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Teddy Muhammad

By November 29, 2007

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It may be--it should be--shocking that a British teacher in the Sudan is imprisoned, vilified, threatened with flogging and finally deported for having had the temerity to let her second-grade students almost unanimously and certainly innocently elect to name a teddy bear "Muhammad" and write about it in diary form. But the Sudan, let's not forget, was fanatic before fanaticism was, in the Islamic world, cool.

Remember Jaafar Numeiri (also known as Gaafar Nimeiri)? He was the great whiskey boozer who, suddenly in 1983, found God, declared himself an imam, did what so many converts do when they overdose on faith--drag their dependents through the delirium with them--and, his dependency being an entire country, made Sudan only the second nation in the world (at the time), after Saudi Arabia, that adhered to Sharia law.

Sharia's Man in Khartoum

He junked the western-style legal system that had held sway in the Sudan. He created "decisive justice courts" made up of a policeman, a soldier and a civilian judge to carry out Sharia, turned the country into one of those dry Kansas or Alabama counties, banned women from public swimming pools and forced them to don the niqab (the full headdress), and went to work, chopping the heads and limbs of transgressors. As David Lamb wrote in The Arabs (Random House, 1987),

In one fifteen-month period fifty-four suspected criminals lost hands, and sixteen others lost two limbs as repeat offenders. (The first amputee died of infection two weeks after his hand was cut off, although a Saudi medical team had been flown into Khartoum to train the prison amputation squad.) In two cases, appeals courts added amputation to a lesser sentence--something unheard of in Saudi Arabia--and on three occasions men were sentenced to posthumous crucifixion after hanging, though the crucifixions were never carried out. Every Arab country, including Saudi Arabia, was appalled; pressure mounted on Numeiri to back off as suspicions grew that he was using religion as a political tool to intimidate his people and appease fundamentalists.
Numeiri's most heinous excess, if you'll forgive the tautology, was his execution of Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, a 76-year-old pious, moderate Muslim. Taha was the founder and leader of the Republican Brothers, a religious and political movement opposed to Sharia law. He declared publicly, through a leaflet, that Numeiri had ''distorted Islam in the eyes of intelligent members of our people and in the eyes of the world, and degraded the reputation of our country.'' For that, he was hanged on a red steel scaffold as a thousand Sudanese men shouted in Arabic, ''Death to the enemy of God!''

Osama's Sudan

Many of these men, Numeiri among them, are in Khartoum still: Numeiri was overthrown three months after the Taha execution and he found refuge in Egypt, but only to return to surprising acclaim in 1999. The Sudan by then had played host to Osama bin laden in his briefly pastoral phase, when, between 1991 and 1994, he set up shop in the country, pouring millions of his dollars into legitimate investments--farms, factories, road construction--and flirting, for a while, with the idea of abandoning al-Qaeda. His Egyptian and much bloodier side-kick, Ayman al-Zawahiri, convinced him otherwise.

Even though, under pressure from the United States, the Sudanese government revoked bin Laden's citizenship, forcing him to seek refuge in Afghanistan (and setting that fateful chapter of fanatic mayhem in motion), the Sudan and its six hundred ethnic groups shredded on through a perennial civil war that bleeds most along the serrated line of the Muslim North and the non-Muslim South. By 1999, The New Yorker's William Finnegan was reporting that

[o]bscure, chaotic and low-tech as it is, the civil war in Sudan is a disaster of historic proportions. Altogether it has killed more than two million people, according to the latest figures--by some estimates, more than any other conflict since the Second World War. The great majority of the dead have been civilians in the South. Partly because southern Sudan is one of the world's poorest, least-accessible regions, news coverage of the war has been light.
That was one genocide. Then came Darfur. So anyone still willing to brave the Sudan's compulsive reenactment of hell and choose the place as a viable career opportunity commands at least some respect. "Thankfully," says the "Living in Sudan" page of Khartoum's Unity High School Web site, "Khartoum remains a very safe and friendly city, which is surprising to most newcomers to Sudan."

