Meriam Ibrahim’s Freedom, and Ours

by Nicholas Frankovich

Meriam Ibrahim, 27, is finally free. On Thursday, in Khartoum, she boarded a plane with her husband and two young children and flew to Rome. They will spend the next few days there before flying to the United States. Her husband, Daniel Wani, has a house in New Hampshire. Ibrahim met with Pope Francis yesterday.

The Italian government is being credited with helping to negotiate Ibrahim’s release. In May, she was sentenced to hang. She took refuge with her family in the U.S. embassy in Khartoum in June after she was detained at the airport as she was attempting to flee Sudan.

The Sudanese government had accused Ibrahim of marrying a Christian and thereby abandoning Islam. Her biological father was said to be a Muslim. Ibrahim maintained that she was raised a Christian by her mother and would remain a Christian.

Congratulations to Ibrahim and her family.

The concept of religious freedom seems to mean something different, something far more serious, in large swaths of the Global South and Middle East from what it means here in the West. Here the pressures to trim our religious beliefs are softer, taking the form of new taboos against traditional views of sex, for example, and of attempts to translate those taboos into law.

Religious intolerance exists along a broad spectrum, as do those who suffer under different degrees of it. Until yesterday, Meriam Ibrahim stood at one end. Conservative religious Americans stand at the other. To compare our plight to hers would be not only hyperbolic in some respect but disrespectful to her and to her countless coreligionists worldwide who face physical, bloody persecution.

Still, the distance between red martyrdom there and the merely white martyrdom suffered by many traditional Christians and Jews here is not impassable. It’s only great. To get from here to there would be an odyssey probably of generations. When we think in terms only of years or election cycles, we imagine that the hard religious persecution that people suffer in other parts of the world is wholly foreign, that it will never happen here because it will never happen in our lifetimes. Moreover, we assume that history is moving in the opposite direction anyway. Our present, we think, though we’re usually too embarrassed to say so, is the future of other countries. The benighted ones will eventually catch up and start acting more like us.

What if we’re wrong, though? What if the West is already infected with the virus that we see in its activated form in Khartoum, Mosul, and too many other places to list or even keep track of? We have no guarantee that the immune system of Western liberal democracy will hold up forever. It could, after two or three generations, be compromised to the point that the virus breaks through and begins expressing itself in a full-blown fashion similar to what we see now elsewhere in the world. Whether you find that possibility worth considering depends on how far out you want to follow the direction that recent trend lines point in. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and at this point we’ve taken more than that.

Secularism has its own sharia, which in those societies where it prevails is beginning to harden. “I expect to die in bed,” Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said in 2010, describing what he saw as the end game of secularization. “My successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.”