British Muslims should protest teddy lunacy
Oh come off it, I thought yesterday afternoon, when I heard that the Sudanese authorities had actually gone ahead and charged her. Surely they are out of their minds.
When the news broke yesterday teatime that poor Gillian Gibbons was facing prosecution in Khartoum for inciting hatred and showing contempt for religious beliefs, I am afraid my normal good humour momentarily deserted me.
How dare they! I spluttered, and for a brief undignified moment, I had fantasies of a return to the age of Palmerston.
Here is an innocent British citizen, a good and patently well-meaning 54-year-old British teacher. She has decided to make a new life for herself by giving instruction to children in one of the poorest countries on Earth. She has got herself into a muddle over the name of a teddy bear – and now she is facing 40 lashes or six months in jail.
There was a time when Britain would have sent a gunboat to rescue her. There was a time when MPs would have been holding furious debates on the matter, and bandying phrases such as “civis Britannicus sum”.
In the old days there would have been demarche from Britain to Sudan, warning that His Majesty’s government would not suffer a hair on her head to be disturbed.
Well, folks, that time is past. We must accept that the world has changed, and our place in the world has changed, too.
We must ask ourselves what earthly good we can do, and how we can persuade people to come to their senses. We need to encourage reasonable people in Sudan to get Gillian Gibbons out of jail as soon as possible and I have a feeling, alas, that there is not a lot to be gained by just quivering our jowls and invoking the spirit of Don Pacifico; or at least, not a lot that will help Gillian Gibbons.
Of course it is demented that this teacher should now have spent four nights in jail for calling a teddy bear Mohammed.
It is utterly bonkers that she should face the possibility of some barbaric punishment, for what was so obviously a complete misunderstanding.
She did what thousands of teachers do across Britain, and asked her class to come up with a name for their teddy bear mascot.
Her class, which included Muslim children, voted for the name of the prophet – which they themselves seem to have thought a pretty uncontentious choice, since millions of Muslim boys bear the same name.
She did not mean to imply that she thought the messenger of Allah was in any sense a cuddly toy. It simply did not cross her mind that there could be some idolatrous or blasphemous implication.
In so far as she caused offence to some of the parents, there must have been a thousand better ways to sort out the problem. She could have apologised; she could have instantly changed the name of the mascot to Paddington, or some other name less offensive to Muslims.
She could have called it Aloysius, like the chap in Evelyn Waugh, and though Aloysius is a pretty emetic name for a teddy bear, no one would have suggested locking her up.
She wasn’t given the chance to do any of those sensible things, and the result is a mess; and it is worse than a diplomatic embarrassment. The jailing of Gillian Gibbons is helping to confirm people’s worst prejudices about Islam.
It may be that the judge will simply spring her today, in which case all will be well. But if he doesn’t, and if this business drags on, then there is one group that must speak up.
There’s no point in the British government raging from afar, or rattling an empty scabbard. There’s no point in us jumping up and down on the sidelines, and shaking our fists at Khartoum. Any such posturing would only help, of course, to deepen the intransigence of the Sudanese.
No, the voices we need to hear now belong to Britain’s vast, sensible Muslim majority. If British Muslims speak up decisively and loudly against this lunacy, then they can achieve two good things at once. Their arguments will be heard with respect in Khartoum, since they cannot be said to be founded on any kind of cultural imperialism, or to be actuated by Islamophobia.
More importantly, a strong protest by British Muslims against the imprisonment of Gillian Gibbons would help to contradict the growing ranks of pessimists and neo-cons – the people who say that the real problem is Islam, the religion itself.
There is a body of commentators who say that we are deceiving ourselves about the scale of the problem. Islamism, they claim, is not the fault of a few extremists.
These people claim that difficulties we are experiencing are intrinsic to the religion itself – because it is in essence a religion of war, unreformable, medieval. I think they are completely wrong, and they can be proved wrong.
To his credit, the head of the Muslim Council of Britain has already issued a statement calling for the release of Gillian Gibbons. Let’s hear more of the same. Let’s see Muslim MPs on the news, appealing to Sudan to show reason.
If you want grounds for despair, read the entries on the BBC website, in which some British Muslims say that she should be punished; or read the entries from people in Sudan saying that the children should be punished.
It is tragic and incredible that we can allow people to take offence over such a simple misunderstanding. If this goes any further, it will entrench prejudice and misunderstanding.
But if British Muslim leaders are able to seize the opportunity and speak up for common sense, then they have a real chance to show that there is all the difference in the world between Islam and the ludicrous fanaticism that has incarcerated Gillian Gibbons.