In all the heat generated by the teddy bear controversy in Sudan, we are missing a deeper reality: As irrational and backward as the reaction in Khartoum might seem, it is yet another example of some Muslims attempting to assert themselves and exercise a little authority in the face of the immense onslaught of Western hegemony in the region.
The facts are that Gillian Gibbons, a British teacher at a private school in Khartoum, had her 7-year-old students name a teddy bear and they overwhelmingly chose “Muhammad.” The students took turns taking the bear home and wrote a diary about what they did with it, which was compiled into a book with a picture of the bear and the title “My Name is Muhammad.” Some parents were offended and the Sudanese government responded by arresting and charging Gibbons with insulting the Prophet of Islam.
The charge is without merit, of course. But it is worth noting that for Muslims, the idea of calling any object other than a human being “Muhammad” is sacrilegious. With Jews, Muslims share a prohibition of making physical images of any living things. An exception is made for children’s toys. Calling the image of any animal Muhammad, a name that Muslims won’t utter without a benediction is, for them, beyond the pale. Turks even prefer the contraction Mehmet to avoid using the name in common circumstances. Westerners have a hard time understanding such reverence in a markedly irreverent age.
In the West, teddy bears are objects of devotion for little children and for most adults fond memories of a cuddly teddy bear endure. A child calling a teddy bear Jesus, for instance, may seem inappropriate, but would likely elicit a response of “How cute!” Westerners are dumbfounded at what appears to be an absolutely insane response to an unfortunate lack of cultural sensitivity. But so, I would venture, are most Muslims.
I was appalled by the response of the Sudanese authorities and denounce their arrest of Ms. Gibbons. I am glad she has been released. The danger here is that despite most Sudanese being beautiful and proudly hospitable people, too many Westerners will nonetheless see them as barbarians unworthy of respect. Hence, it fuels the current attacks on them due to their government’s failure to address Darfur’s serious problems. Far from being xenophobic or genocidal, I know the Sudanese to be a serene and irenic desert people. Even Ms. Gibbons now says that she has been treated well by the Sudanese. “I have encountered nothing but kindness and generosity from the Sudanese people. I have great respect for the Islamic religion and would not knowingly offend anyone and I am sorry if I caused any distress,” she said.
Unfortunately, millions of Muslims all over the globe are humiliated and betrayed by the ignorance and lack of basic humanity that a small minority of Muslims too often exhibits. Should I, however, bring this up with many of my Muslim brothers and sisters a common response is: “It’s true, but look at what the West is doing to Muslims; 800,000 thousand dead in Iraq. And what about Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya and the rest? Why don’t Western people denounce these atrocities against us and only harp about how backward we are?” A famous Iraqi poet once wrote, “If one person is harmed it is an unpardonable sin, but a whole people’s destruction is something to debate.” Unfortunately, these Western horrors against the Muslims demand responses, but Muslims must also recognize and denounce these wrongs too often associated with our Prophet and our faith without always pointing fingers elsewhere.
Our current world can go one of two ways at this crossroad. We can go down the path of more violence, more hatred and more alienation, or we can attempt to understand each other, recognize our real differences, and display mutual respect. True religion — as well as the highest secular values — demands we take the latter road.
Indeed, the situation in Sudan is a medieval misunderstanding and overreaction. So are the myriad cases of torture, rape and pillaging that are now part of our daily patch of foreign, and increasingly, domestic news. Indeed, our dark medieval past seems to be having an ironic renaissance in the West and the Muslim world.
So when we see an irrational or misguided reaction of some Muslims, as we now see in Sudan, it behooves us to reflect on the deeper reality causing it.
Hamza Yusuf, an original “On Faith” panelist, is an American-born scholar of Islamic law and the executive director of the Zaytuna Institute in Berkeley, Calif.