself on fire, in December 2010, as a symbol of protest against inflation, high unemployment, and corruption by president Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali. By early 2011, in what was known as the Jasmine Revolution, Tunisian citizens – along with supporters all over the world – ousted the president. The four civic groups that later worked to bring about a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia were awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize. The successful regime change in Tunisia inspired similar protests across the Arab world in what came to be known as the Arab Spring. However, many of them were not as successful and have only led to more violence and chaos.

Not all peaceful protests and movements have succeeded in overturning oppressive regimes and norms.  In 1989 student-led protests in China against corruption and demanding economic reform were violently suppressed by China’s Communist party – led by the then dictator Mao Zedong – in what is known as the Tienanmen Square massacre when several hundreds of people were killed and thousands more were injured. A 2009 protest in Iran known as the Green Revolution was suppressed with force by the Shiite religious leaders who hold more power than the elected officials. Obviously, it becomes clear that different regimes handle civic movements in various ways, leading to positive change, or repression, and in extreme cases civil war.

Memorial of the Tienanmen Square Massacre, Creative Commons
Memorial of the Tienanmen Square Massacre, Creative Commons

These are just some of the many examples of civic movements and its effects on democracies or democratic processes. The conference this Saturday will touch on a variety of current affairs, like the ones mentioned above, as well as other notable topics that range from computer science and technology to medicine/health and art. The first part of the conference will be featuring 16 students presenting their papers on topics that range from pro-democracy movements across the globe, to women’s health, gay rights, and human trafficking.

The second part of the conference will include presentations by nine faculty members on topics ranging from abolitionist movement and gender issues, among the Black Lives Matter members, to examination of riots, digital art, and economics.

Dr. Mehmet Saracoglu, University of Kentucky site

Lastly, the lunch keynote speaker will be Dr. Mehmet Saracoglu, a native of Turkey who came to the U.S. to pursue his post graduate education. He graduated with a PhD from the University of Kentucky where he also promoted intercultural and interfaith dialogue, as well as Turkish-American relations within the campus community. Currently, he is the director of Government, Media, and Community Affairs from the Rumi Form for Interfaith Dialogue. The Rumi Forum was created to foster peace among different cultures and people via interfaith and intercultural dialogue. They also host conferences, panels and guest speakers to encourage others to exchange opinions and be a part of civic movements.

Aligning with the Reiff Center’s mission to raise awareness and educate people on human rights and conflict resolution, this conference presents an opportunity for students and faculty from different fields of study to come together, share ideas and foster discussions on how civic movements can improve and change the quality of democracy.

Disclaimer: “The views expressed in this post solely reflect the author’s opinion, and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Reiff Center or Christopher Newport University.”