Strict Religious Law Has No Place in a Free Society

Global Challenges Counter-extremism

Strict Religious Law Has No Place in a Free Society

Posted on: 27th June 2014
Charlotte Keenan
Head of Corporate Engagement, Goldman Sachs

After global outrage over the treatment of Meriam Ibrahim, it looks like the Sudanese authorities have finally freed her. There is often criticism against "clicktivism" and campaigning hashtags, some say it is counterproductive and can harden views. But the turnaround in this case would appear to show that international anger has done some good. Sadly, it has not been as successful for the 200 plus girls kidnapped in Chibok, Nigeria and the world's silence on this issue has become deafening.

The sentencing of Meriam Yahia Ibrahim to death for apostasy in a Khartoum courtroom, for the "crime" of converting to Christianity, rightly caused outrage across the world. 27-year old Meriam, who has given birth in prison, refused to back down. Her bravery in the face of this brutal treatment is humbling.

This case shows the dangers of having a legal system driven by strict religious law. According to local reports, she was arrested last year by the Sudanese authorities, after someone reported her for committing adultery. Officials viewed her as a Muslim cohabitating with a Christian man, despite Meriam's insistence that she was in fact a practicing Christian and married to a man of the same faith. But it has been judged that she has broken a law that forbids the recognition of marriage between Muslims and Christians in Sudan. The sentence was death for apostasy and 100 lashes for adultery.

The inhuman treatment that Meriam Ibrahim received deprived her of the most basic of human rights - the right to live free from the fear of persecution. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 was an attempt to create a universal set of values by which member states can be judged. The Declaration's articles of freedoms were an attempt to make clear that, whilst each of us are subjects of a government, we still have certain freedoms that should be protected.

Article 18 states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest their religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Though drafted in 1948, nearly seventy years on the relevance of Article 18 is growing. In an increasingly interconnected world coexistence or conflict based on religious difference could be at the heart of how the 21st century develops. And the danger is that religion becomes an ideology in itself, used for political purposes.

The horrific case of Meriam Ibrahim is part of a deeper and wider problem in Sudan. The country has allowed religion to become a veto, not a voice, in its governing system. Its legal system uses an extreme version of strict Islamic law – one that is incompatible with a genuinely free society.

Meriam Ibrahim, and all of those like her who suffer repression because of their choice of religion, must not be forgotten. We need to stand with those in Sudan and across the world who will not accept this restricting of personal freedoms. We must champion freedom of belief and press for countries to allow people to choose a religion, or choose none.

This article also appeared on The Huffington Post.

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