Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Sheffield University expels Cameroonian student for anti-gay Facebook post

Cameroon is a largely Christian - mostly Catholic - country and there is no shortage of individuals from the country whose thoughts and utterances both online and offline are based on nothing but religious beliefs, sometimes extreme. Needless to say, some of their expressions are outrageous, deeply offensive to certain minority groups, anti-social and could cost them a place in communities that value inclusiveness and equal treatment of individuals irrespective of race, sexual orientation, gender or any other distinction.

A student was expelled from the University of Sheffield, a public research university in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England. According to The Independent, the postgraduate student, Felix Ngole, was expelled from a social work programme after he posted anti-gay opinions on Facebook. The 38-year-old student reportedly shared a post on Facebook expressing support for Kim Davis - an American county clerk for Rowan County, Kentucky who refused to sign marriages for same-sex couples, in defiance of a US Supreme Court ruling and a Federal court order. In September 2015, the student also reportedly commented on a link on Facebook quoting a Bible verse calling homosexuality an "abomination". The father of four was ejected from the social work course following a decision by a Fitness to Practise Committee. A letter from the Committee informed the student in question that his actions "transgressed boundaries which were deemed appropriate for someone who was entering the social work profession".

Felix Ngole said in his defense, according to The Independent: "My beliefs about marriage and sexual ethics reflect mainstream, biblical understanding, shared by millions around the world. Simply expressing that understanding, in a personal capacity, on my Facebook page, cannot be allowed to become a bar to serving and helping others in a professional capacity as a social worker."

The decision to expel Felix Ngole, who according to Cameroon Online is a Cameroonian, is reportedly being appealed and the expelled student believes the decision is a "bar to office for Christians".

My Take

First of all, not all Christians are homophobic hence the University of Sheffield's decision to expel someone who espouses homophobic views is by no means a "bar to office for Christians". Even Pope Francis, leader of the Catholic church who be believed to be the descendant of Saint Peter, does not appear to be homophobic. He famously said he is in no position to judge someone who is gay. And I guess Sheffield University has many Christian students enrolled in the numerous programme it offers, including the social work programme who do not share or espouse homophobic views. This case is not about Christians or Muslims or Buddhists or whatever. It is about someone with anti-social views wanting to be a social worker.

Homophobia is certainly mainstream, reflects a biblical (and perhaps koranic) understanding and shared by millions of believers around the world. But it must not be given a pass by institutions of higher learning - like the University of Sheffield University - tasked with preparing students for public service professions like social work in England or elsewhere.

Individuals sanctioned for publicly expressing despicable views and their supporters often point to freedom of expression in a bid to defend themselves and their views that have the potential to incite hatred against a group of people. Many, if not all of them, seem to be unaware of the fact that the right to freedom of expression is not absolute. The right to freedom of expression is provided for in article 19 (2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). It is stated in sub section 3 of the same article that the exercise of the right to freedom of expression carries with it "special duties and responsibilities", and that the right may therefore be subjected to "certain restrictions". The restrictions, according to the ICCPR must be "necessary" and provided by law. The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (article 10) also allows necessary restrictions on freedom of expression such as restrictions in the interest of public safety, for the protection of reputation or rights of others or for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence. The African Charter on Human and People's Rights (article 9) provides for the right to express and disseminate opinions "within the law". This shows that freedom of expression is not absolute. Some countries like Finland have laws that criminalize speech that incite hatred against a group of people. An individual in a country with hate speech laws for example cannot go inciting hatred and making public statements that endanger the well-being and safety of others, and claim the right to do so. The right to free expression comes with duties and responsibilities - in the eyes of international human rights law.

But the case of Felix Ngole and Sheffield University is not about the law. It is about standards and ethics of a profession. The question is whether or not a university or any educational institution for that matter should be compelled to prepare people who hold and publicly express anti-social views for the social work profession. I do not think they should.

According to The Independent, a spokeswoman for Sheffield University said standards of the social work profession in England are nationally determined by the Health and Care Professions Council. So I looked up the the HCPC's standards of conduct, performance and ethics and it turns out that the standards also apply to students on an HCPC-approved program (see page 4). The standards require professionals to, amongst other things, challenge discrimination. Interestingly the standards also touch on the use of social media and networking sites. It requires professionals to use all forms of communication appropriately and responsibly, including social media and networking websites. In a separate document, guidance on conduct and ethics for students, published for students by the HCPC, it is stated that students studying to become professionals in a regulated profession have certain responsibilities and that they will be expected to meet high standards of conduct and ethics. It is also stated in the document a student's conduct outside of a regulated programme may affect his/her ability to complete the programme or register with the HCPC. The guide also urges students to make sure their behavior does not damage public confidence in their profession.

