Joan Smith: Cultural confusion? The teddy story is no such thing

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The Independent Online

You can't say the government of Sudan is unused to bad publicity. A fuss over a British teacher and a soft toy is as nothing compared to the barrage of criticism it's been subjected to by human rights organisations and the UN. It's accused of doing nothing to disarm the Janjaweed, the Arab militia terrorising black Africans in Darfur, where more than 200,000 people have been murdered and two million forced into refugee camps since 2003. Refugees claim that government aircraft bomb villages, driving people into the open to be slaughtered by the Janjaweed.

It was against this background that the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, had to decide how to react to the arrest of the teacher Gillian Gibbons, who comes from Liverpool. Miliband proceeded carefully, aware that the UK has little influence on Sudan; he got tough only after Ms Gibbons was hauled into court, found guilty in a travesty of a trial and sentenced to 15 days in prison. Even her lawyer was initially barred from the courtroom, while friends and British consular officials were kept in a corridor for hours, leaving them to witness the charming sight of two defendants in another case being flogged. As soon as news of her conviction reached London, the British government called in the Sudanese ambassador for a second time.

No judicial system in the world could reasonably characterise what she did as a crime, and I'm not even convinced it was a mistake. Millions of men around the world are called Mohammed, including Muslim friends of mine in Algeria and the Maldives. I can't imagine them taking offence over the naming of a teddy bear, and I strongly suspect that officials from the Sudanese embassy in London have been having a laugh at our expense. One of them solemnly suggested to the BBC that the use of the name was offensive because bears aren't native to Sudan, as though there were some serious theological point to be debated here.

What a pleasant change it must have been for him, not having to defend his government's shameful record in Darfur.

In that sense, the events of the past few days are an awful warning to British people in their fifties who are setting off in increasing numbers to work in countries where governments have doubtful legitimacy and face internal pressure from Islamic extremists; these small-scale philanthropists go for the best possible reasons, but they're putting themselves at the mercy of regimes which seize any opportunity to grandstand as a champion of Islamic values.

And when something goes horribly wrong, as it did last weekend, there's never a shortage of people back home who promptly grovel and talk about "cultural misunderstandings".

It's nothing of the sort. These events are political from start to finish, an insight into the hellish conditions endured by ordinary people in countries where ghastly governments use arbitrary arrest and barbaric punishments to keep themselves in power. Thousands are flogged, stoned and beheaded under Islamic law the Saudis have executed 136 people this year and we don't have much to say about it. What's happened to Ms Gibbons has highlighted longstanding human rights abuses in Khartoum, condoned by the Sudanese government, and we shouldn't tiptoe around trying to avoid giving further "offence".

Two days ago, a mob armed with sticks and knives poured on to the streets after Friday prayers calling for Ms Gibbons's "execution", and the police didn't even attempt to disperse them. Actually, the correct term for what they were demanding is murder. I can't see any cultural confusion there at all.