By Ibrahim Abdil-Mu'id Ramey
MAS Freedom Civil and Human Rights Director
As the world knows by now, a British secondary school teacher in Khartoum, Sudan was arrested by Sudanese authorities for allegedly defaming the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Unto Him) when, as part of a class project at the Unity School, a stuffed toy bear was named Muhammad. The name was voted on by the entire class, apparently not to refer to the Prophet of Islam, but in honor of a male classmate.
The teacher, Gillian Gibbons, was then reported to authorities by another faculty member and subsequently charged with blasphemy and promoting religious hatred. The initial, possible penalty faced by Gibbons was one year imprisonment and 50 lashes; which was, at the time of this writing, reduced to 15-days jail time and deportation.
News sources report that some 600 demonstrators congregated in Khartoum to protest the alleged defamation of Prophet Muhammad. Some were reported to have called for the execution of the teacher.
Lets review: the naming of a stuffed, toy bear after a boy in a classroom in Sudan has been transformed into a major international incident; a teacher has been incarcerated; a few zealots have called for her severe punishment; and the governments of the United Kingdom and Sudan are now embroiled in a major spat.
This incident is perfect for fueling the rhetoric of Islamophobes and Islamic extremists alike, and selling tabloid newspapers.
But it's also a matter that has serious repercussions, not only for Muslims in Sudan, but for the global Muslim community as well.
Why should we be concerned about a single teacher and a Teddy Bear? The emerging truth of the matter is that the school children themselves, and not their teacher, chose to name the toy bear. That alone should have been enough to exonerate Ms. Gibbons, and bring the matter to a swift (and innocuous) conclusion, however, the current climate of mutual distrust and animosity between many people in the "West" and the Muslim world, has grown into something so pervasive that an 'incident' such as this has erupted into a major incident.
There are people in the Muslim world - particularly in the aftermath of last year's Danish cartoon incident - who believe that Muslims should vigilantly defend their faith and Prophet against defamation. And we should. But we should be collectively judicious in judging if, and when, the defamation of our faith actually occurs.
I seriously doubt that Ms. Gibbons acted in an intentionally disrespectful way toward Islam and Prophet Muhammad. She should not have been punished, and she is owed a serious apology by the state and people of Sudan.
Then, there is the issue of what the people of Sudan should really be concerned about.
Given the ongoing crisis in Darfur, the disintegration of the North-South unity government, armed insurrection in eastern Sudan, and the Herculean task of rebuilding the nation after a horrific 20-year civil war, I would humbly submit that the Sudanese government, and its people, might want to invest their energy in responding to issues much more important than the naming of a toy.
I trust that Ms. Gibbons will be freed by the authorities in Khartoum, although I expect that her teaching experience in Sudan will come to an abrupt, and unhappy, conclusion given the news of her pending deportation.
It is my sincere hope that responsible parties on both sides of the issue will use this incident as an opportunity to examine the danger of over-reaction, on the part of some Muslims, to unintentional offenses. Likewise, people in the Christian world should not use such events to mischaracterize or stereotype all Muslims as extremists.
It's all too much for the Muslim world to bear.
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