Blasphemous Teddy Bear Update
Earlier today, a Sudanese court convicted British schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons of the "crime" of insulting religion by allowing her class of six and seven year olds to name a teddy bear Mohammed. Ms. Gibbons was sentenced to 15 days in prison after which she will be deported from the country. She could have received 40 lashes and six months in prison had she been convicted on all charges.
By the standards of Sudan's genocidal Islamist regime, Ms. Gibbons has gotten off lightly. Still, the absurdity of her ordeal speaks for itself. It is outrageous that anyone should spend 15 minutes in jail because of what someone called a stuffed animal, let alone 15 days. The key question is why the Sudanese authorities chose to engage in such thoroughly ridiculous behavior.
There is little evidence that the regime was responding to a groundswell of popular outrage. According to one of Ms. Gibbons's coworkers, the school had already acted to resolve the situation weeks earlier, when they realized there might be a problem, and none of her students' parents complained anyway. Even after her arrest, a number of students spoke in her defense. Sudanese bloggers, admittedly not the most representative sample of public opinion, have been almost unanimous in condemning the prosecution of Ms. Gibbons. In short, this was a matter that the Sudanese authorities could have easily ignored. So why didn't they?
In a piece for the Guardian's Comment is Free web site, Meera Selva offers one possible explanation. She argues that the Khartoum regime is attempting to show itself standing up to infidel foreigners at a time when it is gradually losing control of the situation in Darfur. There is some truth to this, but in my view the major reason lies elsewhere. In her article, Ms. Selva points out that the Sudanese regime has begun to downplay Islamism in favor of Arabism, and that it was the Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, who were vehemently demanding that Ms. Gibbons be punished. Therefore, it is much more likely that the Sudanese regime seized on this thoroughly trivial incident to burnish its Islamist credentials.
A piece from today's Times of London describes how Sudan's pro-regime media joined with the Islamists to try to whip up popular sentiment against Ms. Gibbons:
With little public interest in the English primary school teacher and the teddy bear she had named Mohamed, Ms Gibbons’s colleagues had hoped that the matter would never reach court and that she might be freed without a fuss. Yesterday, however, Sudanese newspapers, radio and television woke to her story and Ms Gibbons was charged later with insulting Islam.
In a fiery editorial, the pro-Government Akhir Lahza (Last Moment) newspaper demanded that one of Osama bin Laden’s associates give evidence at her trial. It said that Hassan al-Turabi, once seen as the Islamic brain behind the Government and the man who invited bin Laden to live in Khartoum during the 1990s, should be called as an expert witness.
As the rhetoric was ratcheted up, fears rose of mass demonstrations against Ms Gibbons after Friday prayers. Members of a moderate Sufi sect spent the day leafleting Khartoum’s Arab market in front of the city’s Great Mosque, urging the faithful to protest. “What has been done by this infidel lady is considered a matter of contempt and an insult to Muslims’ feelings and also the pollution of children’s mentality as an attempt to wipe their identity,” the leaflet said. It called on a million people to take to the streets after prayers tomorrow.
The article was published before Ms. Gibbons's trial, and ends on a chilling note:
Ms Gibbon’s plight moves to Khartoum’s courts today when she is due to appear before a judge who will decide whether there is a case to answer. As the demonstration on the campus wound down, a group of young men huddled over a sheet of paper drafting an angry statement on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Elsheikh El Nour, a veterinary scientist, summed up their position. “If she made an innocent mistake and did not mean Muhammad the Prophet there is no problem,” he said, sipping sweet tea. “But if she meant Muhammad the Prophet, this is a big problem for Muslims. She must die.”
Considering that the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood has a track record of killing "apostates" and "blasphemers", there are legitimate reasons to fear for Ms. Gibbons's safety. The regime in Khartoum needs to know that there will be consequences if she does not safely return home as soon as possible.