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Published: Saturday, 12/1/2007

Hard lesson in Sudan

IN WHAT ought to be considered an affront to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, a British teacher convicted of insulting Islam in Sudan has been sentenced to 15 days in prison and deportation. Her crime: allowing her 7-year-old students at a Khartoum Christian school to name a teddy bear "Mohammed" as part of a class project about animal habitats.

The teacher, Gillian Gibbons, was jailed after parents complained to authorities that she had allowed her young students at Unity High School, an upscale, private school founded by Christian groups but with a student body that is 90 percent Muslim, to pick the prophet's name for a toy bear being used in a class project.

Of course, it could have been worse. Had Ms. Gibbons, 54, been convicted on two more serious charges, inciting hatred and showing contempt for religious beliefs, she could have been sentenced to 40 lashes, up to a year in jail, and a fine.

But had cooler heads prevailed, an event becoming increasingly uncommon in Muslim-Christian relations and evidenced by the thousands of protesters who turned out in Khartoum yesterday demanding her death, Ms. Gibbons would merely have been reprimanded for her cultural insensitivity. She is, after all, a guest in a foreign country and it is her responsibility to educate herself about the social norms of her hosts. But, had reason ruled, she would not have been thrown in jail and threatened with a beating. Again, she is a guest in a foreign country and good hosts would not assume she is aware of every potential cultural/religious pitfall in these hypersensitive times.

But cooler heads have not prevailed and reason once again has lost out to paranoid factions that see affronts everywhere. The Sudanese Assembly of Ulemas, the country's top clerics, fanned the flames, declaring that Ms. Gibbons should feel the full force of the law for her "crime," which they claim is "another ring in the circles of plotting against Islam."

Sudanese officials reportedly closed the school until further notice, and members of the state assembly called for greater control of foreign schools, which are attended by children of upper-class Sudanese families, embassy officials, and aid workers.

And in a testament to how tentative foreign schools have become in their relations with host countries, Unity High School issued an apology that distanced itself from Ms. Gibbons' error and said it had "removed her from her work at the school" - whatever that means.

No matter the final outcome (the British government is working behind the scenes to have her released), this incident points out why it is so difficult for Christians and Muslims to get along in the current international climate. As long as ignorance and hypersensitivity continue to rule, relations between two of the world's major faiths are unlikely to improve.

Ironically, friends say Ms. Gibbons, who has been in Sudan only since July, was fascinated by the country, and went there to learn more about its culture. Is this what Sudanese Muslims would have her learn?



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