Meriam Ibrahim and Contemporary Liberalism

On Thursday, July 31, the United States welcomed Meriam Ibrahim, refugee from Sudan, into our country. This story, as others regarding the treatment of Christians overseas, was under-covered by the media.  However, in a sort of carefully subdued and vague way, it was celebrated by freedom loving Americans of all political loyalties. Not wanting this to become a celebration for religious freedom, which would present obvious problems for their agenda, liberals are seeking to make this a celebration for the sort of freedom that is so readily, and exclusively, promoted by the liberal platform. The sort of freedom is a bastardized one; born of itself in individuality, neglecting the necessary recognition of common identity as sons and daughters of a divine father. It is this relationship that gives us freedom, and outside of it none can be found, no matter how many federal mandates or political platitudes are offered. This sort of liberal freedom is actually the opposite of freedom: a freedom substitute, which comes with none of the sacrifices required, nor any of the joys offered, by true freedom.

Meriam Ibrahim is a Sudanese woman who was sentenced to death for apostasy, consigned to death row for being a Christian, or, more specifically, for being a supposed convert to Christianity from Islam, which is considered a capital crime for Muslims in Sudan. Though Ibrahim attests that she had never been a Muslim in the first place, her marriage to a Christian man was considered crime enough to warrant execution. This rightly caused an international outcry, and, due in part to pressure from the West, the sentence was never carried out. Ibrahim and her family, which had grown by one after the birth of a daughter while in captivity, were finally allowed to leave Sudan, though only after further detainment on charges of suspected false documentation. After a stop in Rome and an audience with Pope Francis, the Ibrahim family set foot on American soil and will make residence here in the land of the free; the terram liberam.

Naturally, this victory for freedom (liber) is being celebrated, at least to some degree, by liberals of all kinds. A human being freed from oppression, especially from such extreme persecution as Ibrahim faced, seems to be a grand slam for the liberal cause. But with the Ibrahim case, as well as the larger situation of global anti-Christian persecution, is causing liberals to sweat a little. Just as they stand up to cheer, it seems that their impending jubilation is cut short; subdued by a palpable fear that maybe they shouldn’t be celebrating the thing they want to celebrate. “A victory for freedom? Hoora… Oh wait, for religious freedom? Uh oh….”

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While originally referring to a person’s ability and opportunity to pursue life in accordance with our natural human dignity, the term liberal has come to acquire a number of other connotations (e.g. the ability and opportunity to do whatever one wants to do, in whatever manner they find most personally attractive and convenient) most of which being far removed from its classical meaning, and it is in this modern context that I refer to liberal America. It is this reductionist brand of liberalism which bears obvious contradictions which are easily illustrated abstractly (e.g. by reductio ad absurdum examples which prove the irrationality of its claims), but which can perhaps most clearly be seen in concrete examples.

Meriam Ibrahim’s case is one such concrete example which shows the blatant inconsistency of modern liberal ethos. While we can all agree that her life and liberty were threatened in an indefensible way, we do not all agree on the ways in which the life and liberty of everyone ought to be protected and promoted. To put someone to death over religion is obviously unjust, but, for some, to force a person into violating their religious code of morality somehow seems acceptable. Using violence to coerce a person to apostasy is certainly a violation of freedom, but using the law to coerce a person into a violation of conscience doesn’t seem so bad.

It seems ironic that the world celebrates the arrival of the Ibrahim and her family, seeking religious freedom, into a nation which is itself divided over the issue of religious freedom. The religious safe-haven which has welcomed them is able to pride itself on its religious tolerance, but only comparatively. They will certainly enjoy, as we all do, freedom from the sort of violence to which they were subjected in their native land. But to boast of ourselves as a place of general freedom, religious or otherwise, is a stretch; a distortion of the truth to say the least. It seems if we are going to celebrate religious freedom, we ought to celebrate it all the way.

This case is particularly significant because it deals with specifically religious freedom, and not only that, it deals with Christian religious freedom. It is as if “freedom” was the bait to get liberals to latch on, and they unknowingly swallowed the “religion” and “Christianity” along with it. I imagine most liberals would prefer to deemphasize those particularities, especially if they recognize the potential of those components to make this a case not just of a woman who should be free to be herself, but specifically a woman who should be free to be a Christian. The persecution of Christians worldwide has received startlingly little media coverage, considering the wide scope and severity of these atrocities. Why? Perhaps because the liberal media realizes that these human rights violations, which would normally be right up their alley as heartfelt prime time TV fodder, are problematic for the American liberal agenda because of the questions they raise about the freedoms for which our nation claims to stand.

Michael Nutter, the Democratic Mayor of Philadelphia who welcomed Ibrahim and her family, shrewdly tried to redirect the enthusiasm surrounding her arrival by presenting it as a victory for freedom in general rather than as a vindication of the Christian religion. He chose to compare her to the civil rights figure Rosa Parks, rather than any number of religious freedom heroes that could have been cited, and described her as a “world freedom fighter,” rather than saying anything specifically about religion or Christianity. This is a subtle attempt to hijack Ibrahim’s story: taking it out of its full context and using it as a vehicle for the liberal agenda. To introduce her as a figure of a vague sort of unnamed freedom is to distract observers from the true message of this case. I would guess that Nutter, an outspoken Barak Obama supporter in 2008 and 2012, is, like the majority of his party, more concerned with freedom from the influence of Christianity than freedom for it. Liberals know that if they are going to celebrate Ibrahim’s religious freedom, they might be forced to re-consider the issue of religious freedom at hand today in our country. It stands to reason that if you say something is good, you ought to be able to explain why it is good, and, if you want anyone to take your judgment seriously, to begin celebrating and defending that good thing all the time, in all instances.

The case of Rosa Parks, suggested by Nutter to be in the same vein as the case of Meriam Ibrahim, can be viewed as an example of the path of American liberalism over the past 80 years. The Rosa Parks incident, though perhaps prompted by real events, was a staged one: orchestrated by the ACLU as an opportunity to launch a protest. While I am in no way suggesting than segregation was morally acceptable, I do not think someone refusing to leave a seat on a bus as lawyers with notepads look on to be of the same stature as a woman sentenced to death because of her Christian faith. Ibrahim was given some support from American liberals when she, as a Christian, was a minority being victimized in Sudan, but will she find the same support from those liberals now that she has joined the Christian majority in the United States?

A recent case which similarly points out the inconsistencies in American perceptions of liberty and justice is the conviction of Kermit Gosnell. Gosnell was rightfully sentenced to life in prison without parole on three counts of first-degree murder for taking the lives of children newly born. The question for Gosnell’s case, proposed by pro-lifers, is why aren’t all abortionists who take the lives of children in the moments leading up to their births arrested, tried, and punished in the same way? In Ibrahim’s case, why is it unacceptable that some people are being coerced to compromise their faith, while it seems perfectly acceptable that others are? Does our country stand for religious freedom, or doesn’t it?

Meriam Ibrahim and her family have safely arrived in the United States, and here they hope to realize lives of freedom and safety; a place in which their children can flourish and be respected. Let us hope, for their sake and ours, they find what they are looking for. Perhaps the deliverance and safe harbor of Meriam Ibrahim will be an opportunity for meaningful dialogue with our fellow freedom loving Americans, encouraging us all to consider what true freedom really means.

(Photo Credit: L’Osservatore Romano)


  • Dusty Gates

    Dusty Gates currently serves as the Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, KS, and as an adjunct Professor of Theology at Newman University in Wichita, KS, where he resides with his wife and three children.

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