Clearly, Felix Ngole did not read or adhere to the HCPC's standards and student guide.

Kim Davis is not a suitable role model for a social worker. A social worker who thinks Kim Davis did the right thing by refusing to issue marriage licenses as required by law is likely to refuse to offer social services to service users who do not meet certain religious standards. A university's decision to expel a student who does not  meet the standards of the profession is a pre-emptive measure to protect the public.  

Monday, December 21, 2015

Asylum-seekers in Finland apologize for rape they didn't commit

Minority groups are often collectively castigated for crimes committed by a few members of the group. When an asylum-seeker, for example, is involved in a crime all asylum-seekers and immigrants in the country bear the brunt, and in some cases are forced by circumstances to apologize on behalf of criminals - although, it's worth noting, the ethnic majority never apologize for crimes committed by a few bad apples in the privileged group.

A group of asylum seekers took to the streets of Oulu in northern Finland on 1 December 2015, according to Ilta-Sanomat (video included), to apologize following a case of rape in Kempele involving asylum-seekers. The aim of the march that drew participants from a refugee reception centre in Hiukkavaara was reportedly to apologize on behalf of all immigrants for the crime committed in Kempele.

A 14-year-old girl was raped in Kempele and police arrested two foreign young men, according to Yle, on suspicion of aggravated rape and aggravated sexual exploitation of a child. The two suspects were reportedly asylum-seekers from Afghanistan. One of the suspects was later released after police reportedly established that he had nothing to do with the crime. The other suspected, a 17-year-old, was remanded in custody by Oulu district court.

Following the criminal incident in Kempele Prime Minister Juha Sipilä convened a crisis meeting to address the issue. Then Justice and Labour Minister Jari Lindström from the right-wing Finns Party came out and said asylum-seekers are a security threat to Finland. In addition to the antics by politicians, an anti-immigration demonstration was organised in Kempele during which the slogan "Suomi Suomalaisille" (Finland for Finns) was frequently heard, according to Yle.

Then came the apology by asylum-seekers in Oulu on behalf of immigrants. Theirs was, according to Kaleva, a "thank you march" designed to thank local Finns for accepting refugees, and to remind them that not all asylum seekers are criminals.

My take

Rape is a horrendous crime and it's even more heinous when it involves a minor - like in the Kempele case. Perpetrators of rape and other forms of violence against women should be punished to the full extent of the law. What shouldn't be done is coerce innocent people into apologizing for crimes they didn't commit. People normally don't take responsibility for crimes they didn't commit - unless they're coerced, directly or indirectly, into doing so. The asylum-seekers who organised the march in Oulu were forced by the hostile environment in their host town to apologize for a crime they didn't commit. And it's easy to see why: they live in a town where they're not wanted; a town where an intimidating demonstration was held against them; a town where a reception centre was hastily evacuated overnight in order to ensure the safety of residents. Asylum seekers in Oulu don't feel safe hence they feel the need to apologize in a bid to "clear their name" and ease tension.

The response to the Kempele incident was plainly racist and discriminatory but it certainly wasn't surprising. Whenever rape is reported in Finland the response on social media hugely depends on the origin of the suspect. When the alleged perpetrator is a foreigner the response is scathing, and all non-white immigrants are collectively branded "rapists". On the other hand, when the suspect is an ethnic Finn the response is subtle and the case is quickly forgotten. There was no backlash when a 24-year-old nurse sexually violated numerous elderly people and was found guilty of 27 rapes and eight forced sexual acts. There was no massive outrage when a 45-year-old man repeatedly raped an 11-12-year-old child numerous times. Rape cases involving Finnish perpetrators abound, and are usually treated with kid gloves by both the media and members of the public, and Finnish politicians never feel the need to convene a crisis meeting. Such a double-standard response to a reprehensible crime sends a despicable message that rape isn't outrageous - unless the perpetrator is a foreigner.

It's true that immigrants are over-represented in rape statistics - as stated by criminal law professor emeritus Terttu Utriainen but it's equally important not to loose sight of the fact that majority of rapes reported to the police are still committed by ethnic Finns. Statics can be interpreted in many ways and too often they're interpreted to the disadvantage of minority groups but the bottom line is, rape is rape. All cases should be loudly condemned - irrespective of the perpetrator's ethnicity. Highlighting only cases involving foreigners is racist, xenophobic and designed to demonize a group of people. By the way, foreigners in Finland aren't a homogenous group - so it doesn't make sense to lump all foreigners - from more than a hundred different countries - and compare them to a homogenous group of Finns.

