30 November 2007

Muslim peers hope to secure teacher's freedom

The British Muslim peers Lord Ahmad and Lady Warsi are planning to visit Sudan on a private initiative to try to secure the release of Gillian Gibbons, a British teacher currently serving a 15-day sentence for insulting religion over the permission she gave her students in September to name a teddy bear Muhammad. The pupils named the bear Muhammad after one of their own number. The affair went to court after a member of the school staff complained to the Sudanese education ministry. The peers hope that President Omar al-Bashir and the chief justice of Sudan will find it possible to hand Gibbons over to their fellow Muslims, without appearing to bow to pressure from the British government.

The student named Muhammad, whose name landed his teacher at the centre of the controversy, has spoken out in support of Gibbons. He admitted that naming the bear Muhammad had originally been his idea. His family described Gibbons as "very nice".

Nevertheless, there was a demonstration against Gibbons in Khartoum after Friday prayer today. The protesters demanded a harsher punishment than the 15-day prison sentence Gibbons is serving. In fact, some of them chanted slogans such as "No tolerance -- execution" and "Kill her, kill her by firing squad" (BBC).

I sincerely hope that Lord Ahmad and Lady Warsi's mission to Khartoum will succeed. They're wise to have come up with a face-saving exit strategy that will hopefully allow Gibbons to go back home and put the ordeal behind her.

For the people who want Gibbons dead, though, I can't find the right words. Their ignorance and lack of human empathy is simply astounding. This whole sordid story reminds me of the plight of the Bangladeshi cartoonist Muhammad Arifur Rahman who got in serious trouble both with noisy Islamists and with the interim government after authoring a cartoon in which a little boy gives his cat's name as "Muhammad the Cat" after being told by a mullah to place Muhammad before any name. There, too, some demonstrator's bayed for Arif's blood, even though the poor guy was just making fun of overzealous preachers who'd like all men in Bangladesh to present themselves as Muhammad So-and-So.

Muhammad the Cat, Muhammad the Bear... are these attacks on the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)? A moment's reflection would tell us they're not. And yet there are plenty of people in various Muslim countries who jump at the opportunity to holler and shout until they're blue in the face, demanding the death of one person, the imprisonment of another, etc. etc. Why so much insecurity? Do they think the Prophet Muhammad can be hurt by someone naming a toy bear after him, even intentionally? The Prophet refused to invoke God's punishment on people who had their children throw stones at him until he bled. Instead, he prayed for the guidance of those people. So what have these noisy crowds, who claim to be defending the Prophet, learned from his life and deeds?

The Prophet (pbuh) was gentle even to a man who urinated in the middle of the mosque in Medina. We have to take a long and hard look at ourselves and ask whether we live up to the Prophet's example, or even try to live up to it.

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