Opinion: Netflix’s Cobra Kai can learn from Islamic principles of conflict resolution

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Last Updated on 10th January 2022

Atif Rashid, UK

Cobra Kai | Netflix

The Karate Kid is one of the most popular and iconic karate films ever made. A coming of age story about a young boy bullied by his peers, Daniel LaRusso learns to defend himself through a wise Japanese sensei, Mr Miyagi. Along the way, he learns lessons not just about martial arts, but also about life. “Lesson not just karate only. Lesson for whole life. Whole life have a balance. Everything be better”, Mr Miyagi advises. 

30 years on, the same actors have reunited in a continuation of the story. Cobra Kai on Netflix follows a similar pattern to the original with rivalries, life lessons and plenty of karate. It has a cult following with analyses and theory videos sprawling the internet about what happens next, who the real bullies are, the morals of each character and the styles of their dojos.  

Miguel, a young boy with asthma who gets bullied, finds a sensei in the person of Johnny Lawrence – the main antagonist in the original film who was defeated by LaRusso. Lawrence was taught an uncompromising aggressive karate style by his bullish sensei John Kreese in the dojo called Cobra Kai. “Strike First. Strike Hard. No Mercy” was the motto. Three decades on, Lawrence has messed up in life, a low-paid manual job, an estranged son and nothing going for him. Daniel LaRusso on the other hand is an extremely successful businessman selling cars. They eventually go on to reopen competing dojos with opposing methods and ideologies. It would become a rivalry lasting many seasons, causing multiple injuries to teenagers, a school-wide brawl and time in juvenile detention.

Miguel joins Cobra Kai and learns to conquer his fears, stand up to his bullies, and be strong, brave and confident. Students who join Miyagi Do run by Daniel LaRusso in the same style as Mr Miyagi, learn about balance, honour, harmony and karate for self-defence alone. Throughout the seasons, these two dojos, and indeed their fighting styles, clash. Miguel takes the unrelenting and fierce style of Cobra Kai to the extreme, on the verge of becoming a bully himself and doing anything and everything it takes to win – even if it means taking advantage of an injured opponent and striking him on the injury. His sensei, Johnny Lawrence realises that the same merciless style of karate taught to him had not done him any favours in life. What is karate, and indeed life, without honour and mercy? He scolds Miguel and tells him by showing mercy when required, he could be a better fighter, and thus a better person than he could ever become.

This reminded me of Islamic teachings about crime, punishment, peace and conflict. Both of these dojos represent two different ways of dealing with an aggressor. One is to fight fire with fire and be aggressive, showing no mercy. The other is to wait until you’re attacked and then fight only to restrain your opponent, which is a more passive approach opening up the possibility of a deadly counterattack and persistent aggression. The problem is quite similar to the one presented by Jewish and Christian teachings respectively. In Judaism there is an emphasis on retaliation, taking what is rightfully yours by force and punishing severely:

“But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” (Exodus, 21:23-25)

Christianity is much the opposite. The emphasis is on forgiveness, turning the other cheek, and not fighting back:

“But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” (Matthew 5:38-40) 

Both approaches are deeply flawed. You cannot forgive those who will keep attacking until they kill you, nor can you turn the cheek or hand over your cloak to someone who will strip you naked. Likewise retaliating in every situation, even when your opponent is overpowered and reconciliatory, is cruel and unjust. It makes you the bully and aggressor. Both these ideologies cannot work as stand-alone principles for life or any conflict resolution. With one you will be taken advantage of, with the other you will become the aggressor. In today’s age, superpowers aim to do the same – cripple and exploit other nations for their benefit. 

The Islamic approach is one of balance and that brings the best possible outcome for social peace and harmony. 

This is summed up in the Holy Quran as: 
“And the recompense of an injury is an injury the like thereof; but whoso forgives and [thereby] brings about an improvement, his reward is with Allah. Surely, He loves not the wrongdoers.” (Surah al-Shura, Ch.42: V.41)

In other words, if you have to fight or punish then you can but only to the extent that you have been wronged. Not an iota more. However, if you can forgive and it is likely to lead to reformation then that is the most desirable outcome. 

