What Sudan Needs Is More Teachers
by Sheila Musaji
Even in Sudan, the protests receiving all the worldwide attention were only of hundreds of people, or thousands at the most, not huge mobs for Sudan which is the largest country in Africa.
Certainly, in a country like Sudan under a repressive government there are no public demonstrations unless the government wants there to be public demonstrations. Perhaps the President of Sudan, Omar al Bashir thought that this teacher could be used somehow to deflect attention or to bargain with Britain over Darfur. Or perhaps al Bashir orchestrated the whole thing to step in at the last minute and pardon the teacher, thus setting himself up as a “good guy”.
I can’t help but wonder in a country that is so poor and has such a high rate of illiteracy, what the “demonstrators” yelling for blood were told about what had happened. I doubt that they read about the facts in a newspaper. My very strong suspicion is that the reports they were fed would have stressed that a Christian, British teacher had named a toy bear after the Prophet Muhammad in order to insult Islam - not an accurate depiction of the facts, but twisting the facts to inflame an already simmering mistrust of The West generally, and Britain in particular. Sudan was colonized by the British, and the British massacres and injustices towards the people of Sudan are still remembered vividly. The U.S. bombing of a pharmaceutical factory a few years ago is also remembered. Bits and pieces of the Danish cartoon incident, as well as statements insulting the Prophet Muhammad made by religious, political, and military figures in the West have been widely reported. Many Sudanese, like many other Muslims feel that Islam and the Prophet are under attack by the West. Taking all of this into account, it would not take a lot to stir up the Sudanese street.
As Hana Baba, a former student at the school involved wrote: The Sudanese haven’t been exposed to the ‘teddy bear culture,’ where a bear is cuddly and warm. To them, a bear is a ferocious, gluttonous, dumb animal whose name is often used to insult obese people. Naming a toy bear Muhammed, regardless of intent, was offensive. The flame lit, it grew in days to become a red-hot fire, wiping out logic and understanding. The school closed down, and immediately did what you do in a country like Sudan—play by society’s rules. It ran ads in local papers that affirmed the school’s respect for all religions and essentially apologized for the teacher’s conduct. The angry mobs are now satisfied for having “taught the school a lesson” and have “stood in the face of Western Islamophobia.”
Soumaya Ghannoushi pointed out that: It is a cruel irony that we should be commenting on the name of a teddy bear when Sudan is threatened with fragmentation, and plagued with war and disease. The country has the largest internally displaced population in the world generated by two decades of civil war.
Soumaya also made an excellent point Britain’s involvement in Sudan has, in truth, not always been constructive or conducive to reconciliation between the warring parties in the west and the south. The teddy bear affair seems to have been the Sudanese government’s revenge against London. In a country whose national memory is still profoundly scarred by the massacres of Gordon and Kitchener, it does not take much to stir tension and suspicion against the British.
In a Q&A on this incident published by the AP it was noted that: British Muslim organizations have strenuously condemned the Sudanese prosecution of the teacher, Gillian Gibbons, who was sentenced to 15 days in prison. Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, who chairs the interfaith council of the Muslim Council of Britain, says the Sudanese trial was more political than religious. Gibbons did make a mistake, he says, but it was an innocent one. A Muslim teacher would not have named a teddy bear Muhammad because “they know the score with the name,” Mogra said, adding that such stuffed toys were largely alien to Sudanese culture. “In Britain, there are hardly any children who grew up without a teddy bear,” Mogra said. “In the Sudanese culture, the bear is not a cuddly thing. It is seen as vicious, ferocious animal, and when you use the name Muhammad and attach it to a ferocious animal, there is scope there for it to cause (suspicion).”
Nowhere else in the Muslim world or in any Muslim communities anywhere has there been any support for the decision of the Sudanese to charge and imprison this teacher. In fact, everywhere the response has been to demand her release.
The Federation of Student Islamic Societies (Fosis), which represents more than 90,000 Muslim students in the UK and Ireland issued a statement condemning the conviction of the British teacher and asking the Sudanese authorities to release her immediately. The Muslim Council of Britain called the conviction “wrong”.
Two Muslim members of the British Parliament travelled to Sudan to meet with government officials to request the immediate release of the teacher. The Muslim American Society defended the teacher, and it is their direct action that may have caused Gillian Gibbons to have been pardoned and released by Omar al Bashir.
British Muslims organized a protest outside the Sudanese Embassy: Free Gillian Gibbons Now!
In the U.S. MPAC issued a statement saying it was appalled by Sudanese jailing of teacher for naming Teddy Bear ‘Muhammad’. Ibrahim Hooper of CAIR said “The complaint brought against Gillian Gibbons was an inappropriate use of Sudan’s legal system to deal with what was in essence a disagreement between parents and a teacher. Ms. Gibbons should never have been charged. She should be released immediately.”
Mirza Beg called the Sudanese decision a “Travesty of Justice and a Caricature of the Islamic Law”. Osama Saeed pointed out that there is a popular Teddy Bear in Britain named “Adam the Prayer Bear” who recites verses from the Qur’an when his limbs and paws are pressed. There is also a puppet named Adam that is used in Sound Vision children’s videos right here in the U.S. And now we have a businessman in Arizona who is marketing Teddy Bear’s with the words “My name is Muhammad” embroidered across the chest. I am certain that no Muslim will object.
This incident points to a lot of problems in Sudan and in many poor countries, particularly to the need for education as a top priority in these countries (general education as well as Islamic education). It is sad that Sudan has now lost one teacher when teachers are what is most needed. As one Muslim noted in a letter to the editor in the SF Chronicle: The government of Sudan needs to sign up for two courses: Islamic Sharia 101 and Child Development 101.
This case was not as some like Robert Spencer have claimed a part of an “ideological war with the global jihad.” It is not indicative of a deep divide between Western culture and Islam or the Muslim world, although it is indicative of a divide between the developed nations and the poor and disenfranchised of the world. It is not an example of the upholding of Sharia Law, but an example of what can happen in defiance of Sharia in the interest of politics. All of the facts of this “case” point to the fact that even the most basic rule of law under Sharia - intention - was not met.
What is needed now is for the government of Sudan to apologize to Gillian Gibbons for the injustice that was done to her. And, while they are at it to apologize to the Muslims of the world for the way Islam was misrepresented and maligned by their actions. This teacher was charged with insulting Islam, but no one in this incident has insulted Islam except the government and court of Sudan.