What do a British novel, a papal speech, some Danish cartoons and a Dutch movie have in common with . . . a teddy bear? If that sounds like the beginning of an elaborate after-dinner-speech joke, it isn’t. All of the above have at one time or another sparked serious confrontations between the Islamic world and the West, causing major riots (Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses”); attacks on churches (Pope Benedict’s foray into Byzantine history); mass boycotts (Danish cartoon depictions of Mohammed); even murder (the death of Theo Van Gogh, director of “Submission,” a film about Muslim women).
The most recent, still ongoing saga fits neatly into that pattern. It began when a British teacher, Gillian Gibbons, asked her 7-year-old pupils to vote on a name for the class teddy bear. Gibbons was teaching at a school in Sudan, and most of her pupils were Muslim, so they chose, not surprisingly, one of the most common of Muslim names: Mohammed. As a result, Gibbons was denounced by the school secretary, arrested for blaspheming the prophet, tried, threatened with 40 lashes and sentenced to 15 days in prison before being pardoned yesterday for her “crime” by the Sudanese president. While all this was going on, organized mobs, allegedly “outraged” by her lenient sentence, stormed through Khartoum, chanting for her execution.
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.
Partly, this is because we still don’t understand them. In fact, the Great Sudanese Teddy Bear Controversy, like its Dutch, Danish and papal precedents, was not actually a religious or cultural affair: It was purely political. Nobody — not the other teachers, the parents or the children — was offended by Mohammed the teddy bear (who received his name in September) until the matter was taken up by a totalitarian government, handed over to what appears to have been a carefully orchestrated mob, and briefly turned into yet another tool of domestic terror and international defiance. The Sudanese government, which pursues genocidal policies in Darfur when it is not persecuting British teachers, is under pressure to accept peacekeeping troops from the West. At least some of the Sudanese authorities thus have an interest in building anti-Western sentiments among the population and intimidating those who disagree.
But is also true that these affairs too quickly become politicized in the United States and Europe as well. NOW’s refusal to tell Fox News that it supported Gillian Gibbons probably had less to do with politically correct anxieties about Islamic culture than it did with fear of being perceived — in any manner, however distantly, however improbably — to support George Bush’s war on terrorism. In fact, there is no logical reason Fox News and the Sun newspaper should have been any louder in their condemnation of the Sudanese regime than NOW and the archbishop of Canterbury: Here was a situation so thoroughly ridiculous and so completely unacceptable that it clearly offended Western values, however you want to define them.
Sadder still is the way in which these shock-horror stories tend to obscure for us the reality of everyday life in the societies that produce them. Gibbons, though apparently sorry to leave Sudan, at least has the option of going home. Her saga will end, her life will go on somewhere else. That’s not the case for Sudan’s political prisoners, for Sudan’s victims in Darfur, for anyone in Khartoum intimidated by the mobs baying for Gibbons’s blood — and certainly not for the children in her school, who have learned, at a young age, a very bitter lesson about their country.