Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Teddy Bears' Picnic

You may have been following the case of Gillian Gibbons, a British teacher in Sudan. She let her class of six- and seven-year olds name a teddy bear Muhammad, something that could have been perceived as an insult towards Islam, because a teddy bear is an animal (sort of) and giving the name of the Prophet to an animal is an insult. A worker at the school informed the Sudanese government of this, and Gibbons was ultimately given a prison sentence of fifteen days. She was then pardoned by the Sudanese president, but some mobs in Khartoum had time to demonstrate and to demand a stricter punishment for her, including death.

The story is one of those where cultural values dominate everything else. To ask for the death of a nice lady teacher, just because of the choice of a teddy bear's name by a class of little children, seems preposterous, horrifying, totally alien to the Western audience. In fact, proof positive of the blood-thirstiness and fanaticism of some Muslim countries. But of course we don't really know what the average Sudanese thought about the event, and the demonstrations may well have been arranged to put pressure on the West concerning the attempts to stop the genocide in Darfur. I also suspect that the emotional associations many Western people have with teddy bears are not as common in Sudan. Still, the case was one which will not exactly help in the dialogue of the West and the Islamic world, and it's a good reminder why a theocracy isn't exactly the best alternative for this country, either.

That was my personal opinion. Should I have a feminist opinion on this, too? It's hard for me to say as Ms. Gibbons' gender seemed to have nothing to do with the whole debacle. But Anne Applebaum begs to differ:

In a pattern that has also now become familiar, Western reaction to these events divided neatly along political and institutional lines. The British government, faced with a controversy involving a teddy bear, put on a straight face and began negotiations with Khartoum, gingerly using two Muslim members of Parliament as emissaries. The archbishop of Canterbury and British Muslim student groups regretted the "disproportionate" punishment, thus implying that a somewhat gentler one might have been more acceptable. Asked for its opinion on the matter by Fox News, the National Organization for Women said it was not taking a position at this time. Elsewhere, some criticized Gibbons as insensitive to Sudanese religion and culture.

Others, from the British tabloids to the London Times, rushed to point out the absurdity of these positions. ("The punishment wasn't out of proportion," wrote one London Times columnist. "It was unwarranted, outrageous, insupportable.") But not nearly enough people said so. On the contrary, the West still finds it difficult to produce anything resembling a common, united, reasonable reaction to these periodic spasms of fanatical outrage, no matter what truly absurd forms they take.

Applebaum links her criticisms to the idea that "the left" is loathe to say anything negative about Muslims because this might be seen as support for George Bush's war on terrorism. I fail to see the connection that clearly unless she thinks that all extreme Muslims are terrorists, but I do get a different point from what she writes: Criticizing the way some Muslims interpret their religion should not be seen as support for the idea that they should then be killed.

But neither should our overall political views glue our mouths shut on issues such as the teddy bear one. If the "left" can be criticized on that score, so can the Bush administration. Just today, for instance, something very similar cropped up in the context of the Saudi gang-rape victim who got 200 lashes and six months in prison for meeting with a man who was not her relative. When George Bush was asked about this issue and how it cropped up in his recent negotiations with the Saudis, this is how he answered:

President Bush said Tuesday that Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah "knows our position loud and clear" on the punishment of the victim of a gang rape.

President Bush said he would be angry with a state that did not support a rape victim.

However, Bush said he did not recall having raised the issue during a recent telephone conversation with the king.

Tiptoeing around the mine fields, aren't we?

The ultimate problem here is one of false dualism. There are other solutions to these problems, at least in public debate, than staying quiet or digging up the war banners.