Unity High School, as you might have guessed by now, is the 105-year-old British school that includes Gillian Gibbons on its staff. And Gibbons, 54, is the teacher who held an election in her class so her mostly 7-year-old students could decide what to name a teddy bear. Abdullah, Hassan and Muhammad were offered up as possibilities. The Muhammads, by a vote of 23 out of 26, had it. Parents complained. Gibbons was carted off to prison. An international incident that rebrands the absurd in Arabic lettering ensued.

A Scandal's Backstory

It isn't at all as simple as saying, as the Sudanese government and Koranic thumpers would like to say, that Gibbons insulted the Prophet Muhammad, or even had a catastrophic lapse in judgment, and therefore deserved punishment. Put aside the fact that millions of boys called Muhammad, many of whom (like their Tom, Dick and Harry equivalents in Christian, Jewish or Shinto communities) grow up to act more dishonorably than any teddy bear ever would, and so, by that logic, insult the Prophet's name more than any teddy bear ever could.

That aside, it so happens that the Sudanese government is in a major spat with the British government over something far graver than the mere dishonoring of any name could ever be--namely, the continuing genocide in Darfur, the Khartoum government's continued blocking of the deployment of African peacekeepers there, and its equally draggy refusal to serve an international arrest warrant for a Darfur militia leader it prefers to protect. "It is an insult to the Security Council," John Sawers, the British ambassador to the United Nations, said on Nov. 27, that one of the indictees charged with crimes against humanity in Darfur has been appointed a minister in the Sudanese government."

Sawers' statement was embarrassing to Khartoum, as it was meant to be. The next day, the Sudanese government pressed charges against Gibbons.

Deflecting from the Real Horrors

What's embarrassing, what's reviling, is that one of the most violent and murderous nations on the planet, the only genocidal one at the moment, can still manage not only to deflect attention on a manufactured scandal of cartoonish proportions, but to do so in the Prophet Muhammad's name, whose message and spirit Khartoum has been smearing to the sound of endless bloodletting for decades. There would be redress, not insult, if every Muslim (if not every human being) were to brandish a teddy bear tomorrow and call it Muhammad, not only to protest the imbecility of genocidal zealotry, but, more poignantly, to speak for the innocence of millions of Sudan's children lost to genocide, lost to fanaticism, lost to the very opposite of the meaning and purpose of Islam as Muhammad taught it.

Update: It's good to report that President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan pardoned Gillian Gibbons on Dec. 3. As her attorney, Kamal al-Gizouli, said: “This was all political. The government did this to show they are tolerant. They don’t need any more problems with the world and the international media.” Gibbons is back in Liverpool, at her son's home, where local Muslims reportedly brought her flowers and messages of support.


November 30, 2007 at 7:52 am
(1) William says:

Isn’t it interesting that the US Government, in all its human rights bravado, is mostly mum on the subject. Part of the lies that sold the Iraq catastrophe to the nation, after all, was what a bad apple Saddham Hussein was for gassing thousands of Kurds. Nary a peep about Sudan, however.

November 30, 2007 at 9:47 am
(2) middleeast says:

Quite true. Why are 2 million Sudanese killed over one decade less worthy of a “coalition of the willing” than 300,000 Iraqis killed over three?

November 30, 2007 at 1:34 pm
(3) Michael Dawson says:

Well, seems the me there are three reasons why Iraq matters and Sudan (plus a cast of dozens of other places) do not:

1. “O”
2. “i”
3. “l”

The Cheney Administration is (apparently) near to achieving its cardinal goal, which was to insert a permanent military base + special control over petroleum reserves into the long-suffering pseudo-state known as Iraq.

November 30, 2007 at 9:48 pm
(4) Nevermind says:

That’s all you people got out of this entire article – a chance to slam the Bush Administration? How tiresome you must be to talk to.

November 30, 2007 at 11:27 pm
(5) joe says:

mr PT: as i read this article, and as i ponder the way the world spins, i’m wondering how? HOW? has Islam been so twisted by some? what is it in the religion that provides this foothold for extremists? or do the extremists carve their own foothold? i mean, what’s the excuse? or the opportunity? is there something inherent in Islam that can be exploited? obviously, any religion can be used to justify violence (witch trials, the crusades, etc.), but how, in the 21st century and under global scrutiny, is all this happening? how can Jaafar Numeiri’s freakish and demented version of Islam take hold? why wasn’t he tolerated, at best? let alone elevated to power???? we’re all so well aware of the “what” in all this. and i don’t know if i dare ask “why?” but “how?”

