The west is not helping Sudan's people free Meriam Ibrahim

Sudan's recent history is tainted by the names of women that have fallen victim to the country's arbitrary sharia and public order laws. Lubna Hussein, sentenced to a lashing for allegedly dressing indecently in public by wearing trousers; Intisar Sharif, sentenced to death by stoning for adultery; and now Meriam Ibrahim, sentenced to death for reportedly turning her back on Islam – her father's religion – and converting to Christianity. Of all the throwbacks to medieval religious legacies, this has been the most bizarre, and the most emblematic of religious confusion in the country.

But there is a risk that the intense western reaction to Ibrahim's case might undermine local efforts to secure her release. In the days immediately following the sentence, reporters from Sudanese TV channels went out on the streets to gather vox pops asking people what they thought of the judgment. Many opposed it.

Meriam Ibrahim has become a metaphor for Sudan’s predicament. Photograph: Str/EPA
Meriam Ibrahim has become a metaphor for Sudan’s predicament. Photograph: Str/EPA

Others were incredulous, finding it hard to believe that such a case could even make it to the courts. People assembled outside the court buildings chanting support for Ibrahim and calling for religious freedom. TV discussions and newspaper columns took up the apostasy debate, and in private gatherings her plight dominated conversation. The case has forced a national self-examination and appraisal of the version of Islam the Sudanese want to practise, and, more important, has boosted support for the view that religion is a personal matter.

But as international media attention has intensified it has eclipsed this internal dissent, which arguably has a better shot at securing Ibrahim's release. Inevitably it has resulted in predictable Sudanese preciousness over sovereignty, which risks hijacking the initially healthy national deliberation about sharia law. Indeed, the Sudanese government was so alarmed by the force of the backlash that it attempted to ban any comment on the case in the media.

For a chippy, isolated and belligerent regime, saving face is more important than saving lives. Moreover, the details of the case have been misreported in much of the western press, particularly the claim the death sentence was for marrying a Christian, when it was for the charge of "reversion" from Islam.David Cameron's condemnation in particular went down very badly in Khartoum. The wisdom of a private phone call – a sensitivity often extended to, say, Saudi Arabia or Bahrain – has been absent.

There is now a risk of the Sudanese losing ownership of their own cause, one that goes to the heart of the tension between conservative religious values and a lack of appetite for heavy-handed state execution of religious law. There is an increasing awareness of, and frustration with, the Sudanese authorities' hypocritical application of Islamic law, one that has been increasingly lax over the past few years.

If you were to visit Khartoum knowing nothing of the country except these tales of religious fundamentalism, you would be surprised and confused. Men and women mingle freely on public transport and in cafes, and dance together at wedding parties. Sudan has historically practised a softer, Sufi, spiritual form of Islam, one that finds an easy rhythm with the country's unique Afro-Arab traditions.

When the current government came to power in a 1989 coup, it brought with it an intense Islamicisation campaign. But this was less an ideological vision and more of shortcut to power. Despite 25 years of the Islamic experiment, this version of Islam has simply not taken – even if vestigial anachronisms such as the apostasy law remain. When these cases are brought to court, authorities in sudden fits of piety pass the harshest sentences, ones rarely carried out, to prove that the Islamic project still exists. It is no coincidence that the most egregious of these cases feature women, and vulnerable women at that. They are low-cost collateral in the religious credentials game, and it is easy to mobilise mainstream opinion against them.

But fewer and fewer people are buying it. Instead they see a government beset with allegations of corruption and a judicial system that preys on the weak.

The problem is that global attention focuses on these cases intensely and then moves on. But this must not become another lost opportunity. Meriam Ibrahim has become a metaphor for Sudan's predicament, a country shackled to a legal system randomly borrowing from a version of Islamic law around which there is no consensus. She also presents a potential moment for the Sudanese to come to their own national reckoning, and ensure that there will be no more names on a long rollcall of shame.

Nesrine Malik is a Sudanese writer.

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