British teacher faces 40 lashes over teddy bear's name

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A British teacher working in Sudan was arrested on Sunday after parents allegedly complained that she had insulted Islam by naming a teddy bear Muhammad. She faces a possible six months in prison, 40 lashes, or a fine.

A blasphemous bear?

Gillian Gibbons, 54, who had arrived at Khartoum's Unity High School in August, polled the six and seven year old children in her class on what they should call the bear. Out of 8 names, including Abdullah and Hassan, the children overwhelmingly voted for Muhammad, by 20 votes to 3.

The bear was named back in September, as part of a teaching assignment. Each weekend a child would take it home, and write a diary of what they had done with the bear. These accounts were collected in a book with a picture of the teddy on the front, along with the message "My name is Muhammad". The bear itself was not labeled or marked with the name.

On Sunday, November 25, as a group of angry men chanted threats, the police arrested Ms Gibbons at her lodgings in the School. The book has also been seized, and police want to question the bear's 7 year old owner.

Since her arrest she has been moved from a local police station to Sudan's Criminal Investigation Department headquarters for interrogation. British consular officials were initially refused permission to see her, but were allowed to leave food and water. Colleagues from the school have however been able to visit, and consular access was eventually provided.

The British embassy in Khartoum has not been able to confirm whether the teacher has formally been charged.

School reaction

Director Robert Boulos has closed the school until January for fear of reprisals. "This is a very sensitive issue," he said.

He stressed that there was no deliberate insult: "This was a completely innocent mistake. Miss Gibbons would have never wanted to insult Islam." Mr Boulos was also confident she would not face a jail sentence.

However, in an Arabic statement sent to More4 News last night, Unity High School announced that Mrs Gibbons' employment with the school was being terminated with immediate effect:

"The administration of Unity High School would like to proffer an official apology to all students and their families and to all Muslims for what was an individual action, which does not represent the sentiments of the administration or the school."

The Sudanese Media Centre, which is linked to the government, reports that that Ms Gibbons' actions had "met with wide condemnation by guardians of the students", but colleagues of Ms Gibbons claimed that no such complaints had been received by any of the children's parents.

Sudan's Justice Minister, Mohammed Ali Mardhi, ordered General Prosecutor Salaheddin Abu Zaid to take personal charge of the case.

If charged with insulting the Prophet Muhammad, regarded as blasphemy under Sudan's Sharia law, Ms Gibbons faces 40 lashes or six month's imprisonment - but the prosecutor has suggested that more serious charges could follow. He is continuing to question witnesses, and there are unconfirmed reports that blasphemy charges have already been brought, and that charges of sedition are being considered.

International reaction

The British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, expressed sorrow about what has happened to Ms Gibbons, and stated that contacts had been made with the Sudanese government and police to "clarify" the situation.

Louise Ellman, Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside, called for the release of Ms Gibbons, stating: "I hope that the Foreign Office will do everything they can to calm the situation. I will be giving every assistance I can."

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, of the Muslim Council of Britain, said that Ms Gibbons should never have been arrested in the first place, and called on the Sudanese government to intervene in the case with a view to ensuring that she is released without delay.

In contrast to official statements within Sudan, the Sudanese Embassy in the UK has downplayed the whole affair, saying that the "minute" issue would soon be resolved.


Some commentators have suggested other contributing factors in this furore:

  • Britain's criticism of the Sudanese government's human rights record in Darfur may have angered the Sudanese authorities.
  • Teachers at the school have suggested that a colleague with a grudge against the school, rather than parents, might be the source for the complaints.
  • Bishop Ezekiel Kondo, chairman of the school council, suggested that the affair could be related to a tax dispute between the school and the Sudanese authorities.
  • Canadian radio commentators have suggested that the Jyllands-Posten Danish cartoon controversy in 2005 may have increased the Muslim sensitivity to this issue.