The arrest and conviction of 54 year old British school teacher Gillian Gibbons has left most in western society (including reportedly many western Muslims) mystified, shocked and often angry. And reasonably so. No reasonable person could possibly construe the naming of a teddy bear as a deliberate insult of Islam. The possibility that she might have endured a much harsher punishment including 40 lashes is even more mystifying to Westerners. Yesterday's call for her execution by thousands of Sudanese worked into a furor by clerics goes beyond the bounds of sanity. How could such an innocuous act have caused such an extreme reaction?
Two hundred years of British and American imperialism in the area might have something to do with it. The increasing reliance on fossil fuels has increased the need to control the region in order to ensure a stable and secure supply. Western powers have been willing to support brutal dictatorships (Saudi Arabia, Saddam Hussein and Iran under the Shah) in order to realize this stability. Where these have failed or soured (as in Iraq and Afghanisatan) military intervention is used (either direct or indirect). Over the past 50 years the west has been largely responsible for the militarization of the entire region.
The current case of Iraq is a case in point. Under Sadam Hussein, Iraq suffered oppression but had been transitioning to a largely secular state. Now, religious fundamentalism is ascendant, and will likely become more widespread as the situation in the country deteriorates further.
Does that mean we should accept what has been happening in Sudan? Not at all. Religious fundamentalism and extremism should never be tolerated. Western countries must act consistently where they see regimes violating human rights and civil liberties as in Mrs. Gibbon's case and the case of the Saudi girl who was sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in jail for being gang raped. These cannot be tolerated. But military intervention must always be a last resort.
This should start by using diplomacy as the primary mechanism to elicit change. For this to be successful we must better understand the nuances of Muslim religion and culture, as Madeleine Albright has rightly pointed out. Then rather than spending billions of dollars on arming the entire region we should be spending most of this money to build the infrastructure from which healthy democracies can survive and flourish.
At home, we should also ensure that we are adhering to the principles that we would have others adhere to. This means the end of fear based policies such as the banning of hijabs at sporting events, or the use of empty rooms to accommodate prayer. And it must certainly mean that our governments don't waste the public's time and money of ridiculous legislation such as the Harper government's bill to require women wearing the niqab to lift their veil. These actions just foment xenophobia.
At the same time we must ensure that all citizens, including Muslims, adhere to Western standards for civil rights and liberties. This includes ensuring the rights of women and children are not violated in the name of any religion including Islam. And we must make it clear that such abuses will not be tolerated in other countries, and that failure to do so will have consequences.
The chasm between our cultures is vast. Given our position of privilege and power it seems only right that we should take the first action to begin to narrow it. This could start at home, and in how we move forward in Afghanistan. Given that many countries around the world now look to Canada as a model for multiculturalism, our actions here can have impact elsewhere. Similarly, if we can turn our current military role in Afghanistan into one of nation builder we could be providing a model to follow across the region. I believe we have a unique opportunity. It's up to us as citizens to ensure success at home. Our government must show leadership and vision in our foreign policy to succeed elsewhere.