December 1, 2007 at 1:41 pm
(6) Michael Dawson says:

Well, you caught us there, Nevermind. It is indeed oh-so-boring to discuss illegal oil wars that threaten to end the world on behalf of our overclass, who gave us such wonders as private health insurance, the world’s biggest prison system, subprime second mortgages, and “our” addiction to oil.

Much more relevant and exciting and fresh to try to figure out how gay marriage and illegal immigrants are helping the Liberal Elite raise our taxes…

December 1, 2007 at 4:06 pm
(7) middleeast says:

Joe, you raise those questions that go to the heart of the deadly paradox that keeps the blood pumping between the forces of modernism (both western and Islamic) and the forces of reactionary regression. I say reactionary: much of what we’re seeing within the Islamic world is an internal battle between (to put it simply) fundamentalism and moderate, even secular, Islam, as well as the ongoing battle between Sunnis and Shiites. But what fuels so much of this, I think, is fundamentalist appeal to (and instigation of, though the instigation doesn’t need much help) mass resentment over more than a century of western repressions and corruptions by various means. I mean, put yourself in a young Arab’s shoes who sees various Arab regimes oil wealth, and what it ought to have generated in terms of, for example, democratic reforms, but coupled instead with that blatant blend of piety and hypocrisy on the part of self-serving sheikhs in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Emirates. Resentment is ripe, if not inevitable. In step the fanatics, to whom no path to no watering hole would ever be so easy without so much hypocrisy to feed on, preach on, revolt over. It’s another version of blowback. I’m not saying the west is entirely at fault. Those regimes must shoulder plenty of the blame, and religious fanaticism, as you point out, has a long and universal history. But in today’s contexts, I think it takes a special kind of fuse, and the West has too blindly been providing those fuses by the shipload.

December 2, 2007 at 8:17 am
(8) Aris says:

Nevermind, you must be categorically ignorant of the history of the Middle East and Africa, especially the former. And unfortunately, you are alone. Michael does not mention Bush; he points out, quite correctly, the one and only reason why West, and in particular US, is willing to spill their soldiers’ blood and spend trillions of their tax money to make sure those countries stay subservient and docile. When the British found oil in Persia and then almost everywhere else in the region, they committed horrendous genocides to keep Middle East within their exclusive colonial sphere. World War 2 drained Britain of its resources needed to keep its vast colonies. The cracks started to widen, first with the independence of India in 1947, which inspired the rest of the colonies to stand up against the British barbarism. The 1952 nationalization of Iranian oil was probably the next deadliest blow to the British hollowed imperialism. They sought US help to restore them back to their previous supremacy. But of course the latter was not going to do the British bidding unless it would be given the lion’s share. The 1953 coup in Iran heralded the US imperialism in the region, even though Americans were already in Saudi Arabia before that, but did not behave as an imperial overlord.

US simply considers Middles East as if it was Texas. The collapse of the Soviet Union forced US to show its true nature: a brutal, barbarous imperial power. Why barbarous? The invading army in Iraq secured the oil ministry, but watched from the sideline while the museums that contained some the most valuable archeological treasures in the world, 6000 years of Mesopotamian civilization, were being looted. By any definition this is barbarism. Even the Nazis displayed more civilized concern for the treasures of the lands they occupied: in many instances they simply packed them and shipped them to Berlin, but did not destroy them or allowed them to be looted by out-of-control and hungry masses.

