Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Teddy Bear That Blasphemed

Did you hear about the British teacher who went to Sudan in order to teach and found herself in a heap of trouble?
It probably seemed like the most innocent of ideas to the newly arrived teacher from England, still settling into life in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. She asked her class of six- and seven-year-olds to dress up and name a teddy bear, and keep a diary of his outings. She hoped it would provide material for projects for the rest of the year. And it might have, except for the name the children chose for their bear: Muhammad.

Now Gillian Gibbons, 54, is spending her second night in a Sudanese prison, accused of insulting Islam's Prophet. She faces a public lashing or up to six months in prison if found guilty on charges of blasphemy. And Unity High School — one of a number of exclusive British-run schools in the Sudanese capital — has been closed as staff fear reprisals from Islamic extremists. Robert Boulos, the school's director, said the incident had been blown out of all proportion, but added that the school would remain closed until January to let ill feelings blow over.

"This was a completely innocent mistake," he said in an office decorated with sepia photographs dating back to the school's colonial heyday. "Miss Gibbons would have never wanted to insult Islam."

Police raided the school, where Gibbons also lives, on Sunday.

"We tried to reason with them but we felt they were coming under strong pressure from Islamic courts," said Boulos. "There were men with big beards asking where she was and saying they wanted to kill her."

A similar angry crowd had gathered by the time she arrived at the Khartoum police station where she is being held.

Unity, founded early in the last century, is one of several British schools run along Christian lines in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. Its high brick walls shut out the dust of everyday Sudanese life, transporting the visitor into the shady courtyard of an Oxbridge college or English private school. Many of its pupils come from well-to-do Sudanese families keen for their children to get the best education that money can buy. But Sudan is ruled by religious conservatives. Sharia law was introduced in 1991; alcohol is banned and women must wear headscarves. Convicted criminals are routinely flogged or executed.

The bizarre turn of events that led to the teacher's arrest began in September, soon after she arrived in the country, according to colleagues who have rallied in her support. Her young class was due to study the behavior and habitat of bears, so she suggested that pupils bring in a teddy bear to serve as a case study. A seven-year-old girl brought in her favorite cuddly toy and the rest of the class was invited to name him. After considering the names Hassan and Abdullah, they voted overwhelmingly in favor of Muhammad — the first name of the most popular boy in the class.

"No parents or teachers complained because they knew she had no bad intention," said Boulos. Until last week. Parents from another class raised concerns with the school. Then Sudan's feared police came calling at the weekend. Gibbons' colleagues said they feared a disgruntled member of staff may be using the issue to cause trouble.

Bishop Ezikiel Kondo, chairman of the school council, said: "The thing may be very simple, but they just may make it bigger. It's a kind of blackmail." Khartoum has exploded with anger at accusations of blasphemy in the past. Last year angry demonstrators denounced cartoons of the Prophet that appeared in Danish newspapers. And there have been protests at the actions of Zoe's Ark, a French charity accused of trying to smuggle children out of neighboring Chad.

Now everyone is waiting to see whether religious leaders or politicians will take their supporters onto the streets this time. Most parents arriving at the school gates were supportive of the British teacher. One mother, whose seven-year-old son was in Gibbons' class, said her family had not been offended by the name. "Our Prophet Muhammad tells us to be forgiving," she said. "So she should be released. She didn't mean any of this at all."
And now we learn that the self-proclaimed arbiters of the "religion of tolerance," demanded (and got) "harsh punishment" from Sudan's "justice" system for Gibbons' so-called "offense:" (emphasis ours)
The British teacher who let her pupils call a teddy bear Mohammed escaped a flogging yesterday - but must now endure 15 days in a notorious Sudan jail.

Gillian Gibbons will be incarcerated at the squalid Omdurman women's prison in Khartoum, which is massively overcrowded and infested with mosquitoes. The 54-year-old from Liverpool was said to be "stunned" by the sentence imposed for insulting Islam - after which she will be deported from Sudan.

Last night, her conviction and punishment were furiously condemned and the Foreign Office was criticised for not fighting her case more forcefully.

"The sentence is a mockery of justice and we consider Gillian to be a prisoner of conscience," said Mike Blakemore, of Amnesty International.

Malcolm Moss, a Tory member of the Commons foreign affairs committee, said: "This is disgraceful. She only named a teddy bear and she is serving 15 days in jail.

"It is tokenism by the Sudanese government. If they had really felt she had insulted Islam, they would have sentenced her to much longer. It seems they are scoring points.

"Our government dithered over intervening and this is what happens. We should have been a lot tougher, a lot sooner."

Foreign Secretary David Miliband called in the Sudanese ambassador for the second time in hours last night to protest over the verdict. He said: "We are extremely disappointed that the charges were not dismissed.

