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ISSUE 121 VOL 10 PUBLISHED 12/7/2007

Sudan imprisons teacher

By Tim Rehborg
Opinion Editor

Friday, December 7, 2007

This past week, Gillian Gibbons, a 54-year-old teacher from Liverpool, was arrested, imprisoned and then released by Sudanese officials in Khartoum, Sudan. Her crime was this: allowing her students to name their classroom teddy bear "Mohamed," which in Sudan equates to criminal charges of insulting Islam's prophet, insulting religion and inciting hatred.

Gibbons taught at Unity High School, an international school that integrates both Muslim and non-Muslim students. Her class voted to name the teddy "Mohamed." One student is quoted saying, "I named the teddy after me, after my name." While several protests in the streets of Khartoum demanded a harsher sentence for Gibbins, she was eventually released this Monday after Muslim members of the House of Lords negotiated with President al-Bashir of Sudan.

Once again, a case of insulting Islam appears in international headlines, taking us back to the depictions of Mohamed in the Jyllands-Posten Danish newspaper cartoon.

This time around, the situation is a little less perilous. While there have been protests in Khartoum, crowds demanding a harsher punishment, the international response has been a little more stable. Ibrahim Mogra, a member of the Muslim Council of Britain, made this statement: "I have not come across a single Muslim in our country who has supported what has happened." Indeed, the Sudanese government's decision to imprison Gibbins was a poor one, considering the international reputation the government has acquired due to the pseudo-genocide in the Darfur region.

While Gibbons, who claimed to be completely unaware of the gravity of her actions, was released without extensive effort, we see the Qu'ran raise its head in protest once again. To many conservative Muslims, any misuse of the name "Mohamed" is an assault on both Islam and Muslim people, as stated in the Qu'ran.

In countries where religion is one with the government and religious tradition is enforced by the law, there is little dissent against rules like this one. In countries like Sudan or Indonesia, the ruling class appropriates Muslim religious law as social governing for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Before today's extreme globalization descended upon the world, the mono-religious dictate of these laws probably faced little opposition. However, in our current world of mixed cultures and viewpoints, can the law against insulting the prophet Mohamed still stand? I think that there is little question that the extreme response from some Muslim communities over these issues has led to self-censorship among artists, writers and politicians. The violence that occurred after the publication of the Danish Mohamed cartoons solidified Western fear of the conservative wing of Islam.

Is it the responsibility of writers, artists or teachers to censor themselves in order to prevent uprising and to protect peace? We don't grant any other religions the respect and deference we do Islam.

On second thought, I wouldn't call it deference. I would call it fear. There's a reason there isn't a graphic accompanying this article - how would the artist know what representation of Islam or its prophet is going to cause a riot?

I believe that fear-induced self-censorship is far worse than any violent protest. If we give Islam special protection, special treatment and never criticize or satirize, we enter into a downward spiral towards self-censorship of any potential offensive material.

Islam isn't the problem here. As Mogra states above, large numbers of Muslims outside of the Middle East are appalled by Sudan's treatment of Gillian Gibbons. We face a cultural divide between a secular society in which nothing is held completely sacred and a culture entrenched in the mystical figures of the past.

As a member of the former, a secular society that embraces free speech, I refuse to be intimidated into silence. Gibbon's (albeit naïve) decision to name a teddy bear Mohamed has sparked important dialogue in and between both Muslim and non-Muslim parties over the name of Mohamed and what it can mean. Conversations like these are the path to a clearer understandings on both sides of the cultural divide.

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