The case of Meriam Ibrahim has shaken the world and there have been many calls for her to be released from prison. The basic facts seem by now to be familiar although there are some differences on details depending where you look. Over 150,000 signed Amnesty International’s petition and there has been widespread coverage including by the tabloid press in the UK.
She is to receive 100 lashes for adultery and it has to be made clear that it is not adultery as we in the west know it – that is having sexual relations with, in this case, a man not her husband – but the act of marrying a Christian. In two years she will be executed for apostasy. On 27 may she gave birth whilst chained to her bed in what has been described as primitive conditions.
The issue of the death penalty for apostasy seems far from clear and some experts say that the relevant hadith actually allows someone to renounce their faith without the penalty of death. Others say differently. Another relevant fact which did not receive that much coverage is that it was a complaint made by a relative that caused her to be arrested and tried for apostasy.
Of course Sudan sees it differently and the embassy in Washington DC claims that her real name is not Meriam Ibrahim but Abrar Elhadi Muhammad Abugadeen although it does not explain the significance of this. What is significant in their view is that it is not a political or religious issue but a legal one. The problem with this in an Islamic country is distinguishing the difference particularly where the president is keen to make Sudan an Islamic state. Indeed, one commentator suggests that it is an attempt to distract people from other problems and to be able to claim he is a ‘defender of Islam.’
The media has for the most part, focused on this one woman and ignored the wider context. An exception is Time Magazine and an article by Kimberly L Smith who argues that ‘fundamentally, the crisis in Sudan is not one of religion but a complete disregard for the dignity of life, particularly female life’ (May 16, 2014). She goes on to describe in horrific detail the treatment of women and some men in that country because they had the wrong skin colour. Her descriptions come from working for 10 years in the Sudan.
Once Meriam became a cause célèbre and featured on the front pages it was not long before politicians joined in and all three UK party leaders were loud in their condemnations. By contrast, a quick look at Amnesty’s web site under, say, Saudi Arabia, reveals two recent cases which are relevant. One is of a Filipino women sentenced – after an unfair trial with no legal representation and who cannot speak Arabic – to 18 months and 300 lashes of which 50 have already been administered (23 May). Another is an outrageous sentence of 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison given to a man who set up an on-line forum allegedly because it ’insulted Islam’ (7 May). Both are prisoners of conscience. There are pages of these but when did you hear of protests from our party leaders about any of them?
It is encouraging to see international protests and we hope for a successful result. But in a thoughtful piece in the Guardian by a Sudanese writer, Nesrine Malik, she argues that these public interventions can be counterproductive. There is the sensitivity she says of Sudan being an ex-colony. She also argues that a lot of these dramatic sounding sentences are because the ‘authorities in a sudden fit of piety pass the harshest sentences, ones rarely carried out, to prove the Islamic project still exists.’ Whereas a private phone call would be made to Saudi Arabia or Bahrein, David Cameron and the other leaders chose a more public condemnation which according to Malik went down badly in Khartoum.
Condemning barbaric sentences is right but there does need to be a degree of even handedness. There were 21 executions in Sudan last year, only slightly fewer than Saudi which are carried out in public. Publicly condemning one country while courting another is not helpful.