Teddy bears and genocide

2007-12-07 00:00

When British teacher Gillian Gibbons was released from prison after the furore over a Sudanese classroom teddy bear named Mohammed, almost everyone was keen to play it down. Sudan’s embassy in London called it a minor cultural misunderstanding and the Muslim Council of Britain said Gibbons had done nothing wrong. Indeed, the British Islamic Foundation sells a prayer bear called Adam, another holy name.

Opinion is divided among Muslims about whether Mohammed the bear represented idolatry, insensitivity or insignificance and, as a result, considerable good may come of this affair. It has shown that a small group of fanatics baying for blood and chanting extreme slogans is not universal Islam. Indeed, many Muslims have been at pains to describe their religion as one of openness and peace. The attitudes of moderate, modern Islam have been clearly demonstrated and this can only be to the benefit of international harmony.

The extremists have been left out in the cold. If this was an attempt by Sudanese officialdom to harness conservative Muslim opinion, annoy its perceived enemies and distract attention from the shaky start made to the deployment of Unamid, the hybrid peacekeeping force in Darfur, it failed. And the contrast between Gibbons’s arrest and the Khartoum government’s refusal to detain two indicted war criminals, one a government minister, wanted by the International Criminal Court has been noted.

Two million people have been displaced and over 200 000 have died in Darfur. The frequently paranoid Sudanese government is playing a predictably obstructive role regarding Unamid. It has refused to accept Scandinavian or Asian personnel and is demanding the right to advance information of troop movements and to shut down communications. Both demands are absurd.

The matter of the ill-named bear should quickly disappear into obscurity. But the world’s greatest, and most complex, current humanitarian disaster is no closer to resolution. Unamid has no access to the helicopters vital to its remit and will start the new year short of 17 000 troops. Media headlines should now be dominated by the implications of Darfur’s human catastrophe, not a dispute over a toy.

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