Thursday, December 6, 2007

Sudanese teddy saga lays bare Islamic inferiority complex

By Waleed Aly

That the British teacher Gillian Gibbons required a presidential pardon to avoid 15 days' imprisonment in Sudan for blasphemy over the naming of a teddy bear surely represents the high watermark of absurdity in relations between the Muslim and Western worlds. Even Samuel Huntington, as he theorised of an impending clash of civilisations late last century, could not have foreseen an odyssey so surreal.

The story begins normally enough. Gibbons introduced her seven-year-old students to a teddy bear they would each take home throughout the year, in the manner of a class pet. Asked to name it, the children chose "Muhammad". Gibbons wrote to parents to inform them of the activity. Of course, none objected. Then one day, the police came to call, arresting Gibbons for "insulting religion".

At this point, flabbergasting mysteries abound. Why would the alleged blasphemy be Gibbons's when it was the children who chose the name? And perhaps more fundamentally, what is so offensive about a teddy bear named Muhammad? Certainly, it is the name of the greatest prophet in the Islamic tradition, but it is also the most popular name in the world, and a very common one in Sudan. Indeed, one of Gibbons's students says the bear was named after him.

There is no evidence the children intended the teddy bear to be some prophetic representation, and even in the bizarre event that it was, it is scarcely the most offensive representation one could imagine. This is not remotely akin to the Danish cartoons. Perhaps if the name had been chosen for a pig …

Nonetheless, after Gibbons's imprisonment last week, protesters shrieked that it was not enough. They insisted, with unfathomable idiocy, that she be put to death. Some even specified that it should be by firing squad. "No tolerance - execution," they chanted as they turned the arrest into a matter of geopolitics: "Shame, shame on the UK."

And here, it seems, is the key to this unmitigated farce. Had Gibbons been Sudanese, or just non-Western, there would be no controversy here. Indeed Muslims have not generally been averse to naming their toys (and their children) with the names of prophets. For years, the Islamic Society in Britain sold a soft toy named "Adam the Prayer Bear", while in the US, a Muslim multimedia organisation continues to produce children's videos starring a Muppet-like character also named "Adam" - the name of Islam's first prophet. This saga ultimately has nothing to do with teddy bears, and everything to do with anti-Western sentiment - a fact most nakedly revealed by the collective response of senior Sudanese clerics, who branded Gibbons's conduct "a calculated action and another ring in the circles of plotting against Islam".

This discourse is deeply implausible, especially when you consider Gibbons's love for the Sudanese people and long-term desire to assist with their education. This kind of response discloses a siege mentality; one that must position the Muslim world as the victim in a global - but particularly Western - conspiracy against it. As a corollary, the West must have a singularly oppressive role in the conspiratorial imagination. It exists to repress Muslims, and makes its policy decisions only to undermine Islam, as though the West has no independent interests of its own.

There is arrogance in this assumption that the humiliation of Muslims must be the central goal of others, but more deeply it is the expression of an inferiority complex. Such stifling paranoia is not a trait of the confident, but of the humiliated. The result is a disposition that is avid for scandal, a seemingly incurable desperation to be offended, and to pin the blame on Western civilisation. By responding violently to such offence, the humiliated feel a sense of faux-empowerment. They rehabilitate their status by lashing out.

Accordingly, the evidence on which they do so is usually flimsy. During the Danish cartoons furore, protesters in Pakistan burnt effigies of George Bush and set fire to a KFC as they denounced the "American cartoons". Just over a year ago, we witnessed pseudo-clerics calling for the Pope to be killed for daring to suggest Islam is inherently violent - indicating that they had utterly failed to grasp his meaning.

It is, of course, the tiniest of minorities that engage in this sort of behaviour. Many Muslim groups have condemned each of these outbursts, just as they called for Gibbons's release. Even Muslim Facebook groups formed in her cause. But the problem for the Muslim world is that this splinter faction is so loud it is defining the Muslim public image.

Ultimately, it is Muslims who have the most to lose. Perpetual victimhood, though an emotional balm, is disempowering and self-fulfilling. By clinging to it, and even imagining ourselves victims when we are not, we are ultimately victimising ourselves.

Waleed Aly is the author of People Like Us: How Arrogance Is Dividing Islam And The West (Picador).

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald
H/T: Gramfan

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