"Our clear view is that this is an innocent misunderstanding by a dedicated teacher. Our priority now is to ensure Mrs Gibbons' welfare and wellbeing."

Mrs Gibbons's MP, Louise Ellman, said: "I do realise that the sentence could have been harder, but 15 days in a jail in Sudan could be very, very harsh.

"I think there's distress and anger and I can't see much positive that has come from this. The sentence could have been harsher, but that's not exactly a positive thing at all."

The Omdurman prison where Mrs Gibbon will be locked up was built for 200, but now houses 1,200 women and 300 children, most of the adults jailed for illegally brewing alcohol. (Ed's note: get more info about Omdurman prision right here.)

Last night, her son John said the family are struggling to take in the news of her punishment. "It's really difficult at the moment, my head is everywhere," the 25-year-old marketing consultant added.

"I don't want the verdict to lead to any anti feeling towards Muslims. Everyone has been very nice, but one of my fears, and I imagine my mother's also, will be that this results in any sort of resentment towards Muslim people."

He is hoping to visit his mother in jail and urged the Foreign Office to help speed up the visa process.

The Muslim Council of Britain called the sentence completely unjustified.

"I'm utterly disappointed with this decision," said the council's Ibrahim Mogra. "We have been calling on the Sudanese authorities to show leniency, that this was a case of an innocent oversight, a misunderstanding, and there was no need for this to be escalated."

The verdict came at the end of a day of drama and farce in Khartoum that saw British diplomats initially prevented from entering the court.

Defence lawyers said they would appeal. But with the Sudan authorities planning a major security operation today amid expected protests by hardline Islamic leaders urging tougher sentencing, there were fears the tactic could backfire.

British officials said they would be pressing for a reduction in sentence, and the five days Mrs Gibbons has already spent in custody might count against the 15 to be served.

The Sudanese authorities were also said to have started preparing deportation documents for this weekend, leading to speculation she could be freed as early as tomorrow.

Ali Mohammed Ajab, a member of her defence team, described the verdict as "very unfair".

He said: "She apologised to the court - not that she had done something wrong - but said she was simply doing her job and did not mean any harm."

Sudan's top Muslim clerics had pressed their government to ensure the teacher was punished harshly, comparing her action to author Salman Rushdie's "blasphemies" against the Prophet.

Mrs Gibbons, a divorced mother-of-two, was arrested on Sunday and on Wednesday charged with insulting Islam, inciting hatred and showing contempt for religious beliefs.

It came after seven-year-old pupils chose to call a teddy bear Mohammed at the Unity High School in Khartoum, where she had worked since August.

During the court case behind closed doors yesterday it was revealed that the school's office assistant, Sara Khawad, had complained to the education authorities - leading to the teacher's arrest.

In a statement read to court, Mrs Gibbons tearfully stressed she had not meant to cause offence and pointed out that it had been her pupils who had chosen the name.

There were four prosecution witnesses, and several spoke up for the defence.

Isam Abu Hasabu, chairman of Unity High School's parent-teacher association, said: "The whole thing boiled down to a cultural misunderstanding. In our culture, we don't know the bear as a cuddly symbol of mercy."

Other teachers said many parents had written to the school offering support.

The school's Sudanese director, Robert Boulos, described Mrs Gibbons as "a marvellous teacher", adding: "She was even training our other primary teachers and is an asset to the school.'"
Sadly, these self-same clerics can't find it within themselves to show a little compassion and overlook Gibbon's alleged "offence."

Worse, they seem to be stoking the fires of hate by encouraging the mob to demand Ms. Gibbons' death for her "crime" of naming a Teddy Bear after the Prophet Mohammad:
KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) - Thousands of Sudanese, many armed with clubs and swords and beating drums, burned pictures of a British teacher Friday and demanded her execution for insulting Islam by letting her students name a teddy bear Muhammad.

Sudan's Islamic government, which has long whipped up anti-Western, Muslim hard-line sentiment at home, was balancing between fueling outrage over the case of Gillian Gibbons and containing it.
Read the whole thing.

But then again, this is the type of behavior that can be expected under the type of Islamofascist regime that thinks nothing of suppressing even the most basic rights of its own people.

We continue to be puzzled as to why so many governments in the West (including ours) seem to be "in denial" when it comes to the very real threat posed by Islamofascism.

So should we be surprised?

Update: (05/Dec/07) After some eight days of incarceration, Ms. Gibbons has received a presidential pardon for her "crime" and is now home. Incredibly, (or maybe not so incredibly) she is being generous toward her captors.

Soon, she'll be looking for a job.

There's multiple lessons to be learned here....