Monday, December 03, 2007

Crime and Punishment

I've been somewhat vexed by the whole teddy bear naming Gillian Gibbons story that's been all over the media for the last week and will, I expect, continue to be so for the rest of the week I guess. There have also been some really quite vitriolic comments made about pretty much everyone involved in the whole thing. So, I'm going to have a go at my take on the whole event so far.

To me, this appears to have been a primarily political act by the Sudanese government. Discrediting Westerners seems to be a fairly solid plank of government policy. They know it will run well with the people and shows the government to be asserting itself against the old colonial powers. This is a government that tells its people that Westerners are kidnapping Sudanese children and using them as organ donors for rich Westerners. Wrapping this anti western sentiment up as an act of blasphemy only serves to ramp up the severity of the crime perpitrated.

A lot of people have commented that the logical response of Western governments should be to remove the financial aid that Sudan is currently enjoying from the West. That'll teach 'em, say the commenters. As I understand it, the aid is not being given with the suggestion that it supports the Sudanese government or the oppressive regime that it operates. The aid is given purely for humanitarian reasons. The people being helped by what little aid that gets through are refugees of political acts by their own government. If it were not for those acts the people would not be displaced. fleeing, or starving. Sudan, if it chose to, would be capable of supporting its own people. It just chooses not to for political expediency. So, removal of aid would not hurt the government but certainly would hurt people who are already victims of their country's own oppression.

Our own Foreign Secretary has suggested this is a delicate situation that must be handled carefully to avoid offending the Sudanese religious sensibilities. Well, I guess that would wash if this was simply about an offence against Islam but it palpably is not. Treading carefully may be expedient in gaining the release but it looks horribly like appeasement to me. We should be criticising not only the politics of the act but also the fundamentalist Islam back story that is propping the whole thing up. The UK government has got the support of British muslims who have said this is a grotesque misinterpretation of their religion and the government, by failing to overtly criticise this misrepresentation only reinforces many people's view that Islam is a religion that is out of control.

Some other have commented that in the UK, we have recently introduced laws that could lead to similar prosecutions in the UK. That is so wide of the mark it beggars belief. Whilst many people, me included, are very uncomfortable about having any law that specifically suggests a crime against religion is wrong, it could never be used against someone who chose a religiously inappropriate name for a teddy bear or suggested idolatry. We should have a law, I believe, primarily against inciting violence or hatred. I don't really think any law should specifically mark out religion as being a special case. A crime is a crime. Inciting any sort of violence against another is a repellent act and there should be a law against it. Proving it might be difficult but religion does not need to be a special case and the religious lobby is powerful and sufficiently vociferous and well supported to fight its own battles, even in our own supposed secular state.

As a side issue, the UK government must be absolutely loving it as this "touching human interest story" is managing to keep some very uncomfortable stuff about our own government out of the headlines and shows our politicians favourably as they exert their diplomatic skills. Skills that have been sadly lacking of late in many other areas of the world. Lets face it, the release was always going to happen, the Sudanese government just wanted to see Westerners coming to them, cap in hand and begging for clemency.

So, Gillian Gibbons will return. I dearly hope she maintains her stance so far, that she was happy to be in Sudan doing something she wanted to do. Any reaction should be directed against the government of Sudan and not against its sadly misinformed population or desperately blighted refugees. If a proper reaction to the government of Sudan, under the auspices of the UN (please, no more military interventions) was not to happen, now that would be a real crime.

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