Friday, November 30, 2007

Insulting Islam

Inadvertent insults to the honour of Islam and its Prophet garners the incautious reflection-inducing threats of a type unimaginable in a western democracy. We simply cannot get it through our obviously thick skulls that insults, however unintended, will not be countenanced by the Islamic world. Islamic fanatics live on a knife-edge of awareness, quick to identify slurs against their faith, their Prophet.

And the penalties for transgressions, however minor they might appear to be to the rational mind, can be life-threatening at one extreme; experience-sobering at the other. Salmon Rushdie knows of the former, through the institution of a fatwa against his dread writerly impudence; Danish cartoonists know of the shattering middle-ground where Muslim rage can affect the bottom line of an entire country through association.

And now Gillian Gibbons, a 54-year-old British elementary school teacher working in Sudan is aware of the latter kind of punishment. She was originally looking at the imposition of a state-imposed charge of blasphemy under sharia law which would punish her with three months' imprisonment and 40 lashes. Punishment for lack of alertness.

To the fact that encouraging her grade two class of 7-year-olds to name a teddy bear after the Prophet Muhammad constituted a grave offence. Succumbing to the appeals of one of her 7-year-old charges whose name in fact was Muhammad, and who felt that the teddy bear whose function it would be to become a mascot to the entire class, should be named after him. Most of the other children in the class enthusiastically agreed.

Her fellow teachers at the independent international school serving ordinary Sudanese families, along with the children of diplomats were in agreement that she had done nothing deliberately to offend Sudanese religious sensibilities. Except for one teacher, herself a religious fundamentalist who fumed at the insult to Islam and who reported her to the authorities.

In Sudan human rights violations which see the government in Khartoum encouraging Arab janjaweed in league with the government's armed forces attack, murder, rape and throw thousands out of their homes into refugee camps is no crime, but a simple defence against insurgency. While a naive foreigner's inadvertent foray into the arcane world of sidestepping insults to Islam is a matter of grave government concern.

Reflecting the attitudes, or perhaps fomenting the attitudes of its greater population ready to march in high dudgeon through the streets of the capital, to descend upon the mixed Christian-Muslim school with a mind to attacking the institution whose board had the good sense to temporarily close it down. Fully realizing what would transpire as a result of the perceived insult.

Ms. Gibson was charged, incarcerated, a brief trial ensued, and as a result of world-wide outraged response to the absurdity of the situation and the charges, was given a 15-day prison sentence followed by an expulsion from the country.

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