Leading article: Ms Gibbons and a teddy bear named Mohamed


The sentence handed down to Gillian Gibbons by a Sudanese court might fall short of an outrage, but it only just. The British teacher charged in Sudan with insulting Islam, inciting hatred and showing contempt for religious beliefs, escaped the 40 lashes or six months in prison the judge had at his disposal, but she must still serve 15 days in a Sudanese prison. Any hopes she might have had of using her teaching experience for the benefit of that country's children are now at an end, and her experience will surely deter other would-be volunteers.

Which is a pity. Ms Gibbons went to Sudan with the most laudable of motives. Barely three months later, she found herself vilified and hauled before a Sudanese court all because she had allowed her class to name a teddy-bear, of all innocent objects, Mohamed. The saga would be laughable, had it not turned so deadly serious.

Diplomatic intervention could still reduce Ms Gibbons' sentence. But the verdict remains. A British teacher has been found guilty of insulting Islam because of a teddy-bear called Mohamed. The complaints of a zealous school official and Sudan's Islamic clerics have been upheld. The judge took a strict interpretation of the law. The inference to be drawn is that a teacher who was neither a Muslim nor a Sudanese national was unwelcome in that country.

There is bound to be some diplomatic fall-out though it will be limited because little further deterioration in relations between our two countries is possible. British representations over the Sudanese government's role in the catastrophe in Darfur have not gone down well in Khartoum. This tough stance is entirely right, but it did not help Ms Gibbons, for it meant Britain had little store of goodwill to draw on.

So long as Ms Gibbons' fate was in the balance, the Foreign Office was right to keep its interventions in the realm of a consular, rather than diplomatic, dispute. Some stronger expression of displeasure is now in order. It is no longer acceptable for the Sudanese ambassador and his spokesman to defer to treat the case and the court as something that has nothing to do with them. This is a matter between two governments, and the ambassador is his government's representative.

What would be wrong, however, would be to treat Ms Gibbons' case, as some have done, as a harbinger of the supposedly inevitable clash between the "enlightened" West and "primitive" Islam. There is no evidence here of any existential cultural or religious collision. This was a particular court; Sudan's is a particular brand of Islam. There are no big lessons to be drawn about any coming "clash of civilisations".

In this respect, it was a bonus that several British Muslim organisations, criticised in some quarters for their early silence, tried to cool the temperature. They argued that the matter was not worthy of arrest or detention, called for Ms Gibbons' immediate release, and condemned the Sudanese for helping to perpetuate prejudice and misconceptions about Islam. Their interventions were welcome even if they had to be effectively solicited by adverse comment.

We hope and trust that Ms Gibbons will be released before her 15 days are up. Whatever happens, though, her case serves as a warning. We may find it ridiculous that the naming of a teddy-bear in a primary-school class should escalate into a court case and an international incident. But anyone who sets out for somewhere so culturally different, must appreciate the rules. Schools are a particularly sensitive area, as is the name and image of Mohamed. Ms Gibbons was caught up in something that, with a little more awareness of difference, might not have ended as it did.

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