The case of Meriam Ibrahim, the pregnant Sudanese woman sentenced to death for her religious beliefs, shocks the conscience like few other cases. What the tyranny of Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir is prepared to do to her boggles the mind. Ibrahim is to have her baby, be lashed 100 times, nurse her child for a period of time, and then be executed. It is a scenario that sounds like the fiercest opponents of radical Islamists made it up. But it isn’t a fiction — it is all too real. In the name of Islam, the "gang of ghouls" in Khartoum (to borrow from Churchill) is going to torture and kill a new mother because it is offended by her religious beliefs.
Regimes over the centuries have visited cruelties upon their victims without regard for the dictates of natural law or Enlightenment principles. During the 20th century, however, universal norms were enunciated via international conventions like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — backed up by the Pax Americana — to provide some mitigation. Humane government has advanced greatly and government brutality has been checked significantly.
But something has been happening over the last 30 years that poses a direct challenge to the positive trajectory of the liberal world order and its defenders. During the last several decades we have witnessed the rise of regimes of armed groups that claim a foundation in Islam to establish an order characterized by cruelty. They hijack one of the world’s major religions to practice a form of governance that uses brutality to enforce control and intimidation, particularly of women. A regime that is willing to torture and execute a woman recently delivered of her child simply because she holds religious views different from the regime’s dictates is truly barbaric. And it is a direct challenge to all who have advanced civilization and serve as its guardians, whether they do their work unilaterally or via multilateral forums such as the United Nations.
Bashir’s government in Sudan is the latest example; its current persecution of Ibrahim and her American husband and unborn child is a calculated and direct threat to the role the United States has been playing in the world. We should make no mistake about why Khartoum has chosen this time and circumstance to shock the world. The regime is bitter at the United States’ role in the loss of what is now South Sudan. The persecution of Ibrahim is a lashing out at the world that the United States has helped to produce. It is a challenge the United States and the West cannot afford to tolerate.
We could speculate that the Obama administration’s reluctance to more forcefully rebuke heinous acts like this have allowed this kind of barbarity to survive and grow, but that is an argument for another day. Besides, the motivation of the regime is less important than the facts on the ground. And right now there is the undisputed fact that Bashir’s regime, which after decades of brutality has recently become even more extreme, is assaulting civilization and its protectors just as the mullah-led regime in Iran is doing with its persecution of Pastor Saeed Abedini, and Boko Haram is doing with the kidnapping and forced conversion of Christian schoolgirls in Nigeria.
The president — and the West generally — is facing an intentional challenge. So far, the Obama administration has done too little diplomatically while leaving it to NGOs like the American Center for Law and Justice and Amnesty International to do the heavy lifting. A cause like Ibrahim’s should be trumpeted regularly; Obama should make it his cause by noting the nationality of her husband and child. He should excoriate the persecutors in clear and forceful terms. But even more than that, the president should affirm that those who commit these atrocities will never have the friendship of the United States. They might hold seats at the U.N. and on its Human Rights Council, but they cannot be trusted to keep faith with the Declaration’s principles, and that we will seek to thwart them until they reform. This stance would embolden our staunchest allies and shame into action our reluctant allies.
There is no room in the world for people who torture and kill women. We have come a long way toward stamping out the Dark Age brutality that was once the hallmark of state power, but that work is still far from done. The case of Meriam Ibrahim is exactly the kind of injustice that the Obama administration should stand against and prove that it is as committed as ever to that mission.
Joshua Keating is associate editor at Foreign Policy and the editor of the Passport blog. He has worked as a researcher, editorial assistant, and deputy Web editor since joining the FP staff in 2007. In addition to being featured in Foreign Policy, his writing has been published by the Washington Post, Newsweek International, Radio Prague, the Center for Defense Information, and Romania's Adevarul newspaper. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN International, C-Span, ABC News, Al Jazeera, NPR, BBC radio, and others. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he studied comparative politics at Oberlin College.| Letters |