Monday, December 03, 2007

'Blasphemous' school teacher released

Gillian Gibbons, who was jailed last week for allowing a toy bear to be called Mohammed, is to be allowed to fly home [BBC / CNN]. The school teacher caused controversy in Sudan after authorities learnt she had let children in her class name the bear after a popular boy, who by coincidence was called Mohammed. The practice of naming a bear or other effigy is discouraged or prohibited in Islamic teachings. But Muslims in Britain have said the reaction by Sudanese authorities was too draconian. Dr Imad Hassan, 45, a Sudanese doctor and writer who lives in Britain, said, "I feel insulted as a Muslim by the government of Sudan, not by Mrs Gibbons," he told the BBC. "Describing the lovely children's toy with the name of Muhammad is a compliment, it is not an insult”.

Speaking at the Foreign Office this afternoon, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, David Miliband said Ms Gibbons was “a little overwhelmed by the coverage generated by the story but is elated to be freed”. He described the discussions and diplomatic efforts made in the last week as “a team effort from a number of parties”. But he said the visit by two Muslim peers, Nazir Ahmed and Sayeeda Warsi, was “an independent but helpful effort” to help secure Ms Gibbons release. The Prime Minister Gordon Brown said “common sense has prevailed” following the news the school teacher was to be released.

Gillian Gibbons has said she did not wish to see any retaliation towards Muslims following her ordeal. But the issue is likely to sour relations between Britain and Sudan. Over £400,000 is given to the country in aid by Britain every year. The rhetoric and comment on radio chat shows and internet forums indicates strengthening attitudes against Islam. The Vanessa show on BBC London last week attracted dozens of calls from angry listeners. LBC also drew a strong response from the public. In the NY Daily News one comment brought together many of the sentiments widely expressed on the phone-ins. “There they go again. Like the avengers who vowed death to novelist Salman Rushdie for his affront to Islam, like those who slew Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh for his, like the mobs who ran mindless riot across Europe in protest of cartoons they deemed offensive to their prophet, now tens of thousands of Sudanese Muslims are demanding the execution by firing squad of British schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons, who made the mistake of letting her 7-year-old charges name a teddy bear Muhammed. Here is evidence afresh that at the heart of radical Islam there is tinder - so easily ignited...” the writer said. The issue has even spawned products with one online trader selling 'Mohammed the Bear' soft toys. Others have taken to exploiting the issue for their own religious ends. One YouTube user has posted a video of ‘Mohammed the Pig’ on the popular website. The video was posted by someone claiming to be Bill Keller, a US evangelist, and describes the pig’s conversion to Christianity after discovering that “the Koran was nothing more than a series of fairy tales”.

Have I Got News For You, the BBC satirical news quiz show, made light of the news surrounding the soft toy. Describing the situation as delicate, Clive James, this week’s host of the programme, said, “We have to be careful what we say about the vindictive ranting nutters”. Speaking in jest, he added that “one moderate cleric suggested the bear be named Winnie the Pooh, but when it was revealed Pooh had a friend called Piglet, he was promptly stoned to death”.

People on the streets of Sudan did not see a funny side to the naming of the bear after the Muslim prophet. The anger was visible on the streets of Khartoum following Gillian Gibbons’ sentence and after her subsequent pardon. Men brandishing swords and burning pictures of the school teacher were shown on several news channels over the week. Some of the protesters called the sentence too lenient and demanded she even be put to death.

Fortunately for Ms Gibbons, she will soon be returning to Britain. John Gibbons, her son, revealed the good news to reporters earlier today. But it will have been a harrowing 9 days for the school teacher who has been described as timid. According to CNN the whole issue was brought to attention of authorities by a disgruntled former employee of the school. The person had hoped the issue would result in the closure of the school but instead it has only enflamed feelings between Islam and the West.

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