Muslim ‘support’ for Gillian Gibbons misses the point

As everyone knows, Gillian Gibbons, the British teacher arrested in the Sudan for insulting Islam when she named a teddy bear ‘Mohammed’, has been sentenced to 15 days in jail. Fearing that rioting Muslims would kill her, the Sudanese authorities moved her to a secret location, while diplomatic and private efforts proceed to free her.

Tomorrow a British delegation will meet with Sudan’s President to discuss the possibility of a pardon. They will undoubtably try to keep the amount of her ransom secret, as they did in the case of BBC journalist Alan Johnston, who was held in Gaza for almost four months by Palestinian bandits.

Many Muslim leaders in the West reacted with horror. They pointed out that Ms. Gibbons should not have been convicted because she had not intended to insult Islam.

Khurshid Ahmed, chairman of the British Muslim Forum, said: “I don’t think the charge was justified. I don’t think there was a deliberate offence given here.” — Times Online

The Federation of Student Islamic Societies, which represents 90,000 Muslim students in Britain and Ireland, called on Sudan’s government to free Gibbons, saying she had not meant to cause offense.

“We are deeply concerned that the verdict to jail a schoolteacher due to what’s likely to be an innocent mistake is gravely disproportionate,” said the group’s president, Ali Alhadithi. — AP

[Dr. Imad Hassan, British-Sudanese writer] feels compelled to generate support for Mrs Gibbons among British Muslims.

I will try my best to motivate Muslim scholars to speak out to show the original conviction was unfounded… to show that there was no insult to the Prophet and clear her name.” — BBC

“This is a very unfortunate incident and Ms. Gibbons should never have been arrested in the first place. It is obvious that no malice was intended,” said Muhammad Abdul Bari, the [Muslim Council of Britain] secretary-general. — CBS News

And if it had been deliberate? If it had not been a mistake? If there had been an actual “insult to the Prophet”? Would she be deserving of lashes, imprisonment, death? I don’t think so.

We also hear about cultural sensitivity, and how Ms. Gibbons’ lack of it is responsible for the mess. I quite understand that cultures are different, and Muslims take cartoons and bear names more seriously than we do. But note that they are allowed to insult other religions, as the ugly antisemitic cartoons in Arab periodicals show, while nobody is permitted to insult Islam (and of course they get to decide what’s an insult).

There are good and bad things in our culture, but one of the best is the tradition of permitting speech and expression unless it is actually harmful.

May we not expect Muslims to be a bi more sensitive about our culture, too?

Update [3 Dec 2007 1059 PST]: Gillian Gibbons has been released and is on her way back to the UK.

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