Reprieve at last
By Ishtiaq Ahmed; The News; 12/8/2007:
Once again, ample proof is in hand to suspect that the contemporary world of Islam is in deep moral and intellectual turmoil. A British school teacher, Gillian Gibbons, who arrived only recently in Sudan in August to teach in primary school, has been sentenced to 15 days in prison for allegedly blasphemy against religion and the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) by allowing a student in her class to name her teddy-bear, Muhammad.
I am convinced that although some law on blasphemy does exist in the Sudan, and it does mention that insulting the Prophet (PBUH) carries severe punishment, including the death sentence, the Sudanese lawmakers, as also the original medieval sources, could not have imagined that someone wanting to insult the Prophet (PBUH) would do it by naming a toy after him.
The sentence she received – 15 days in prison – was very lenient for blasphemy, and that largely proves my point: even the authorities are fully aware of the fact that Mrs Gibbons had not even the foggiest idea that naming a teddy-bear in the manner that happened will be construed as an insult to the Prophet (PBUH). Anyone familiar with British or Western cultural practices would know that when pets and toys are given human names it is an indication of affection and fondness and not contempt or insult.
Many years ago, something similar happened in Stockholm. A Swedish dignitary (whose identity I would like to keep anonymous) had named one of his pets, Ali. Some Pakistani students studying at the Royal Technical University got to know about it and wanted to take out a procession to protest the perceived sacrilege and insult. Just by chance, I happened to listen to their angry speeches. After everybody had spoken, I took the floor and urged them not to jump to conclusions before finding out if he had named his pet out of fondness or not. Ali is an easy and popular name and has universal appeal. One can start liking it with all the good intentions instead of prejudice and hatred.
My argument was fortunately accepted by the people who had come to the meeting. It was agreed that a letter should be written to that person, explaining that Ali is a highly revered name among Muslims and pets should never be named Ali. Within days a reply came back with an apology, regretting the hurt it had caused. It was explained that there was no malicious intentions involved; rather he found the name Ali very lovable. He thanked the letter-writers for correcting him. The matter ended there and then.
I know I did not please the group of rabble-rousers who just wanted to make political capital out of an innocent mistake of someone not familiar with Muslim sensibilities. The irony was that these troublemakers were studying free of charge in the famous Swedish engineering university. As educated people their first duty was to find out the intention of the person in question rather than jump to the nastiest of conclusions.
The cultural fascists -- a phenomenon now common all over the world -- claiming to speak in the name of Islam in Sudan took to the streets chanting slogans for the lady teacher's execution for blaspheming against the Prophet (PBUH) without making any effort to find out if there existed any reasonable grounds to suspect that insult to Islam was intended.
Why should someone come to Sudan and start working in a school to give vent to her alleged hatred against Islam makes no sense to someone looking for a rational basis to prove Mrs Gibbon's guilty. On the Internet, currently people who want to insult religion actively do it all the time. The only thing to note in this regard is that not only rabidly anti-Islamic websites exist, but a sort of perverted 'level playing field' obtains and Jesus, the Jews, the Hindus and their gods and indeed Islam – all are described in derogatory terms. Most often those who do this are religious bigots who can't tolerate other faiths and beliefs. Why a middle-aged school teacher would leave her family in Liverpool in order to teach seven-years olds in Sudan is probably more of an indication of an idealist or someone completely naïve. At least she must be totally non-political, not to be aware of the fact that the British government has earned the wrath of the Sudanese government for alleging that genocide is taking place in Darfur.
The British government has been an outspoken critic of such Sudanese policies, although since its own hands are red with the blood of innocent Iraqis the hypocrisy inherent in its stand cannot escape being noticed. In any case, the political fallout of the British government's criticism of what the Sudanese regime has been doing in Darfur could have played a role in getting Mrs Gibbons in trouble.
It is good, then, that the visit to Sudan by two Muslim peers from the British House of Lords, Lord Ahmed and Lady Warsi, ended with Mrs Gibbons release. The peers met the Sudanese president and were able to convince him that the teacher should be pardoned because she did not intend to blaspheme. In an increasingly globalised and pluralised world it is important that channels of communications are kept open so that misunderstandings can be removed quickly.
But this is not going to be the last incident of its kind that will erupt into angry protests and agitation in the Muslim world. There is a rage that pervades the Muslim world, because of a huge gap between its own self-image as the best of all civilizations and the fact that it feels powerlessness vis-à-vis the west. Such a discrepancy between self-image and the negative stark reality has set in motion psychological forces that generate professional agitators, rabble-rousers and even suicide bombers.
Westerners coming to work in the Muslim world should be advised to take lessons in the cultural sensibilities of the people they want to live among and work. Relations between the west and Muslims have reached the nadir, because of the conflicts in the Middle East, Afghanistan and elsewhere. If one were to believe Samuel Huntington, these relations will never become friendly because civilizations represent competing tribes. This is a sad though not necessarily correct conclusion, but at present it seems to hold water.
The writer is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore, on leave from the University of Stockholm. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org