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EARLIER this month a group of Western tourists including the Briton, Eleanor Hawkins, were convicted of causing a public disturbance by posing naked at the top of Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia.

A brief but global media whirlwind followed but why was something that might be regarded as a prank of such interest? Other than the obvious titillation factor, the Western media was much amused by the connection that local offi-cials made between this incident and a subsequent earthquake that took 18 lives. How primitive must people be who hold to such beliefs; or so went the sub-text.

In the local language 'Akinabalu' means the resting place of the dead, a place so sacred that even to point at it was once taboo. Consider the reaction where foreign tourists found dancing naked around war graves, multiply it many times and you might get close to the level of offence this caused.

Whilst some of the allegations against the tourists had been exaggerated there is little doubt that local tour guides had explained why removing this would cause such offence but the tourists had gone ahead regardless. Whilst the prosecution had sought the standard sentence of three months' imprisonment for the crime of committing an obscene act, the court exercised considerable lenience in releasing them after three days with a fine and a banning order.

This case will quickly disappear from the public mind though it will last longer in the memories of people in the local community; so why do I think it worth further comment? The answer is that I think it tells us something important and disturbing about the loss of a sense of the sacred in the West. Consider for a moment that these young people knew they were travelling in a highly conservative country, one in which religious traditions are evident in mosques, temples and churches that crowd every town and village and whose sounds and scents are a constant companion.

Evidently the tourists knew enough not to take their clothes off in populated areas but as soon as they were away from the gaze of the locals they felt liberated enough to do just that. If they were as ignorant of local customs as their defenders suggested, they would have been charged with obscenity somewhere else; but instead they chose their spot with care. In other words it was only the potential consequences of ignoring local beliefs that mattered in their decision to observe the rules in some places but to ignore it on the mountain top. The fact of causing deep offence did not matter to them; only the prospect of being caught. Had they exercised some patience before posting pictures on Facebook they might have got away with it; but then again, patience is a virtue.

To acknowledge what is sacred to others does not require us to accept it ourselves but it does require us to respect the places, actions and living things that are accorded reverence - places such as Mount Kinabalu, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Women's War Memorial in Whitehall, all sacred to different people, for The fact of causing offence didn't matter to different reasons. The anti-austerity protestors who defaced the Women's War Memorial last month shared the tourists' lack of concern for what others hold dear; just because others hold it dear. They may have thought of themselves as completely different from the tourists, they were left-wing protestors, the tourists merely exhibitionists and the people they offended were different. But their carelessness of deep offence was the same and its roots feed thrillseeking tourists and political radicals alike.

them, only getting caught Western societies broadly agree that protection should not be afforded to the easily offended but we sometimes appear unaware that other cultures draw their lines quite differently. Perhaps I am exaggerating the importance of this case; perhaps my own connections with Malaysia lead me to share the offence felt by people there; or perhaps I am just getting old. But in a month in which the Papal Encyclical 'Laudato Si' tried to remind us that everything is sacred; the West can sometimes look like a place in which nothing is sacred at all. This matters; not least because this is the image of the West which our enemies use to recruit new followers.

Ron Beadle is Professor of |Organization and Business Ethics at Northumbria University

The fact of causing offence didn't matter to them, only getting caught
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:9MALA
Date:Jun 30, 2015
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