Friday, November 30, 2007

"She must be killed by the sword."

Today, in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, over 1,000 Islamists rallied to demand the death of Gillian Gibbons, the British schoolteacher who allowed her class to name a teddy bear Mohammed. The Guardian provides this account of the demonstration:

While many in Khartoum thought the arrest was harsh - the Sudanese blogosphere is awash with derision aimed at the authorities - leaflets were distributed at some mosques calling for protests against Gibbons after Friday prayers.

Some protesters arrived at Khartoum's central mosque on foot, waving knives, clubs and ceremonial swords. Others came on the back of pick-up trucks, covered in printed banners and flags. Initially, the atmosphere was jovial, as the first groups of men moved towards Martyrs Square in front of the president's palace in central Khartoum. Passersby shook their fists in encouragement and motorists honked their horns. But the mood soon darkened as the crowd swelled to more than 1,000.

Organisers shouted encouragement through megaphones. The crowd responded with traditional Islamic chants, extolling Allah, urging the death of anyone who insulted the prophet Muhammad. Newspaper pictures of Gibbons were burned on a makeshift stage at the heart of Martyrs Square. One protester was seen making a stabbing gesture with his sword. A group of men shouted: "She must be killed by the sword."

Men wearing traditional robes and turbans leaned out of car windows waving swords and machete-like blades. Individuals shouted threats at western journalists, shouting: "You must go", and drawing their fingers across their throats.

There was little doubt the protest had been carefully orchestrated. The banners waved by marchers and tied to the front of vehicles had all been pre-printed. Before the verdict, imams across the city also focused on the case in their sermons. One address, broadcast on national radio, accused Gibbons of purposefully comparing the prophet to a bear - an animal that was "alien" to Sudan, he said. "She deserved what she got," he added.

(Emphasis added-DD)

It is hard to comprehend the fanaticism and/or rank stupidity of those who believe that this was a deliberate effort to insult the Prophet Mohammed. It is abundantly clear that this was an innocent mistake by an individual who meant no offense. Ms. Gibbons said as much at her trial. Unforunately, as this analysis from the AP explains, the Sudanese regime has its own reasons for persecuting her:

But the case was caught up in the ideology that President Omar al-Bashir's Islamic regime has long instilled in Sudan, a mix of anti-colonialism, religious fundamentalism and a sense that the West is besieging Islam.

"The escalation is deliberate," said Mariam al-Mahdi, a leader of the main opposition Umma party. "There has been a strong official mobilization in the media and mosques against the so-called imperialists and the crusaders."

She pointed to nationalistic songs often played on state media, including one that proclaims, "For you America, we were trained and for you prophet, we were armed."

Gibbons' defense lawyer, al-Gizouli, said that given the strong religious feeling in Sudan, "if you tell the people that someone has done such and such, they get angry ... without (finding out) what exactly happened, the facts, the reality."

By prosecuting Gibbons, the government may have wanted to raise public anger to bolster its resistance to including Western peacekeepers in the United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force that is supposed to deploy in Darfur, al-Gizouli said.

"You take an event like this teacher incident, enlarge it and make a bomb out of it," he told AP. The aim is to show "Muslims in Sudan don't want these people (Westerners) to interfere, we want African troops."

Al-Bashir said in early November that he would not allow Scandinavian countries to join the peacekeeping force because newspapers there published the cartoons that insulted the Prophet Muhammad.

By prosecuting and imprisoning Ms. Gibbons over a thoroughly ridiculous non-incident, the Sudanese regime seeks to burnish its Islamist credentials and foster anti-Western sentiment while still appearing "moderate" in comparison to the true fanatics who want to murder her. This incident is yet another tragic case study in how the combined efforts of authoritarian regimes and Islamist mass movements imperil intellectual freedom in the Muslim world.


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