The Quran then gives more detailed guidance with these principles: 

Don’t let mere enmity incite you to aggression. (Surah al-Ma‘idah, Ch.5: V.3)

The old rivalry of Daniel and Johnny meant that despite being very similar themselves and now grown up, they could not get over their animosity towards each other and often clashed.

Fight only in defence. (Surah TaHa, Ch.20: V.40)

Conversely, Cobra Kai students are often incited to start fights and take down the competing dojo.

When one attacks you, stay strong and do not turn your back. (Surah al-Fath, Ch.48: V.17)

Whilst karate trains you to fight and defend yourself, Miyagi Do didn’t sufficiently instil the deep-rooted bravery and self-confidence that is needed to finish a fight. 

Keep fighting until the opponent’s injustices end. (Surah al-Anfal, Ch.8: V.40)

Miyagi Do students don’t know how to do this. They keep getting attacked and can hold their own in a fight, but their passivity emboldens the enemy to return.

At the slightest indication of peace, desist from fighting. (Surah al-Anfal, Ch.8: V.62)

Characters do sometimes apologise and try to end fights and call a truce, but underlying resentments take longer to resolve. 

Do not go overboard or transgress. (Surah al-Baqarah, Ch.2: V.191)

Cobra Kai students attack when unprovoked and aim to injure and maim their opponents.

Always be on your guard and take precautions. (Surah al-Nisa, Ch.4: V.72)

Miyagi Do is often caught off guard and their weaker members are picked on.

The issue Miyagi Do had was that their style was too soft. Students excelled in karate but were not able to stand up to incessant bullying. The over-reliance on self-defence and never to strike first meant that while they could defend themselves just enough to not be totally annihilated, they could not withstand the onslaught of violence and “no-holds-barred” approach of Cobra Kai. The latter style bred overconfidence and a violent merciless approach which made their adherents simply unpleasant characters.

Miyagi Do excels at teaching students to control themselves, regulate their breathing and emotions, and make every move with thought and grace. Cobra Kai excels at building confidence, being strong and fierce, and taking down your opponent. A mix of both is what’s needed. In the latest season, this is just what’s happened – the two dojos combine, but it didn’t have to take four seasons to get there

The Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, taught:

لَيْسَ الشَّدِيدُ بِالصُّرعَةِ، إِنَّمَا الشَّدِيدُ الَّذِي يَمْلِكُ نَفْسَهُ عِنْدَ الْغَضَبِ

(Al-Adab Al-Mufrad)

That a strong person is not one who can knock someone down. A truly strong person is one who can control their anger and emotions. Miyagi Do taught this to students more than Cobra Kai but in practice, emotions often flared and anger resulted in deepening rifts and rivalries.    

Many other conflicts arose in the show because of minor, petty misunderstandings which could’ve been easily resolved. A potentially healthy rivalry quickly turned ugly. To avoid this they should have refrained from making assumptions (Ch.49: V.13), communicated calmly and clearly (Ch.33: V.71), found common ground (Ch.3: V.65) and learned from one another through healthy competition (Ch.2: V.149). 

A lot of the fights simply arose out of personal conflicts between two individuals from the opposing sides. Rather than the entire dojos getting involved, they should have come together to mediate between the two (Ch.49: V.10). And if one individual was to persist, the entire moral pressure of the combined dojos would have been sufficient to reform him. Excellent principles for any conflict resolution. But then again, it wouldn’t make for a very good TV show, would it?

If Cobra Kai students were taught to be calm, measured and balanced, they would succeed more in life. If Miyagi Do students were taught to be braver, confident and assertive, they could defend themselves better. If both adopted Islamic principles, then they would get the best of both worlds.  

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Good analysis of the show in light of the teachings of Islam! May Allah ta’ala grant you the capability to write more of such articles. May Allah ta’ala also grant people the light to see the teachings of Islam and help spread the true teachings, ameen

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