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The Teddy Bear War
The Hartford Courant, Dec. 5, 2007
The case against Gillian Gibbons exemplifies the deep divide between Islam and the West.
She was sentenced last week to 15 days in jail followed by expulsion from Sudan for insulting religion and inciting hatred. Ms. Gibbons, who taught at a private school in Khartoum, had asked her 7-year-old students to choose a name for the class teddy bear. She approved the popular choice, Muhammad.
The British teacher should have known better. Sudan, like most other Muslim countries, bans naming animals or toys after the prophet. You would think that any foreigner who chooses to teach in an Islamic country would have prepared for the assignment. Checking on what's taboo should be elementary.
Call Ms. Gibbons an innocent abroad or insensitive. After all, what teacher in the West would approve naming the class pet Jesus?
A teacher who showed such poor taste in Anywhere, U.S.A. probably would face criticism and perhaps administrative discipline, but punishment by the state?
Therein lies the East-West chasm.
By hauling Ms. Gibbons to court, the Sudanese went overboard. They brought to mind the 2005 uproar throughout the Muslim world over the publication of tasteless renditions of Islam and the prophet by cartoonists in Denmark.
Ms. Gibbons could have been sentenced up to a year in jail and lashed 40 times. Demonstrators in Khartoum called her an infidel who should be executed for polluting children's minds. Given that, a 15-day sentence is 'not much of a punishment at all,' said Rabie A. Atti, a Sudanese government spokesman. He didn't understand what all the fuss was about in the West.
On the other side of the chasm, British officials didn't get it, either. They didn't see Ms. Gibbons' offense as anything but an innocent faux pax.
This teddy bear war is symptomatic of the sorry state of affairs between the Muslim world and the West.