Every major oil producer in the region is a subject of US imperial power except Iran. And, of course, the imperial arrogance and intolerance cannot allow this. Have you ever asked yourself: would the US have invaded Iraq if that country was growing sauer kraut rather than sitting on the second largest oil reserve? The United States would have occupied Iraq even if Saddam was the most benevolent, but independent ruler. They propped him up, they supported him for almost twenty years, they gave him anything he asked including the chemical ingredients to make those deadly poisons. But Iraq was needed to project US power throughout the region. Everyone in the rest of the world knows all this except gullible and ignorant people in the US, that includes you, which unfortunately constitute a large segment of the population. There was a time when Americans said the Russians are, or will be, coming. This was to some extent plausible because the Russians had the means and the power to do it. Recently, in a retail store I overheard a group of elderly discussing the Iraq war. The consensus was that if the US had not invaded Iraq, the Iraqis would be coming. I politely asked them if they had any idea how the Iraqis could have achieved such an immense task. None could cite a single evidence or knowledge of any means the Iraqis possessed that would have enabled them to do it. Finally, they said the government says so, and therefore it must be true. Democracy without informed citizen? Democracy when people are so fearful that they would be willing to accept anything their leaders tell them? I told them how the Iraqis could have gotten here: by flying carpets or riding their camels over the ocean. I don’t know if these were convincing. Fear had obliterated any sense of reasoning and analysis they might have had. The damned fear, the most powerful human feeling; the foundation of all religions; along lust for power the foundation of all imperial powers; the deadliest threat to freedom and democracy. And it is riding high and mighty.

December 2, 2007 at 8:18 am
(9) Aris says:

That is,

And unfortunately, you are not alone.

December 2, 2007 at 11:29 am
(10) joe says:

to “middleeast”: thank you for your informed and thoughtful response.

to “nevermind”: i’m with you, in the sense that mr PT wrote about something specific here: the bear and the british national. that others read “iraq war” and “oil” into it takes the focus off what was an otherwise very pointed and worthy article.

to “aris”: you’re right, also. but your discussion could have been had in many places other than in the comments section of an article about the bear and the british national….

that being said, thanks to all….


December 2, 2007 at 11:52 am
(11) Aris says:

Joe, I don’t think you are in a position to decide what goes where. My piece was in response to nermind’s post on Michael’s post. It is directly related to the subject at hand:

US invaded Iraq on the pretence to remove a brutal dictator and install democracy. Iraq, under Saddam, never stoned a homosexual or lashed a woman in public. Yet, those “allies’ of the US commit the vilest crimes against humanity, and there is not a damned word uttered by the government about them. Why?

Why the hell US does not occupy Saudi Arabia and Dubai and remove two of the worst brutal regimes in the world? Because they are already there without invading them, and they are already looting their resources. No need to change the regimes.

December 2, 2007 at 12:26 pm
(12) a says:

And Sudan? What about it? As far as the ruling elite is concerned, they can kill each other and anyone else, as long as they are not Americans. But if Sudan had an strategic resource, it would have been occupied and looted a very long time ago, regardless of the nature of its regime.

The vile act against the British teacher for innocently naming a toy Muhammad, which was decided by the consensus of a group of children, is, without doubt, vile and repulsive. Why is the West standing by allowing it to happen? Isn’t it a worthy cause to intervene? The crimes against civilians committed in Sudan, Eritrea and the neighboring countries far exceed anything Saddam had done. There you find extreme poverty, starvation, mass killings, rape, and corruption. Such an environment is the ideal breeding ground for extremism, religious or otherwise. But where the hell is the West, the torch bearer of human values, of freedom, of democracy, of all that it pretends to be?

December 2, 2007 at 12:48 pm
(13) Aris says:

a- is me. I don’t know how it got to be a-?

December 2, 2007 at 4:25 pm
(14) middleeast says:

Joe, just so you’re aware, “middleeast” and Pierre are, here, the same; About likes its guides’ signatures identified with the site they’re maintaining, as a matter of consistency and clarity.

Aris, I do second your freedom to address issues where you see fit (although the forum on this site should be operational soon, allowing for wider-ranging discussion unconstrained by individual posts’ themes).

December 3, 2007 at 11:07 am
(15) joe says:

aris: i have no wish to place myself in any “position to decide.” anyone can write anything they wish, of course… please, write away…. i intended no offense.

and mr PT: thanks for the note, and the informed response….

again, thanks to all.

December 4, 2007 at 4:09 am
(16) Aris says:

joe, you are a reasonable and fair-minded person. No offense taken. Thanks.

December 20, 2007 at 10:34 am
(17) Aref Hassan says:

According to very Muslim historians Muhammad was a robber, child molester and womanizer, a murderer and thief. So this whole incident was a big insult to the poor teddy bear.

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