Crowds call for teacher's death

Sudanese protest Briton's 15-day term for insulting Islam

December 01, 2007|By New York Times News Service.

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Hundreds of demonstrators in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, poured into the streets yesterday demanding the execution of a British teacher convicted of insulting Islam because her class of 7-year-olds named a teddy bear Muhammad.

The protesters, some carrying swords, screamed, "Shame, shame on the U.K.!" and "Kill her, kill her by firing squad." They were calling for the death of Gillian Gibbons, who was sentenced Thursday to 15 days in jail. Under Sudanese law, she could have spent six months behind bars and received 40 lashes.

Despite the display of outrage, witnesses said that many of the protesters were government employees who had been ordered to demonstrate and that, aside from a large gathering outside the presidential palace, most of Khartoum was quiet.

Imams across the city did bring up the controversial case in sermons after Friday prayers. But few called for violence.

"This woman gave an idol the name of Muhammad, which is not acceptable," said Ahmed Muhammad, the imam at a mosque in Khartoum 2, an upscale section of town. But, he said, the proper response was more nuanced: "We have to first respect ourselves, and then others will respect us."

In Islam, insulting the Prophet Muhammad is a grave offense, and worshiping idols is prohibited. British officials said they were pressing the Sudanese authorities to let Gibbons, 54, out of jail early, and they played down the protests. "The protesters went right past the embassy, but it was kept under control," said Omar Daair, spokesman for the British Embassy in Khartoum. "There was lots of police and security."

Daair said that British officials visited Gibbons in jail yesterday morning and that "she's fine."

In September, Gibbons, who taught at one of Sudan's most exclusive private schools, began a project on animals and asked her class to suggest a name for a teddy bear. The class voted resoundingly for Muhammad, one of the most common names in the Muslim world.

As part of the exercise, Gibbons told her students to take the bear home, photograph it and write a diary entry about it. The entries were collected in a book called My Name Is Muhammad. Most of her students were Muslim children from wealthy Sudanese families.

The government said that when some parents saw the book, they complained to the authorities. On Sunday, Gibbons was arrested. Several Muslim clerics in Sudan called for her to be whipped. British diplomats said that the whole incident was an innocent mistake and that she should be cleared.

Gibbons went to trial Thursday; after an all-day proceeding, the judge seemed to reach for a compromise by finding her guilty of insulting Islam but handing her a relatively light sentence. The government said she will be deported when she is released.

It seems that Gibbons and the teddy bear got drawn into the larger struggle between the Sudanese government, which routinely accuses its Western critics of being anti-Islamic, and European and American officials pressing for an end to the crisis in Darfur.

Last month, Sudanese officials said that peacekeepers from Scandinavia could not serve in Darfur, the troubled region of western Sudan, because of what happened two years ago, when several Scandinavian newspapers published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

United Nations officials have said the Sudanese government was simply looking for ways to block or delay the deployment of an expanded peacekeeping force to Darfur. This week, U.N. officials said that unless the Sudanese government starts cooperating, the expanded mission might not be possible.

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