By now, most people have heard the story of a British school teacher working in Sudan who was charged with insulting Islam and inciting religious hatred after it was found that she allowed school children to name a teddy bear “Mohammed”.
It came out quickly that the children and teacher did not intentionally mock the Prophet in any way; the toy was actually named after a 7-year-old student in the class named Mohammed, a very common name in Sudan. The boy, Mohammed, has said publicly that the bear was named after him, not the Prophet Mohammed.
Al Jazeera reported him saying, "The teacher asked me what I wanted to call the teddy. I said Mohammed. I named it after my name," he said.
The boy said he was not thinking about the prophet when he made his choice for the toy, but he named it simply after himself.
He described his teacher from Aigburth, Liverpool, as a "very nice" woman who did not mention religion in class.
But that did not prevent her from being arrested, held in jail and charged with the “crime” of insulting Islam and inciting religious hatred.
The teacher, Gillian Gibbons,
is an English citizen and works in a Christian oriented school for children of wealthier Sudanese citizens.
Al Jazeera reported that Abdel Daim Zamrawi, Sudan's deputy justice minister, told the official SUNA news agency that Gillian Gibbons had been charged with the offences on Wednesday. "The punishment for this is jail, a fine and lashes. It is up to the judge to determine the sentence," Zamrawi was quoted as saying. Gibbons faces up to six months in jail, 40 lashes and a fine if she is found guilty of "insulting or degrading any religion, its rites, beliefs and sacred items or humiliating its believers", as stipulated in Sudan's penal code.
Robert Boulos, the school’s director tried to reason with authorities but told Time Magazine that police were under pressure from Islamic courts. “There were men with big beards asking where she was and saying they wanted to kill her” he said. A similar angry crowd also gathered at the Khartoum police station where she is being held according to Time.
Al Jazeera further reportedthat some Islamic leaders in Sudan said on Wednesday that the law should be applied against Gibbons. North Sudan's legal system is based on Sharia, which punishes blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad. "What has happened was not haphazard or carried out of ignorance, but rather a calculated action and another ring in the circles of plotting against Islam… It is part of the campaign of the so-called war against terrorism and the intense media campaign against Islam,” the Sudanese Assembly of the Ulemas said in a statement.
Thank goodness the Deputy Justice Minister Zamrawi also said that the authorities were working to ensure that Gibbon would not be exposed to angry mobs should she be released.
Over the naming of a Teddy Bear?
The Muslim Council of Britain has also joined those calling for Ms. Gibbons to be freed and to use common sense.
"This is a very unfortunate incident and Ms Gibbonsshould never have been arrested in the first place," said secretary general Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari. "It is obvious that no malice was intended."
Obviously not all Muslims or even most are about to join an angry mob ready to flog some kindly woman over the slightest of indiscretions. But something is still not quite right with almost every statement that defends Ms. Gibbons, coming from Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
Of course it is typically inappropriate for a teacher to insult an icon representing a student’s religion; but in this case the school was a private school, not a public school. Private religious schools even in the US regularly espouse religious hatred – and if it’s private, a private school is constitutionally allowed to spout that hate. (Don’t blame secular humanists for this!) Public schools cannot do this (although the Religious Right would like to either see their hatreds aired in Public Schools or ban Public Schools altogether.)
Now contrast this with the situations in many other countries where governmentally supported religiously-oriented schools, sometimes known as madrassahs, are built upon hatred of the (non-orthodox) non-believer. We need not go into details on this, other than to note that the “West” is not innocent in this practice; government vouchers paid for Catholic and Protestant schools in Northern Ireland with both sides teaching religious hatred for decades. This is just the way it is in religious schools.
Many private religious schools in countries where religion and state are separate and many religious schools elsewhere absolutely often insult the beliefs and icons of non-believers! Inherent in Christianity and Islam is the belief that only “true” believers are saved or destined for paradise and that others have a moral failing for their lack of belief. Other religions preach that followers are chosen or blessed or simply more moral than those who do not profess the “true” belief. It is the rare religion that praises non-believers for their morality!
So the problem in Sudan is not generic insulting of any religion; it’s the insulting of the prevailing version of the prevailing religion ONLY. The prevailing religion can issue insults in schools, public or private, and elsewhere at will. But it cannot countenance a moment of being slighted in the least bit itself.
And here is the problem with many of those who are defending Ms. Gibbons: they are claiming that she “meant no harm”.
It should not matter whether her “insult” was deliberate or not or whether she “meant no harm” or not.
Religious freedom requires that a person (acting in a non-governmental role) must have the right to make the claim, for example, that a religion that would punish a person with a flogging for naming a toy after a religious icon is a bad religion, or at the least, a bad version of that religion. Religious freedom requires even the unreasonable insult of a religion as long as it’s not in a governmental capacity!
If one really wanted to defend Ms. Gibbons and future victims of religious intolerance, one would make it clear that we should not require everyone to just “make nice” about religion. What we need is a defense of real freedom of the mind, a defense of separation of religion and state, and not a defense of the dictatorial rule of the prevailing religious orthodoxy or even acquiescence to the censorship of all religious criticism. Freedom is there to protect not just the popular or orthodox beliefs; indeed, they rarely need protecting. Religious freedom’s greatest value is in protecting the right of those who espouse unpopular beliefs; and of course, proven once again, the first victim of religious intolerance is the religious dissenter.