american society, politics, world

Of Teddy Bears and Ignorance

By now you’ve probably heard something about a teddy bear in the news. But it seems to me that the way people understood the story had a lot to do with where they heard about it. So in the tradition of this piece, I’ve created two very different interpretations pared down from different news sources.

First we have, edited from Andrew Heavens’s story of last Friday, what I like to call “Crazy Muslims At it Again”:

KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Hundreds of Sudanese Muslims, waving green Islamic flags, took to the streets of Khartoum on Friday demanding death for the British teacher convicted of insulting Islam after her class named a teddy bear Mohammad.

“No one lives who insults the Prophet,” the protesters chanted, a day after school teacher Gillian Gibbons, 54, was sentenced to 15 days in jail and deportation from Sudan.

At least 1,000 protesters shook their fists or waved banners or ceremonial swords and chanted religious and nationalist slogans after leaving Muslim Friday prayers. Banners called for “punishment” for Gibbons, and some protesters burned newspapers that contained pictures of the teacher.

Several hundred protesters made a brief stop at the closed but heavily guarded Unity High School, where Gibbons worked, but did not attempt to go inside. The school was guarded by five truckloads of police in riot gear.

The protesters marched from there to the British embassy where several hundred surrounded the ambassador’s residence, chanting religious slogans. There were no reports of violence.

Gibbons was charged on Wednesday with insulting Islam, inciting hatred and showing contempt for religious beliefs because the class toy had been given the same name as the Muslim Prophet Mohammad.

Under Sudan’s penal code, she could have faced 40 lashes, a fine or up to a year in jail. But Gibbons was convicted only of insulting religion.

This is how most people I’ve heard talking about the story see it. This is terribly unfortunate because even Heavens’s piece contains some insight into the role the Darfur crisis may have had in the actions of the government in Khartoum and the loyalist protesters.

The second version of the story is stolen from The Economist’s coverage, and I’ll (verbosely) call it “West Misunderstands Khartoum’s Feeble Attempt to Exploit Religious Row”:

FOR anyone who is labouring to improve Christian-Muslim relations, or stop civilisations clashing, it is a painful setback: a well-intentioned Western woman who has volunteered her services as a teacher in a land stricken by conflict and poverty, only to find herself denounced by a local colleague and incarcerated in horrible conditions.

Gillian Gibbons, a 54-year-old teacher from Liverpool, was sentenced on Thursday November 29th to 15 days in prison for “insulting religion”, after allowing her pupils at a school in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, to name a teddy bear Muhammad.

When the story broke in the British press this week, it was widely reported that she might face up to 40 lashes, or six months in jail, if she were found guilty on all three of the charges laid against her. The incident happened in September and caused no protest among parents at the time. At one point the affair seemed to be spinning out of control as groups of angry men gathered outside the police station where she was held.

For Muslims in Britain and other democracies, the story was a deeply depressing one: so many of its features, including the fact that it happened in the run-up to Christmas, seemed almost calculated to resonate with British tabloid readers, who may not know much about Sudan or Islam (or any other faith) but have strong feelings about teddies, tiny tots and motherly teachers.

In more elevated western circles, it is becoming commoner to hear the view that Islam itself (rather than any extremist interpretations of the faith) is posing a challenge to western values that must be resisted. And if that view becomes more respectable, so too does a defensive Muslim reaction, which is often tinged with geopolitical grievance.

To observers who know Sudan, the whole affair seems to have become entangled with the broader stand-off between the government in Khartoum and the Western countries, including Britain, that have pushed for the United Nations to intervene in the appalling humanitarian crisis in Darfur. All diplomatic exchanges between the Sudanese government and Western ones, whether they concern refugees or teddy bears, take place against that background.

The Economist’s admirable piece goes on to discuss the role of capital punishment in Islam–worth reading if you’re interested. I should also point to another responsible (if almost as tardy as my own) perspective on this event form Anne Applebaum’s “The absurd Sudanese teddy bear controversy” at Slate.

What the difference between the two stories above makes clear is the painfully high cost the world pays for ignorance. The gap between seeing the “teddy bear row” as another example of Muslims doing crazy anti-Western things and seeing it as a desperate attempt by Khartoum to get as much leverage as it can to prevent outside intervention in Darfur is a big one.

Those who read the story the first way go away more convinced than ever about the massive threat posed to Britain or America by what many like to call “Islamofacism.” Those who read it the second way are essentially aware that the event, though ugly, is a product of the wishes of a fearful government and a few loyal supporters–nothing more.

I do think reporter for the major news agencies–Reuters, AFP, the AP–could do a much better job moderating the coverage of events like this, since their articles are read by the vast majority of laypeople. But I think it would be both unfair and short-sighted to castigate them for their occasional failings.

Mostly, I just wish that everyone–myself included–were more willing to withhold judgments on the things we don’t understand. And the complex geopolitics of Sudan and the diversity of Muslims are two things I certainly don’t understand. Perhaps hoping we can accept before judging is a lost cause, but I’m pretty sure lost causes are the only ones worth hoping for.

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2 thoughts on “Of Teddy Bears and Ignorance

  1. it’s easy to take the easy way out when it comes to that stuff. but it’s amazing that if you care just a little to think about it, it doesn’t take much to offer some perspective.

  2. it’s also amazing how the most ignorant people will be the first to tell you they know everything.

    didn’t socrates say something about wisdom being the awareness of one’s own ignorance, or something?

    there are people who will read the first version of the story and claim they are abreast of the topic. others will read only the headline and say the same thing. then some will read the economist article and admit that the real motivation seems clouded and the economist, despite it’s depth, is probably speculating.

    good stuff, david.

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