I have occasionally been made to feel very paranoid while doing research in Sudan. You hear stories about informants watching researchers and passing on information about the lives of foreigners living in Sudan. My own topic isn’t so sensitive but even I have the odd bout of hysteria from time to time. When a new acquaintance seems very eager to spend time with me or seems to know things about me that I don’t think I have told him, I feel disarmed and paranoid… I question his motives. But this makes me feel terrible, because at the end of the day, people here are so kind and sweet that it is entirely normal for someone to aggressively befriend you in an unexpected manner. For instance, last week I met this extremely sweet lady at a party, who two days later, rang me up to tell me ‘she loved me’. I smiled. This is Sudan. I suppose in the UK, this would seem strange but here, you go from stranger-hood to intimacy in about an hour. Really. No need to exchange life stories.
I really really hate being made to feel paranoid about such kind souls.
But that is what this kind of information gathering does to you; it makes you feel paranoid and mistrustful, always guessing the motivations of new friends and colleagues even when you have absolutely nothing to hide (because I don't). I have heard of such feelings within foreign NGOs and companies in Sudan too, especially in sensitive areas. Covert information gathering damages intimate bonds between INNOCENT people and to me, this is the absolute worst kind of repression: damaging relationships. If I was Braveheart (which thankfully, I'm not), I think I would modify his battle cry somewhat: yes, you can take my freedom (well, a bit), but you can never take the innocence with which I approach new friendships!
So… I was so very shocked and outraged when I read about the UK government’s “Prevent” programme. Here is an article about the programme and a video describing both sides of the argument:
Now putting aside the humorous image of suicide bombers dancing to “mood music” (I wonder what kind of music they prefer- probably Celine Dion), doesn’t this make every other Briton completely shocked and liable to pick up a flaming plank of wood and swing it wildly in the direction of Westminster? What the hell does the government think they are doing?
Really, really you think it is ok to collect information in schools and mental health projects?!!! Mental health projects?! Mental bloody health projects? I mean, really!
My whole research project is about social capital and trust, about how we might be able to design policies that move the Sudanese labour market away from internal-group trust towards more inclusive social-wide patterns of training, recruitment and promotion… social wide trust!
But back in the UK, my government is trying to do the exact opposite. I do not want my government to alienate huge numbers of my fellow citizens in this way. That is precisely the way you create frustration and extremism in minority groups, by pushing people out of the community of trust and depriving them of their human dignity. We can beat extremism by offering British Muslims exactly what we offer each other; the right to live a private happy life.
I think we need some outrage right about now! Who is with me?
P.S. I promise to return to more “Sudanese happenings” next time. I still have a whole bunch of historical tipping points to write about. What treats for you! ;)