I understand the predicament of asylum-seekers who organised the apology march in Oulu. It feels like they're "behind enemy lines". But I think they shouldn't have apologized for a crime they didn't commit. Finns don't apologize when individual members of the majority group commit crimes. Some Finns might condemn a crime committed by a compatriot, and maybe distance themselves from the perpetrator - but they certainly don't apologize for for the crime. Asylum-seekers should have simply organized a march against rape and sexual violence.

After the Paris terror attacks that left 130 people dead, three Muslim comedians in Pakistan took a stand against the violence in a video that went viral online. What comedians refused to do is apologize for the actions of terrorists. That's the way it should be.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The viral racist Finnish woman (VIDEO)

A disturbing video of a racist Finnish woman verbally abusing an African woman on the streets in Finland in broad daylight has been shared widely and discussed online. The video, which looks like a 1960s scene in the deeply racist American south, is difficult to watch and some people, especially Africans and all people of African descent may find it extremely offensive. It portrays Finland in a racist light, and all Finns of goodwill must be embarrassed by it.

An African woman endured a racist verbal attack in Finland in October 2015. The incident was captured on video, as many incidents are captured nowadays, and uploaded to the internet - then widely shared on social media. The video, which is available on Facebook and YouTube, is also making rounds via mobile messaging applications like WhatsApp. The video was also picked up by foreign news outlets such as RT, the Daily Mail and Nairobi News. Incidentally, major news outlets in Finland like Helsingin Sanomat and Yle intentionally or unintentionally didn't carry the story.

According to Iltalehti, the incident took place on Friday 23 October 2015 around Sello shopping centre in the Leppävaara district of Espoo. The woman on the receiving end of the racist abuse is a Kenyan practical nurse.

My view

First of all, I am disappointed that the racist woman's face wasn't captured on the video. The "naming and shaming" approach is sometimes an effective way of dealing with racists - many of whom live unidentified among decent people in communities. Some of them might even be working with kids, some of whom might be black, in places like daycare centers - and who knows what the kids might be going through in their hands. Racists, I believe, should be "outed" whenever and wherever possible so that society, including their colleagues, family, friends and acquaintances can know who they truly are.

That said, some viewers might be interested to know what happened in the build up to the racist outburst but I won't go into it because it's immaterial. Nothing can justify such a blatant display of racism and narrow-mindedness. Racism is a big problem in Finland and it stems from ignorance - the kind of ignorance demonstrated by the racist who thinks that all non-whites, inlcuding refugees displaced by war are "welfare shoppers". Many non-whites in Finland have experienced some form of racism in the country. In fact, the Kenyan woman in this case told Iltalehti that it's not the first time she experienced racism in Finland.

Racially motivated verbal abuse is by no means uncommon in Finland. According to Yle, many immigrants encounter offensive language daily. A Cameroonian social worker, for instance, told Yle that he was called the N-word once when he was taking his kid to daycare. A 29-year-old Libyan woman told Yle that she was once spat on by a Finnish man in a bus. These examples go to show that the experience of the Kenyan woman in Espoo is unique but it's share by many immigrants in Finland.

Although the video of the racist Finnish woman is shocking, it isn't surprising. The only thing that is a little bit surprising in this case is that the racist woman appears to be sober and not under the influence of alcohol. In many cases of verbal racist abuse in Finland the perpetrators always appear drunk or under the influence of a substance of some kind. The fact that the racist in this case was sober is a cause for concern because it seems to be an indication that Finnish racists are becoming bolder. They no longer seek courage from alcohol and other intoxicants.

Props to the Kenyan woman involved in the incident for rising above the dirt thrown at her. She handled the situation gracefully. She didn't descend to the inhumane level of the aggressor. She stayed calm and, according to Iltalehti, she made a police report on the incident. But she made one mistake: she didn't video the abuser's face. Finnish police, I believe, will say the racist didn't break any laws in this case. This is where my disappointment comes in: had the racist Finnish woman's face been captured in the video she would have faced some sort of justice in the court of public opinion. Perhaps her employer or decent friends would have reined her in. But again - that's unlikely to happen in Finland. Now it feels like she got away with the most brazen verbal racist attack I've seen in Finland.

What has been dubbed the "Syrian refugee crisis" and the "influx of refugees" has tested European standards of humanity, and many Europeans - politicians and ordinary people alike - have failed the test woefully. The crisis has unmasked racism of scary proportions in many European countries, including Finland. 

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