The recent detention of a Nepalese school teacher on charges of insulting Islam has raised some very serious questions about the way in which the legal system operates in Qatar. Dorje Gurung, a chemistry teacher at Qatar Academy, appeared in court this week charged with breaking Article 256 of the Penal Code and if found guilty could face up to seven years in jail.
But all is not what it seems and the whole episode leaves a nasty taste in the mouth; as more details of the case have become clear it has become increasingly difficult to believe that this man has insulted the Muslim faith. Instead it is alleged that some Qatari students were upset that Mr Gurung had challenged their intolerant racist comments toward him by asking how they would feel if he referred to them as terrorists. The young men it seems objected to ‘Jackie Chan’ as they named him, remonstrating with them, and the blasphemy charge was made.
Dr Najeeb al Nauimi the lawyer who made his name defending the jailed Qatari poet Mohammed ibn al Dheeb, has stated that he is satisfied of Mr Gurung’s innocence and will meet with him in the coming week in order to formally represent him. It is difficult to talk in detail about a case currently being considered by the legal system in any country, and the legal process should be allowed to meander its way to its conclusion. But we can only hope that the work of Dr al Nauimi will ensure a sensible conclusion is reached.
Whilst it is not the style of this column to advocate for anyone’s cause, I see it as a moral imperative that justice is adequately served and that the full facts of the case be represented. There is a petition calling for Dorje Gurung’s release https://www.change.org/petitions/government-of-qatar-release-dorje-gurung#share and many concerned individuals have written to Qatari embassies across the world to express their dismay at the spurious charges levelled against him. I urge those of you reading to consider raising your voice in support of Mr Gurung.
Ultimately the outcome of this trial will be an important step in the maturation of Qatar as a political and civically engaged society, a step in breaking down the racial barriers and divisions that exist between so many people living here. Equality before the law is paramount if we are to see the nation achieve its long term goals and aspirations.
But what good is there having a 2030 vision if the society contained within is riven with inequality and racially discriminatory practices? Qatar is so heavily socially stratified that it is difficult to imagine a time in which citizen and resident will be equal in the eyes of the state. Indeed in a country in which citizenship itself is divided into first and second tiers and family name counts for so much, it is hardly to be expected that residents can hope for egalitarianism.
But we are here, and all of us are working to make the country a better place, White, Arab, Asian, Black. We all contribute in our own way. The judiciary and legal system must in turn respect that contribution and honour it.
A few local boys causing mischief is not the problem, teenage boys always cause mischief. The problem is the system which then treats their spurious testimony as sufficient evidence to consider a charge of blasphemy leading to the potential incarceration of a non-local. To add insult to injury the racist slurs alleged to have been made by the young men have gone uninvestigated.
Let us be honest about this whole sorry saga; cases such as this harm Qatar, badly. For they undermine the goals set out by its leadership to make Qatar a modern Islamic society, and uncover a deeply racially stratified codex which until recent times has existed unchallenged. The gleaming vision of skyscrapers, world cups and mega projects costing billions must sit side by side with the darker sides. The influx of journalists, writers, thinkers and generally socially engaged expatriates, alongside a growing class of civically minded Qataris ensures that these dark sides no longer remain hidden from view.
In the long run these uncomfortable moments will be good for Qatar, a country in transition must undergo its moments where values clash and difficult, painful transformations have to be made. It is just that these incidents are increasing in frequency and publicity; in less than a year three major events: the Vilaggio Fire, the trial of Al Dheeb, and the trial of Mr Gurung have all garnered Qatar unwanted publicity, and have met with serious anger both within and without the country. This is not something the country is used to, nor its policy elites fully understand how to deal with.
But deal with it they must, and it will be the measure of Qatar’s institutional and civic maturity to address these controversial issues in a fair minded and respectful way. It remains to be seen how Mr Gurung will fare in the coming weeks: let us hope he finds freedom.
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