Teacher pardoned for bear gaffe

In September 2007, Gillian Gibbons, a teacher at Unity High School in Khartoum, Sudan, was teaching her class about animals and their habitats so allowed her class of primary school pupils to choose the name of the class teddy bear. The class of seven year olds chose “Muhammad” and for that Ms. Gibbons spent 15 days in jail and was deported.

Ms. Gibbons was arrested for insulting Islam, after another school staffmember complained to the Ministry of Education.

According to the New York Times:

Under Sudanese law, the teacher, Gillian Gibbons, could have spent six months in jail and been lashed 40 times.

“She got a very light punishment,” said Rabie A. Atti, a government spokesman. “Actually, it’s not much of a punishment at all. It should be considered a warning that such acts should not be repeated.”

Gibbons, a British subject, who teaches at a private school, began a project on animals and asked her class to suggest a name for a teddy bear. The class voted resoundingly for Muhammad, one of the most common names in the Muslim world and the name of Islam’s holy prophet.

As part of the exercise, Ms. Gibbons told her students to take the bear home, photograph it and write a diary entry about it. The entries were collected in a book called “My Name Is Muhammad.” Most of her students were Muslim children from wealthy Sudanese families.

The government said that when some parents saw the book, they complained to the authorities. In Islam, insulting the Prophet Muhammad is a grave offense, and in northern Sudan, where Khartoum is, it is a crime. The government said it was insulting to name an animal or toy Muhammad.

Hard-line Muslim groups picked up on the incident and responded with protests. Several thousand Muslims marched in Sudan’s capital Khartoum on Sunday, calling for a rough sentence.

According to news agencies, some of the protesters chanted: “Shame, shame on the UK”, “No tolerance – execution” and “Kill her, kill her by firing squad”.

The hardline Khartoum protesters gathered in Martyrs Square, outside the presidential palace in the capital, many of them carrying knives and sticks.

But, Ekklesia reports, other Muslim groups were horrified at the calls for violence.

But Muslims elsewhere expressed horror and sadness at the treatment of Ms Gibbons, condemning also some sensationalist reporting in the tabloids.

The Federation of Student Islamic Societies (Fosis), which represents more than 90,000 Muslim students in Britain and Ireland, had said it was “deeply concerned” at what was a “gravely disproportionate” verdict.

The federation’s president, Ali Alhadithi, said: “What we have here is a case of cultural misunderstandings, and the delicacies of the matter demonstrate that it was not the intention of Gillian Gibbons to imply any offence against Islam or Muslims. We hope that the Sudanese authorities will take immediate action to secure a safe release for Gillian Gibbons.”

Not many Sudanese, though, took part in the protests outside of those mobilized by the groups, according to the Times:

Despite the attempts by Islamic clerics to mobilize the masses against Ms. Gibbons, many Sudanese did not take to the streets.

Najla Hussein, who works at a mobile phone company in Khartoum, said she thought Ms. Gibbons should have been set free.

“Our government creates such problems to divert the eyes of the world community from our domestic problems,” Ms. Hussein said. “I am sure that the case of the British teacher is politically motivated and has got nothing to do with our prophet.”

The Times says that the arrest may have been in response to criticism of Sudanese government by British representatives to the United Nations.

Sudan’s relations with the West — especially Britain — are as strained as ever. Many developed countries are increasingly frustrated with what they consider stalling tactics by the Sudanese to delay the deployment of peacekeepers to Darfur, the troubled region of western Sudan.

Sudan, meanwhile, has accused the West of being anti-Islamic.

Beyond that, on Tuesday, Sir John Sawers, the British representative to the United Nations, criticized the Sudanese government on a number of issues, including the languishing international arrest warrants for a Sudanese official and a militia leader in Darfur.

The next day, the Sudanese government decided to press charges against Ms. Gibbons.

Read the Eklessia story here , the New York Times coverage here, and other press coverage here and here.

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