The guilty verdict against Gillian Gibbons is absurdity itself. The case is triply insane: the storm generated over a pathetic teddy bear; the involvement of the state and judiciary; and finally the sentencing of the poor woman.
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. Based on UN statistics from the 2007 Workplan for Sudan, there are 2,152,163 internally displaced persons in Darfur as of July 2007; an estimated 2,276,000 in Northern Sudan as of January 2007; an estimated 245,000 in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile; and an unknown number in Southern Sudan. In its Displaced Populations Report, January-June 2007, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates the number in the whole of the Sudan at 465,000. Nearly one in seven are in need of aid in the country; the equivalent of the population of Wales.
The truth is that this is a political affair from start to finish. Gibbons was collateral damage in a dispute between the Sudanese government and Britain. Last month, Gordon Brown threatened further sanctions against Sudan following a peace conference hosted by Libya with the objective of ending conflict in the Darfur region. 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.
Is freedom of expression and conscience the issue here? Plainly not, and to cast it in such terms is to attach undue significance to it. Gibbons was expressing no religious, intellectual or political position when she invited her pupils to select a name for a soft toy.
But even if we were dealing with a freedom of thought and speech case, even if this were a writer or an artist airing views objectionable to a section of Muslims, this still does not grant the state or judiciary the right to intervene. Rulers are not entitled to sit in judgment over individuals’ minds, what they believe, say, or write, so long as these do not harm others, or disrupt peace and stability in the land.
It is intriguing that seven or eight centuries ago, the Muslim world had been more accepting of difference than it is today. Tens of sects, creeds, and schools of thought coexisted peacefully in the same open space. Their interaction created the pioneering tradition of munadhara, or public debate. Caliphs’ courts and mosques were the scenes of countless of these munadharat, which brought Muslim philosophers, theologians and jurists face to face with the followers of other creeds in one of the most intellectually fertile regions of the world.
But for much of the last two centuries of gunpowder and conquest the Muslim world has been off balance, shaken to the roots by a crisis of identity, torn, anxious, more introverted and less free. And in an era of terrorism and counter-terrorism, ruled by the logic of clashes of civilisations, the Sudanese government is pouring oil over fire, fanning the flames of hatred, and feeding prejudice with the tale of a teddy bear called Muhammad.
First Published in The Guardian, Friday 30 November 2007