It was, by all standards, a simple assignment for the seven-year-olds: each weekend a different student would take a stuffed teddy bear home and then write down in a diary what they did with the bear. These various accounts were then collected in a book with a picture of the bear on the front. It was a creative way to get the children to practice writing, that's all.
Of course, like all teddy bears, it needed a name. The teacher polled the students and asked them to come up with an appellation for the class mascot. Out of eight options, including Abdullah and Hassan, one stood out, getting about 20 votes (the others together got three). The name was "Muhammad."
The rest, as they say, is history. However much it sounds like medieval history, like something from the Dark Ages, from a pre-Enlightenment era, this was very recent history, as recent as 2007. The teacher was Gillian Gibbons, a 54-year-old British citizen in Sudan who suddenly found herself arrested and charged with blasphemy. Taken off to jail, she was threatened with 40 lashes and six months in prison—before being pardoned for her "crime" by the Sudanese president. Sudan—already under international condemnation for the situation in Darfur—didn't need any more negative publicity.
Yet, even before the pardon, which some Muslims in the country vehemently denounced as a capitulation to infidel pressure, and which they asserted would damage Islam, protesters demanded that she face not just the 40 lashes and jail time, but that she be killed for her crime of "insulting religion." In Khartoum about 400 protesters, some waving swords and machetes, demanded that Gibbons be executed. Responding to imams who denounced her during Friday prayers, the mob shouted, "Shame, shame on the U.K.!" and "Kill her! Kill her by firing squad!" Emotions got so strong that the woman had to be taken to a secret location in order to protect her from those who clamored for her blood.
Gillian Gibbons, the British teacher jailed
in Sudan for letting her students name
a teddy bear Muhammad as part of
a writing project, hugs her
son John, shortly after arriving
at London's Heathrow airport, December 4, 2007.
(AP Photo/Steve Parsons, Pool)
All this over the naming of a teddy bear?
The Great Sudanese Teddy Bear Controversy, as this story has been dubbed, was just one of the latest and perhaps most incomprehensible (at least to Western minds) incidents regarding the issue of free speech, blasphemy, and religious liberty in general. It's hard for many folks in the West, particularly those in the "liberal democracies," to understand how people can get so worked up over what seems to them mere exercise of free speech.
After all, who in the West hasn't read in books, magazines, or online things that contradict their most cherished beliefs, or things that insult them and those beliefs? We might be offended, angered, and perhaps dash off a hot letter to the editor, or in some cases some might seek to start a boycott of advertisers, as conservative Christian groups have done against what they deemed offensive material. (Some groups, at least the more savvy ones, find these incidents to be great fundraisers, riling up the saints to fight against this blasphemy by sending in a special emergency "love offering.") But rarely do we see anything like the Great Sudanese Teddy Bear Controversy.
There was, of course, the Great Satanic Verses Controversy, which unfolded in 1988 when Indian-British novelist Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses was deemed blasphemous and led to riots in some cities. As a well-known figure, Rushdie had to go into hiding because of a fatwa issued against him by the Ayatollah Khomeini. A huge bounty was offered to the Muslim who killed Rushdie and thus avenged the sullied name of Islam.
Angry Sudanese protesters burn a newspaper carrying a photo of British teacher Gillian Gibbons, during a protest in Khartoum, Sudan, November 30, 2007. The protesters called for the execution
of Gibbons, who was convicted of insulting Islam for letting her students name a teddy bear Muhammad. (AP Photos/Abd Raouf)
All this over a novel?
Or then there was the Great Jyllands-Posten Muhammad Cartoons Controversy, which began after 12 editorial cartoons, most of which depicted Islam's prophet Muhammad, were published in Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, on September 30, 2005. Deemed blasphemous, the cartoons led to protests across the Muslim world, some escalating into violence. Before things finally settled, more than 100 people died, fires were set to the Norwegian and Danish embassies in Syria, buildings in Europe were stormed, and Danish, Norwegian, and German flags were desecrated in Gaza City.
All this over cartoons?
Yes, and unfortunately the problem is indeed likely to get a lot worse before it gets better. We are in the "global village" now; the world is wired in ways that even 20 years ago would have seemed like something out of science fiction, and doubtless in 20 years people will wonder how we managed to get by today in contrast with what they will have then. Instantaneous worldwide communication makes it very easy for a cartoon in Denmark, or a film in Holland (think of the murder of Theo van Gough by a Muslim who deemed a film he produced blasphemous to Islam), to be displayed—in whatever context those who display it choose—before crowds who, in another day and age, might have never known these things existed. Now they are blasted right in their faces, either from TV, cell phones, or the Internet.
This is the reality. The question now is How do we in the West, where we are used to free expression, even offensive expression, deal with it, deal with a culture that has a radically different understanding of the limits of free speech and religious liberty?
However outlandish all these incidents (and many others not so public) seem to our sensibilities, and rightly so, we need to remember that living in "secular" and "liberal" democracies, where free speech and the right to offend are taken for granted, we are, in many ways, the exception rather than the rule. For most human history, in most societies, people did not enjoy the kind of freedoms that we assume as givens. Such freedoms we have dubbed as "natural" or even as God-given. What we see as axiomatic others see as irrational.
We are, in a sense, the aberration. That doesn't make us wrong, that doesn't mean our way isn't better, isn't closer to some divine ideal. It just means that the Muslim outrage is hard for us to understand because we have a view of society, of religion, and of religion's role in society (especially a pluralistic one) that differs radically from that of the Muslim world. In fact, our views are ones that—for most of history—would have been deemed hard to fathom. Even in the West, not that long ago, folk would have been jailed, tortured, or worse, for denying the Trinity.
What, then, is the answer? Most likely there isn't one. We must have faith that we in the West aren't going to easily give up our traditions of free speech and free expression. And we shouldn't. Of course, it is no more easy for radical Muslims to give up their view of the world, one in which those who blaspheme their prophet or religion are worthy of punishment, even death.
The right to offend, whether we like it or not, is inherent in free speech. Political correctness aside, the day free speech is constrained because it "offends" is the day that the speech is no longer free. Living in the West means protection, ideally, from a lot of things, but being offended isn't one of them. Unfortunately, that's a worldview not shared by millions, including those who clamored for the death of Gillian Gibbons, whom many saw as part of a Western plot against Islam.
The naming of a teddy bear as part of a plot against Islam? It's difficult for us to understand how, or why, folks would think that.
And it's precisely that difficulty that best reveals the challenges ahead.
Hendrick Fisher is a pen name.