Sudan: Teacher arrested over a teddy bear named Muhammad

New York Times / IHT
The Sudanese police arrested a British schoolteacher and accused her of insulting Islam after she allowed her 7-year-old pupils to name a class teddy bear Muhammad, said Sudanese officials.
The teacher, Gillian Gibbons, was arrested Sunday in Khartoum, the capital, after a number of parents complained, said Rabie Atti, a government spokesman. "How can you call a bear Muhammad?" he said. "Muhammad is the holy prophet of Islam."
Rabie said the authorities had obtained a letter Gibbons sent home with students explaining that her primary school class was doing a project on animals and had adopted a teddy bear named Muhammad.

"Her letter said there was an intelligent bear named Muhammad, and the letter instructed parents to take pictures with this bear," Rabie said. "This is not acceptable, according to the general opinion of our society."

In Islam, insulting the Prophet Muhammad is considered a grave offense, and the law of northern Sudan, where Khartoum is located, makes this a crime. The private, relatively expensive Unity School in Khartoum, where Gibbons taught, educates a mix of Christian and Muslim Sudanese children, and the lessons are in English.

Gibbons is in jail pending further investigation, Rabie said. "If she is innocent, she will be set free," Rabie said. If she is guilty, he said, she will face punishment, possibly including lashes.

"I hope she didn't mean what the people thought," he added, saying it was possible that Gibbons did not intend to offend Islam. Officials at the school have defended Gibbons.

"This was a completely innocent mistake," Robert Boulos, the director of Unity High School, told the British Broadcasting Corp. "Miss Gibbons would have never wanted to insult Islam."

According to the BBC, Gibbons, 54, asked a 7-year-old girl to bring in a teddy bear and then asked her classmates to pick names for it. "They came up with eight names, including Abdullah, Hassan and Muhammad," Boulos said. When it came time to vote, 20 out of 23 children chose Muhammad, one of the most common names in the Muslim word.

The students then took turns taking the bear home on weekends, and wrote a diary about what they did with it. According to the BBC, the children's entries were bound together in a book with a picture of the bear on the cover and a message that read, "My name is Muhammad."

The teddy bear ordeal comes just a few weeks after the Sudanese authorities said that no troops from Scandinavia could serve as peacekeepers in Darfur, where the United Nations is trying to send an expanded peacekeeping force, because Danish newspapers published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad two years ago. The cartoons set off riots across the Muslim world and several dozen people were killed.

Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Sudan's president, said in a recent interview with Al Jazeera that "we in Sudan declared mobilization against the Scandinavians after the publishing of the offensive cartoons of the Prophet," and that the Sudanese people would not accept Scandinavian troops because of this.

By: Jeffrey Gettleman

Source: The New York Times via International Herald Tribune

27 November 2007