[Western Muslims have been embarrassed by Sudanâ€™s explosive reaction to a teacher who allowed her children to name a teddy bear â€œMuhammad.â€ Prof. Peter Bechtold provides us with background information to make sense out of the bizarre developments.]
Last Thursday night, the BBC World Service led off its international program by reporting the trial of Ms. Gillian Gibbons, a British school teacher in Khartoum, Sudan who has been convicted of â€œinsulting Islamâ€ because students in her elementary school class had voted to name a shared teddy bear â€œMuhammad.â€
Normally, this sort of article merits posting on the last page under â€œcuriosities from around the globe.â€ However, the BBC anchor explained its leader position as one more example of the growing misunderstandings between the West and the world of Islam. Indeed.
As a life-long Sudan student I shall try to provide not justificationâ€”for legal punishment for an innocent cultural misunderstanding cannot be justifiedâ€”but some sort of context for this lamentable episode, by identifying four dimensions of this story in the hope of narrowing the cultural gaps extant.
First, unlike in the West, people in Arab and Muslim countries do not keep friendly animals (e. g. pets) in their homes, nor do they try to â€œhumanizeâ€ animals by giving them cutesy names. Hence, no â€œRoverâ€ puppies or â€œMitziâ€ kittens. Dogs and cats there are scavengers and usually are unclean, as with coyotes in America, and would not be owned except for â€œworkingâ€ animals such as farm dogs, donkeys, falcons, and the occasional German Shepherd policing the property, not an object of affection. In this context, a bear is seen as even more ferocious than a dog, and third world people should be forgiven for being unfamiliar with the stories of President T. Roosevelt and the fuzzy animal childrenâ€™s toy named after him.
Second, treating a house animal as almost human is considered strange in the culture; this Western custom is foreign to Middle Easterners. When teaching American diplomats posted to the region, I usually suggested that they keep their pets at home, just to avoid uncomfortable situations when entertaining, for example. (Not everyone followed my advice.)
Third, as should be known by now, Muhammad is not an appropriate name for an animal, nor is Jesus, Moses, David, or any others among the prophets. I am reminded of earlier cases when during the 1960s the American ambassador to India had to apologize publicly because a mob was protesting that his children owned a cat named â€œAhmadâ€ (reportedly acquired in Ahmadabad). I am also reminded of when the San Francisco Giants outfielder Jesus Alou had his name changed by US sportswriters and broadcasters to â€œJayâ€ because of public discomfort then with mixing a â€œsacredâ€ name with â€œprofaneâ€ sports (again in the 1960s). The fact that Ms. Gibbons meant no harm gets lost in the current atmosphere of mutual demonizing. One would like a teacher living in Khartoum to acquire a greater familiarity with local customs, especially sensitive ones. However, these comments do not explain the legal mishandling of the case, both by the legal authorities and the school administration, which reported the teacher to the legal authorities. There seems to have been a personality conflict at the school that led to the matter ending up in the courts. The courts should have taken these circumstances into account, as well as the fact that there is no evidence that Miss Gibbons meant to defame either the Prophet or Islam.
The courts in Sudan are no longer as independent as they were in earlier decades and appear to be mindful of the insecurity of the current military regime in Khartoum, which sees itself as the target of both domestic forces and foreign powersâ€”especially the U.S. and the British. People in the West MUST understand that most Muslims have felt under siege from the West for at least the last quarter century, and any perceived slightâ€”emphasize perceivedâ€”will cause an overreaction, which in turn will escalate the matter out of all proportion to its merits. In such an atmosphere the poor teddy bear is not a toy, as reported, but more of a political football, comparable, perhaps to the less enlightened public commentary accompanying the race among presidential contenders in the US nowadays. Let us hope that in all these cases, common sense will prevail.
Prof. Peter Bechtold
[Prof. Bechtold has taught the Universities of Maryland and Oregon and the College of William and Mary and has been an adjunct professor at Georgetown, George Washington, and Johns Hopkins Universities, and is author of Politics in the Sudan.]