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!''
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.