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English primary school teacher Gillian Gibbons has been involved in what appears to be one of the most absurd political and diplomatic rifts in the ‘war on terror’. Apparently the 54 year old mother of two while working in a school in Khartoum named a teddy bear ‘Mohammed’ after one of her pupils who had suggested the name and the class voted in agreement. At least this is what is known in the public sphere. She was subsequently arrested, tried and found guilty of insulting the Prophet Mohammed and Islam, given a fifteen-day prison sentence and was released on the Monday morning of the 3rd of December after much diplomatic effort on the part of the British who sent a delegation consisting of Labour’s Lord Ahmed and Lady Warsi, the Conservative Party spokesperson on community cohesion. After President Bashir of Sudan held a meeting with the two, he granted a pardon to Gibbons. He also commented to the Ahmed and Warsi that whatever people thought of the Sudanese legal system, Gibbons had been charged, tried and convicted in a court of law, luxuries denied to many Muslims in the West who have no such rights and are languishing in various jails, Guantanamo being the most notorious.
The tone of the Brown government throughout this case has been relatively restrained. The British Government possibly calculated that Sudanese public opinion, while divided in their attitudes over Gibbons’ inadvertent mistake, would have rallied around Khartoum if it was seen that the former colonialists of Sudan were too aggressive in this diplomatic rift. Positive attitudes towards the British are not exactly on the rise in Sudan after several years of interference in the affairs of the country over the latest ‘white mans burden’ — the Darfur issue. The Gibbons debacle was brought to a swift end with Lord Ahmed putting a positive end note on the whole episode by saying that he hopes the last few weeks will not damage the relations between the two countries but “in fact it should be a way to strengthen the ties” and another Government Minister calling British policy towards Sudan ‘a new track of constructive engagement’. It seems that the Brown government is still keen to put distance between itself and the Blair era on the international stage that was typified by neo-colonial arrogance. The Gibbons affair is largely seen as part of a far wider diplomatic wrangle, which is unsurprising given the manner in which President Bashir has been pushed around and is often portrayed as a brutal Islamist pariah in the West.
The Gibbons incident was the last thing that East-West, Muslim-West relations needed in this time and age. Gibbons, who as far as we know is a dedicated and likeable teacher, was someone that the British media paraded as a victim of ‘Muslims gone mad’ over such an innocent and puerile thing as the naming of a class teddy-bear. While the government held back from an aggressive approach to Gibbons’ arrest and imprisonment, the British mainstream media incessantly churned out story after story out of context whipping up anti-Muslim feeling. Expecting the Gibbons incident not to become a field day for sections of the media who make money out of depicting Muslims as irrational and violent would have been highly naive to say the least. Even the liberal comedian Clive Anderson, and well-known political satirist Ian Hislop on the BBC’s current affairs satire show Have I Got News For You, vented their barely disguised disgust of Muslims in Sudan by depicting them as irrational nutters who are hell-bent on overreacting over any insignificant issue, while the whole studio audience laughed in agreement.
The BBC did briefly put things into perspective when on December the 2nd Sunday morning a BBC News 24 reporter stated that the Sudanese government does not want to be seen as caving into demands of “the former colonial masters”, which was changed later in the day to the same reporter stating that the Sudanese government does not want to be seen to be “caving into Britain”. For many across the world the concepts of colonialism and Britain may well be synonymous with each other, but for many Western viewers who are not so sensitive to such things, they are often in denial or ignorant as to the inseparable relationship between the two. A recent example of this was that only a little more than two weeks ago the BBC received complaints by viewers of an episode of the Clash of Worlds documentary series that sought to present parallels between the politics of the ‘war on terror’ today and that of the nineteenth century. This particular episode featured the Sudanese and Islamist resistance led by Muhammad Ahmed Al Mahdi who successfully fought the British colonialists who were personified in the program in General Gordon. The complaints made by English people were that General Gordon and the British generally were portrayed in a too negative manner.
The only time in the media the Sudanese were allowed to speak for themselves and give an explanation came when the Sudanese ambassador to London Omer Mohamed Ahmed Siddig gave a brief interview to Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow. Siddig was asked by Snow as to the reasons for the reactions to the incident by the Sudanese authorities and the more militant reactions of a hundred or so Sudanese people. Siddig explained that this has to be put into context of the changed atmosphere since 911 with Islamophobic comments by some in the Western press in insulting the Prophet and that this ‘poisoned the air’ and resulted in sensitivity amongst Muslims. Cultural differences regarding religion also plays a role in this crisis as Sudan, like many other Muslims countries, is a place where religion is never mocked, let alone that a toy or pet could be given a religious name which could be seen as idolatry.
The Western government-promoted ‘Save Darfur’ campaign could also be another reason why some Sudanese public opinion is so sensitive to the classroom incident. The people of the Darfur region of Sudan undoubtedly have a grave situation on their hands, but when the most hawkish sections of Western governments are piling on the pressure to intervene in Sudan over this issue, it is no surprise that many people question the real motives of the West on this issue. The Sudanese people do not have to look far in their region, or far back into their history, to have good reason to suspect ulterior motives of the West, or to question why they are so interested in Darfur when there are other more serious crises on the African continent such as the five million people who have died in the fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the last ten years.
The Gibbons case has been a perfect opportunity for those in the media who are looking for a cheap story in the now tired routine of depicting crazed brown and black people, preferably brown and black Muslims, baying for the blood of a white person. At the same time this whole episode could have passed without a fuss if those at the school in Khartoum had discussed and resolved the issue between them. Gibbons herself since her release has not said a bad word against Islam, Sudan or its people, perhaps to the surprise of some, considering what she has been through. In fact, she has had nothing but praise for the way she was treated by the Sudanese authorities, has talked of her love for the people of Sudan, their country and of course the children she was teaching, all of whom she says she will miss dearly. In the battle of ideas must those who oppose Islamophobia and Western policies against Muslims always be in a position where they are on the defensive, explaining such things through the Western media find it so easy to generate prejudices against Muslims as the case of Gibbons? Some recompense can be found from the fact that Gibbons has been gracious in response to her unfortunate experience, apologising for any unintentional offence caused by her actions, and has said on Islam: “I have great respect for the Islamic religion and would not knowingly offend anyone and I am sorry if I caused any distress.” This whole incident is another example of how Western policies and attitudes towards Islam and Muslims are tragically turning relatively mundane misunderstandings into an international political spectacle, where prejudices against Muslims are easily and unnecessarily inflamed.
Sukant Chandan is a London-based freelance journalist, researcher and political analyst. He runs two websites — ouraim.blogspot.com/ and sonsofmalcolm.blogspot.com/ — and can be contacted at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.