In a world in which Islamophobes blur the distinction between the barbaric acts of Muslim extremists and terrorists and the religion of Islam, two recent legal decisions in Sudan and Saudi Arabia will reinforce accusations that Islam is an intolerant religion.
After years of civil war and bloodshed and having failed to effectively respond to what some describe as genocide in Darfur, Sudan’s government and judiciary have captured global attention with an outrageous verdict of guilt for a British school teacher for allegedly insulting Islam.
In a case in which it is clear that Gillian Gibbons did not intend to malign the Prophet Muhammad and that the children in her class had chosen the name Muhammad for their class teddy-bear, some might still question why she was not more culturally sensitive to a potential backlash. That said, school officials or the courts could have asked her to apologize for an inadvertent “mistake” in judgment. But instead, Gibbons who had made the decision and sacrifice to teach in Sudan, was found guilty of ‘insulting religion,’ a victim to a court’s distorted notion of Islamic law and justice.
The Sudanese case came on the heels of a recent decision by a Saudi Arabian court that sentenced a 19-year-old rape victim to 200 lashes and six months in prison. Instead of being appalled at the rape, the gang rape of a woman, a Justice Ministry statement is reported to have declared that the woman invited the sexual attack by seven men because she was in a parked car with a man who was not a relative.
At a time when Islam is under siege from Muslim extremists and extremists from the Far Right in Europe and America, the judiciaries of Sudan and Saudi Arabia have managed to reinforce the vilification of Islam and used Islamic law as a weapon rather than a yardstick for justice. All our futures depend upon an ability to agree upon a global ethic, based upon mutual understanding and respect, that transcends our religious and cultural differences. Whatever our differences, there can never be an acceptable excuse for injustice and intolerance in the name of our religions.
“On Faith” panelist John L. Esposito is professor of religion, international affairs and Islamic studies at Georgetown University. He also is founding director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.
John O. Voll is professor of Islamic history and associate director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. He has lived in Cairo, Beirut, and Sudan and has published numerous articles and book chapters on modern Islamic and Sudanese history.