Saturday, December 01, 2007

Teddy Bear Scandal

I can't help but feel that Helena Frith Powell has misjudged this incident somewhat. She starts by referring to Ms Gibbons as "a rather nice lady"; a nice sentiment but given the likelihood of Ms Frith Powell knowing this as a fact, it is perhaps biased. I hope it is true but it is an example of bad reporting. She then compares the issue of the teddy bear's name to Winnie-the-Pooh or Paddington. A rather insensitive comparison to my mind, regardless of the outcome and reaction, we are still discussing religious beliefs. This is not about teddy bear names – it is about perceived intolerance for another religion and ensuing political debate.

There is perhaps a case to be made regarding the right to name your bear what you wish but it should, in my opinion, be saved for another occasion. As for her husband Rupert naming his 45 year old but yet un-named bear Muhammad then that is up to him, but perhaps not something the world needs to know about on her blog which also accompanies serious writing for a variety of daily and weekly newspapers.

The issue here is that Muslims do not allow the name of their prophet Muhammad to be given to inanimate objects or represented in any fashion (hence the outcry over the cartoons and the current outcry over the name of this bear). Part of the Koran is taken by Muslims to mean that Allah cannot be captured in an image by human hand and to attempt such a thing is seen as an insult to Allah. The same belief is applied to the Prophet Muhammad. Children, however, are allowed to be named after Muhammad.

It appears that an English teacher in charge of a class of 7 year olds in Sudan allowed the class teddy bear to be called Muhammad. In this instance it has been argued that she allowed the children to vote on a name; children being children named the bear after themselves, of which Muhammad was clearly a popular name and the bear was henceforth referred to by the moniker 'Muhammad'. How the police and government came to be involved is a little unclear, especially it is said that neither the children nor their parents found the name insulting, although it has been reported that it was the school secretary who chose, instead of taking Ms Gibbons aside and saying something along the lines of "I know you might not be aware of this but wouldn't it be better to re-name the bear as that name can cause offence" decided to report Ms Gibbons to the police.

She has, as I'm sure you're aware, been sentenced to 15 days in prison and immediate deportation from Sudan on her release. Some say that she has been treated lightly (given that the other options ranged from a flogging to 6 months in prison); others are appalled at her treatment. There are currently riots and demonstrations in Sudan calling for Ms Gibbons to be, amongst many punishments, shot by firing squad. All over a (presumed) innocent lapse in judgement in a foreign country.

Now, as a Christian, I am happy with images and inanimate objects being given the name 'Jesus' even if it is usually a temporary measure – i.e . the doll or baby who stands in for the baby Jesus in a nativity play. Just as long as the intention is good and not insulting I do not mind. If someone called their stuff toy devil 'Jesus' as a offensive gesture I might be concerned but I would still hope that the person was misguided and would like to think that as a Christian it is more important to practise forgiveness than it is to dole out punishments. As for imprisoning someone, flogging someone or calling for their execution – those are reactions which befit an actual crime. Ignorance of the law is not an accepted defence but I do think in cases such as this one there does need to be some sort of proven intent. I think Ms Gibbons could perhaps of been more culturally and socially aware but I do not think that she should be punished by imprisonment over what boils down to a cultural misunderstanding. Actually, I don't agree with flogging, execution or corporal punishment in general but I do accept that, rightly or wrongly to my mind, there are countries where these punishments are accepted by society for serious crimes and the people of the society are aware that if they commit a crime then they may be punished in such a fashion. I just don't think that the an offence where no-one else has suffered (and no-one else could even potentially suffer) is a serious crime.

So why have the Sudanese reacted with such virulence to such an incident. I don't think it is simply, as I have read on the BBC forums and other places, that Islam is an old-fashioned style religion where simple misdemeanors are potentially punished by what British citizens would deem barbaric. There is more to it than that I am sure. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that this has little do with theology and far more to do with politics.

No comments: