Joan Smith: Islam and the modern world don't mix

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The Independent Online

Gillian Gibbons sounds like a nice woman. She is in her 50s, a teacher from Liverpool with grown-up children, and earlier this year she decided to put her experience to use in one of the most troubled parts of Africa. In August, she started teaching at an independent primary school in Sudan, where she seems to have been popular with her young pupils; she followed a national curriculum course designed to teach them about animals and asked a seven-year-old girl to bring her teddy bear into class.

Everything seemed to be going well until last weekend, when Ms Gibbons was arrested and found herself in prison in Khartoum, accused of a crime so horrendous that it carries a penalty of up to six months in jail or 40 lashes. Her "offence" was to name the teddy bear after the Prophet, even though the name was chosen by her young charges themselves. According to the school's director, Robert Boulos, the children came up with eight names and voted overwhelmingly for Mohamed.

Several parents promptly complained to the authorities, leading to Ms Gibbons' arrest on Sunday. The state-controlled media centre in Sudan reported that charges were being prepared under article 125 of the criminal code, which covers insults against faith and religion.

Once again, secular people around the world are left reeling at the capacity of Islam to discern "insult" in the most innocuous behaviour. At one level, this sequence of events is preposterous; I'm sure there are plenty of genuine crimes to worry about in Sudan without wasting time pursuing a woman whose good intentions are manifest.

But the significance of the case goes beyond the individuals concerned, highlighting aspects of Islam as it is currently practised in countries such as Sudan and Saudi Arabia – and promoted in some European mosques – which are incompatible with the modern world. One is the role of honour, which has repeatedly been used to legitimise furious over-reactions to everything from the naming of a toy to instances of women and gay people demanding autonomy over their bodies.

Ever since the outcry over The Satanic Verses nearly two decades ago, I have watched Muslim men (they almost always are men) use the claim that their honour has been insulted as an excuse for disgraceful and frequently criminal behaviour. Salman Rushdie "insults" the Prophet: burn his books. Danish cartoonists display a lack of respect for Islam: attack Danish embassies. A British Muslim girl wants to marry the "wrong" man: kill her for shaming the family. A Saudi rape victim complains that her attackers got off too lightly: increase her sentence (for being in a car with a man who wasn't her husband) to 200 lashes.

In the latter instance, Saudi officials have responded to an international outcry by claiming that the woman has admitted an extra-marital affair and therefore the sentence is fully justified. She has "confessed to doing what God has forbidden", according to a statement on Monday from the Saudi justice ministry, which also attacked "foreign interference" in the case. The Saudis have not been driven to use such punishments by the Iraq war, and they are not untypical of sentences passed in other countries under Islamic law.

The stark fact is that the notion of "honour" and the violence linked to it cannot co-exist with the modern idea of universal human rights. It encourages men to create oppressive laws which do not recognise individual liberties, and to break the law in states where those liberties have been acknowledged.

I have never claimed that Islam is the only religion that does this, and there are anomalies in British law – the archaic offence of blasphemy is an example – which reminds us of a time when Christians reacted just as violently to what they perceived as "insults". In the past, Catholics and Protestants took turns to slaughter each other as Sunni and Shia are doing now, but Christianity has to a large extent been secularised. Not as much as I'd like – there's still a way to go on homosexuality and abortion – but there is no doubt that the influence of Christian churches has dramatically declined.

At the heart of this process is an alteration in the status of religious texts. The Old Testament is full of hair-raising injunctions and barbaric punishments but I don't know anyone, apart from a few extremists on the Christian right, who takes it seriously. The idea that a single book written centuries ago has unique authority – in effect, a veto over all other ideas – makes no sense in societies where intellectual curiosity is valued and encouraged.

Yesterday Inayat Bunglawala, assistant general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, criticised the arrest of Ms Gibbons in Sudan and described it as a "quite horrible misunderstanding". But during a public debate in London two weeks ago, he refused my invitation to condemn unequivocally the practice of stoning women to death for adultery. It had happened during the lifetime of the Prophet, he said, "so you are asking me to condemn my Prophet".

This is a very clear example of the pre-modern and modern sensibilities clashing head-on. No book or person has a monopoly on truth, and I certainly don't regard Muhammad, Jesus or Marx as beyond criticism. But while Muslim scholars are prepared to argue about interpretation, they have this in common: they all agree on the primacy of the Qu'ran and the hadith.

Even the suggestion that the text needs to be reformed, which she has denied making, was sufficient to force Taslima Nasreen to flee her home country, Bangladesh, and seek refuge in Sweden. She recently moved to India, hoping to find more tolerant attitudes among Indian Muslims, and is now being hounded from one city to another by angry mobs.

It is not enough in these circumstances to claim that Islam is a religion of peace, and dismiss all the things non-Muslims don't like – honour killings, relentless assaults on free speech, and now an accusation of blasphemy related to a teddy bear – as aberrations. The mores of the seventh century have no relevance in modern life, especially in the arena of sex where decisions about who to sleep with are widely regarded as a personal matter.

The damage that is being inflicted daily on the image of Islam doesn't come from people like me, who are constantly accused of Islamophobia, but practices such as forced marriage, honour killings and heated denunciations of "Western" values. I can't think of any secular country where a rape victim or a well-meaning British teacher would find themselves threatened with flogging.