By Ben Macintyre (THE TIMES, 30/11/07):
Gillian Gibbons languishes in a Sudanese prison on account of a teddy bear named Mohamed. But the animal at the heart of the bizarre events in Khartoum is not a bear, but a goat; specifically, a scapegoat.
In Old Testament times, a goat was ritually driven into the wilderness during Yom Kippur, taking it with it the sins of the people: Leviticus 16: “And the Goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited.” A scapegoat is the innocent person held responsible for the misdeeds of others, to divert attention from problems or shield the guilty. Sociologists describe scapegoating as “an effective temporary means of achieving group solidarity”. It is one of the oldest and cruellest forms of political propaganda.
The scapegoat is almost always the individual or minority group least able to defend itself. The Jews in Nazi Germany, the Kurds in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or a well-meaning middle-aged primary school teacher in autocratic modern Sudan.
Mrs Gibbons, 54, was sentenced yesterday to 15 days in prison followed by deportation for insulting religion and inciting hatred, after she allowed her class of seven-year-olds to name the class teddy bear Mohamed, the revered name of the Prophet.
The row has been framed as a religious confrontation of a depressingly familiar sort: from one side, it is yet further evidence of the barbarism inherent in a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam; from the other, it is further proof of a concerted campaign to denigrate Islam. Yet the Sudanese decision to punish this blameless woman over something so apparently trivial has little to do with rival gods: it is a political manoeuvre, a calculated gambit by a regime under stress that has every reason to want to play to the Islamic gallery.
Khartoum seems to have picked this fight over a cuddly toy deliberately: to distract attention from its pernicious role in the Darfur conflict and deteriorating relations with the south of the country, to demonstrate its Islamic credentials, to shore up its own power and to tweak the nose of the West.
President Omar al-Bashir has been itching for a confrontation with Britain since the UK threatened sanctions against Khartoum if Darfur peace talks failed. Mrs Gibbons is a teacher at Unity High School, a school run by Christians that follows a British-style curriculum. It is a prominent reminder of Sudan’s colonial past, making her a most tempting target.
The row could have been defused by quiet diplomacy, but instead incendiary literature was circulated in Khartoum and mass demonstrations were planned. One pro-government newspaper called for Hassan al-Turabi, once the regime’s hardline Islamic ideologue, to give evidence at Mrs Gibbons’s trial to demonstrate how offensive her actions have been to Muslims.
This was not some spontaneous outpouring by outraged believers. The semi-official Assembly of Ulemas, consisting of clerics and scholars, had already made up its collective mind that “what has happened was not haphazard or carried out from ignorance”. Such statements are the calculated response of a regime not just taking, but actively seeking, offence.
Last month Osama bin Laden, who based his operations in Sudan between 1991 and 1996, condemned Khartoum for agreeing to the presence of a new peacekeeping force for Darfur. “This is a brazen occupation,” bin Laden declared, “and only an infidel apostate seeks it or agrees to it.” At almost the same moment Mrs Gibbons blithely asked her class to come up with name for the teddy, providing President al-Bashir with the perfect chance to prove he is no “infidel apostate”. Mrs Gibbons is only the latest victim of bin Laden’s desperate megalomania.
Behind the ludicrous spat over a teddy bear lurks the bloody shadow of Darfur. In four years of fighting between insurgents and government-backed militias, perhaps as many as 300,000 lives have been lost, with 2.2 million left homeless. Khartoum has been accused of genocide. By posturing as the defender of Islam, the Government can more easily shrug off the international demands to stop the bloodshed in Darfur, by dismissing criticism as unwarranted interference from the anti-Islamic West.
Stable, self-confident regimes have no need of scapegoats. When Iran captures and holds a group of British servicemen and women, it does so as a means of obvious grandstanding. In the midst of the Danish cartoons row, the Syrians allowed the torching of the Danish consulate in Damascus as a sop to radical opinion. In the same way, the Sudanese authorities pursued Mrs Gibbons to make a political point.
But in Britain we also slip too easily into the stark confrontational pattern: the Right howling in outrage at the prospect of a kindly woman teacher being lashed under Sharia; Boris Johnson chuntering away nostalgically about the good old days when “Britain would have sent a gunboat to rescue” any memsahib treated in this way; and the Left tying itself in knots to demonstrate cultural sensitivity.
Now that the regime has made its point, the Khartoum courts will release and deport Mrs Gibbons after 15 days, just as President Ahmadinejad of Iran released Faye Turney and her comrades once they had served their purpose. The decision has little to do with theology and everything to do with the politics of Sudan, international and internal.
The teddy bear battle should be seen for what it is: not some thumpingly symbolic shorthand for a supposed clash between religions, but a revealing demonstration of the most cynical politics. The story of the bear and the goat is a salutary tale for an age of political and religious paranoia: a grim parable of the innocent sent into the wilderness to cover a multitude of sins.