By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 29, 2007
LONDON, Nov. 28 -- Authorities in Sudan on Wednesday formally charged a British schoolteacher with inciting religious hatred for allowing her primary school students in Khartoum to name a teddy bear Muhammad. The move escalated diplomatic tensions between the two countries.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in a statement that he was "surprised and disappointed" at the charging of Gillian Gibbons, 54, of Liverpool, who faces up to 40 lashes and six months in prison if convicted.
Officials said Foreign Secretary David Miliband would summon the Sudanese ambassador "as a matter of urgency" to discuss the prosecution.
"This is a disgraceful decision and defies common sense. There was clearly no intention on the part of the teacher to deliberately insult the Islamic faith," Muhammad Abdul Bari, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said in a statement urging Sudan to release Gibbons from her "shameful ordeal."
Several analysts said the Sudanese government could be pressing the teacher's case as leverage against the intense criticism from Britain and other Western countries over its handling of the crisis in its Darfur region. "It's impossible to know, but it's clear that this is a government that likes to distract people," one British official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official noted that on Tuesday the top U.N. peacekeeping official reported to the Security Council that the Sudanese government was blocking efforts to deploy a U.N.-backed peacekeeping force in Darfur.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in Darfur and more than 2 million have been driven from their homes, largely by government-backed militia groups known as the Janjaweed, in one of the worst humanitarian crises in African history.
Fareena Alam, editor of Q-News, a leading Muslim magazine in Britain, said she also suspected the Khartoum government was saying to the West, "We're going to show you how tough we are."
Alam said she visited Darfur and Khartoum in August on a British government-sponsored humanitarian mission. She said she found that there are "elements of the government that are upset about the embarrassment" caused by world criticism. "This could be possibly a revenge, or leverage," Alam said.
She said the Sudanese government was "hypocritical" to prosecute Gibbons when its actions in Darfur were a much greater affront to Muslim values.
Alam said an official from the British Foreign Office had contacted her and other Muslim leaders to ask that they issue statements of support for Gibbons, whose 7-year-old students named the bear as part of a class project.
Friends and co-workers of Gibbons, who was arrested Sunday, have said that the teacher meant no insult to Islam. They said that the boy who gave the name to the bear was also named Muhammad and that he chose it because of his affection for the prophet.
But the Sudanese government's position appeared to toughen Wednesday with a statement from the nation's top Muslim clerics calling for Gibbons to be punished according to the nation's sharia, or Islamic, law.
"What has happened was not haphazard or carried out of ignorance, but rather a calculated action and another ring in the circles of plotting against Islam," the Sudanese Assembly of the Ulemas said, according to news reports.
"It is part of the campaign of the so-called war against terrorism and the intense media campaign against Islam," the statement said.
"It is an explosive issue," Timothy Garton Ash, an Oxford University professor and specialist in foreign affairs, said of the teacher's situation. "My hunch is that it will still be resolved as an individual case, but many will see it as symptomatic of much larger problems."