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SLEEPLESS IN SUDAN

 

Monday, December 3, 2007.

 

By Chippla Vandu

 

As a child growing up in Nigeria, Mohammed (or Muhammed) was the name of the lad down the street. A couple of pupils in my class were also named Mohammed. A Mohammed later became my roommate in high school. And later at university, there were at least five people called Mohammed in my department during any given academic year.

 

Thus, Mohammed, to me, was just another male name—albeit one likely to be used by those who came from families that adhered to the Islamic faith.

As a six year old, I had been taught about a Mohammed, who happened to be the founder of the Islamic faith. And while I would later in life learn to refer to him as the Prophet Mohammed, I had always known that the Prophet and my friends were different people, despite possessing the same name.

Kids, the world over, love toys. And one toy, which appears to have spread to literally every corner of the earth is the stuffed toy bear called the teddy bear. Few might have bothered to inquire why this toy is called a "teddy" bear.

 

Who was teddy? According to this Wikipedia article, teddy was no other than Theodore Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth president of the United States. A revered American statesman, it appears, had his name used in marketing what has become one of the most easily recognizable stuffed toys in the world.

Mainstream media reports in the past week have focused on the arrest of Gillian Gibbons, a 54-year-old British teacher in Khartoum, the capital of 
Sudan
. According to Aljazeera, she was arrested for allowing "her seven-year-old pupils at a Khartoum private school [to] pick their favourite name for a teddy bear as part of a project on animals. 20 out of 23 of them chose Mohammad - a popular boy's name in Sudan, as well as the name of Islam's prophet."

 

Ms. Gibbons taught at a British school in Khartoum, where most of the students are from upper class Sudanese and expatriates families, according to the Times Online.

The BBC reports that Ms. Gibbons' purported crime, according to Sudanese authorities, was that of "insulting Islam's Prophet, after she allowed her pupils to name a teddy bear Muhammad", with her arrest coming after "several parents made complaints".

 

Going through media reports, Ms. Gibbons certainly did not set out to insult anyone or anything. Rather, her interest was in providing education to children. But given the nature of Sudan, this relatively benign incident, which in any modern society ought to have been resolved amicably, got blow out of proportion.

While Ms. Gibbons was arrested and sentenced to 15 days in jail, some
demonstrators in Sudan demanded for her execution. Her crime was that of "blasphemy"—insulting a religion that is held high in
Sudan. As an onlooker, I can only but stand in shock at the never-ending display of barbarity and intolerance that one often sees spewing from certain parts of the world.

 

The teddy called Mohammed is less about a middle-aged British woman deliberately insulting Islamic sensibilities but more about a society that is all-too-ready to overreact at things that would barely pass for provocation in most parts of the world.

The aim of this write-up is not to admonish Islam or any other religion. Religion is simply a tool and it is individuals, cultures and societies that make it good or bad. However, decoupling Islam, in some parts of
Africa
, from violence appears close to impossible, especially when some of its adherents are able to make a case of an outsider having insulted the Prophet Mohammed.

The seven year olds who named the teddy Mohammed acted innocently. So did Ms. Gibbons. What the Sudanese authorities ought to have done was to educate Ms. Gibbons on the religious and cultural values of the Islamic parts of
Sudan (Khartoum, where Ms. Gibbons taught, is in the Islamic part of Sudan
).

 

Instead, they ended up doing something reminiscent of the backward Middle Ages—sentencing her to jail. An event like this sometimes makes rational people laugh at the chocking effect of blind adherence to religious faith. And few things could be more potent than when the state exalts religious dogma and has religious laws against "blasphemy"!

The teddy bear named Mohammed likely remains placed on a bookshelf or a table in the classroom where Ms. Gibbons taught. An inanimate object, it would never be able to fathom the amount of attention it has received worldwide.

 

I think Mohammed would remain just another name—that of a friend, a cousin, a colleague or a distant acquaintance. But, the Prophet Mohammed...that certainly refers to an individual who was born around 570 CE and founded what has become one of the largest religions in the world.

 

Chippla Vandu is a Nigerian scientist and researcher based in Holland. He blogs as Chippla.

 

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