Article 5 in our series: The Ethics of Global Engagement
International pressure secured the safe release of Meriam Ibrahim when she faced the death penalty in Sudan for her faith. But mishandled public campaigns on behalf of persecuted Christians can cause more harm than good. A Middle East writer outlines the pitfalls to avoid.
Finally, international attention on the case brought about her release and she and her children were able to leave Sudan for Italy and, later, travel to New Hampshire, USA, where her South Sudanese husband has relatives.
This was not the first time we witnessed such a story. There was the case of Abdulrahman in Afghanistan, who faced the death penalty for his apostasy and was only rescued after a prolonged international outcry and theintervention of President Bush. He too had left Afghanistan for Italy.
This is good news for them, but it is not the end of the story, either for them or for others like them. How we handle the aftermath of a widely reported release has a lot of implications for the future.
From what we learned in all other cases, we can see what might await Mariam’s family from now on. First of all, multiple ministries and organisations will rush to mark her release as their own success story and use it for their support-raising activities. Secondly, there will be an initial flood of invitations for interviews and conference speaking. And then the book offers, written by ghost writers, will pour in, bringing a further round of attention. After that, will come the silence: the slow, monotonous life of a refugee. This is the everyday experience of isolation, painful memories, cultural adjustment problems, financial challenges and difficulties in finding jobs. This won’t make it into the news articles or draw much attention.
Support for the refugee
In previous cases, we have seen how damaging this process has often been for people who fled for their lives and relocated far from their homelands. So many Muslim background Christians in this situation faced burn out after being put on a pedestal in an unfamiliar culture. For Meriam, it is now time to allow her and her family to enjoy calm and normality and the close personal support they need. Hopefully, this is something they will receive amongst the small Sudanese expatriate community in Manchester, New Hampshire.
After the high profile coverage of a case like this, there is also the issue of what happens to the people left behind – to others facing similar situations. For example, after Abdulrahman left Afghanistan, there were a handful of reports of other converts being killed and others who fled, which hardly made it to the news.
Conversion remains a taboo and a serious risk to a person’s life in most Muslim-majority countries. How these cases are handled often risks hardening the positions of states and communities. If one highly publicised case is resolved, future cases may face greater obstacles and ways to advance religious freedom may be narrowed.
In cases like Meriam’s we face a tremendously complex challenge: we want to help those who suffer, and we want to learn from them. Yet, how we help and how we seek to learn can harm the very people we desperately want to support.
Balancing these challenges is only possible when we start from a principle of “the best interests of the persecuted”
Balancing these challenges is only possible when we start from a principle of “the best interests of the persecuted”. This requires groups to analyse and develop all their responses, activities and campaigns while asking “what will best protect and serve the interests of the person we are helping?” This might mean that we don’t publish stories or boast of what we have done to help. It might necessitate keeping the person away from limelight, rather than making them a show item. It also requires that we carefully assess our advocacy strategies to reduce any long-term negative outcomes of our efforts.
Most credible advocacy organisations already follow these principles. They make only a limited amount of information public for the majority of cases they are involved in. Most of their advocacy is done quietly behind the scenes at governmental and diplomatic levels. Where possible, they relocate people to other countries in their home region and help local communities to support them.
Sometimes, large-scale international attention is inescapable and is the only way we are left to help someone facing the death penalty. Within that process, though, good organisations will still restrict the information released to the public, and do all they can to ensure that the language used to report the case will not antagonise activists and governments in the individual’s home country. In the case of Meriam, there were multiple times when misleading information about her release lead to misreports, caused confusion, and turned her case into a more intense domestic political issue in Sudan.
Therefore, we must continue our dedication to help people facing persecution. We must continue to advocate for them. But we have to do this in the right way, in full recognition of how our actions can be counterproductive and sometimes damaging the people. This demands humility and wisdom on our part.
What do you think?
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