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Sudan On the Brink: The Battle Over a Teddy Bear Named Muhammed

Gregg Zachary: There must be a way to condemn the Sudanese government for violence against minorities without defending attacks on core Islamic beliefs.
This post, written by Gregg Zachary, originally appeard on Africa Works

I feel sympathy for the British school teacher, Gillian Gibbons, jailed in Sudan for disrespecting the prophet Muhammed. Sudanese jails don’t have a reputation for hospitality. Gibbons’s crime — naming a stuffed animal after the Muslim holy man — seems trivial. The British government is outraged over the jailing, and human-rights activists around the world are understandably disturbed by the sentence. Yet at the risk of appearing uncharitable, I think the Sudanese officials who say they have shown charity towards Ms. Gibbons are making a good point.

We are crossing a fault-line between the West and the Rest when it comes to teddy bear named Muhammed. The school teacher was not teaching European kids but rather Muslim children of priviledged Sudanese families. Ms. Gibbons need not possess some unusual knowledge of Sudanese society, or Islamic culture, to know about prohibitions against idolatry. These prohibitions are basic to Islam and a respect for these prohibitions ought to be considered a minimum practice of multi-cultural tolerance. That Ms. Gibbons failed to display minimal respect for Islamic practices in Sudan would seem to be beyond rational debate. The only question is whether she should be punished for her lapse — and how.

My feeling is that dismissal from her teaching post, and deportation, should be sufficient punishment for her mistake. Even devout Muslims in Sudan should not insist on a greater punishment. To give Ms. Gibbons jail time — even 24 hours no less the 15 days given to her by a court in Sudan — is excessive and unjust. Yet the suggestion that Sudan’s officials have no justification in sanctioning Ms. Gibbons isn’t credible either. Ms. Gibbons is not being punished for exercizing her free speech or free expression. She was, after all, a paid employee of a school, and schools everywhere have their own standards. Governments too. It would seem to be much more productive to think of this hapless British school teacher as running afoul of a cultural tripwire that, while trivial, is nonetheless not inconsequential, especially in an African-Muslim society where mores are well established.
G. Pascal Zachary, editor of Africa Works, contributes the Ping column on innovation to The New York Times and writes often about African affairs for newspapers, magazines and journals. He has reported on more than 40 countries since 1995 and most recently completed assignments in Peru, China, Uganda, Rwanda and Malawi.
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