Once again the reputation of a great religion, Islam, has been besmirched by a gang of zealots. This time the fanatics were Sudanese more concerned about an innocent mistake by a dedicated teacher than by the rape, murder and ethnic displacement of their own countrymen in the Darfur region.
Gillian Gibbons, a British citizen was teaching seven-year-olds in a predominantly Muslim private school in Sudan. She asked her students—one of whom was named Muhammad—what to name a teddy bear that was being used in a class writing project. They innocently chose the name Muhammad, but a school secretary reported the matter to the Education Ministry. Ms. Gibbons was arrested, convicted of defaming Prophet Muhammad, and sentenced to 15 days in prison followed by deportation.
At the urging of two Muslim members of the British Upper House of Parliament, Sudan’s dictatorial leader, Omar al-Bashir, pardoned Gibbons after she’d spent a harrowing week in prison.
Bashir is the tyrant who four years ago unleashed so-called Janjaweed militia on the people of the Darfur region of Sudan who had risen up in protest of unfair treatment by the central government. The Janjaweed have been responsible for the deaths of at least 200,000 Darfurians, the rape of thousands of women and the displacement of about 2.5 million.
Ironically, while thousands of fanatics in Sudan’s capital Karhtoum were demanding that Gibbons be executed, these same hypocrites had not a word to say about the slaughter in Darfur where real Muslims named “Muhammad” are suffering and dying.
Several Muslim leaders have strongly protested the treatment of Gibbons. Mike Ghouse, founding president of the Muslim World Congress, was “outraged at this nonsense going on in Sudan…” and said, “The time has come for Muslims to speak up…” Inayat Bunglawala, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, said “Gillian should never have been arrested in the first place, let alone held in jail. She has done nothing wrong…” And Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the incident was “blown out of proportion,” noting that Prophet Muhammad himself didn’t respond when abused even went there was an intent to defame him.
How sad that the non-Muslim world draws from this and similar examples of outrage by fanatical Muslims a negative image of Islam. Sad, too, that extremists in all faiths do so much damage to their religious traditions, often resulting in loss of life and a discrediting of the positive benefits of healthy religiosity.
By Benjamin J. Hubbard, Professor Emeritus of Comparative Religion, California State University, Fullerton, California, USA