For Gillian Gibbons the ordeal is over. The British teacher jailed in Sudan for allowing her pupils to name a teddy bear Muhammad is now back home after President Omar al-Bashir released her from jail midway through a 15-day sentence. However, the furor over the case—in which Gibbons could have faced a lengthy prison sentence and 40 lashes for behavior seen as an insult to Islam—is unlikely to end quite that quickly. While Britain's foreign secretary, David Miliband, praised Gibbons for displaying "good British grit," news of her early release left members of the Muslim world divided. After protesters took to the streets in Sudan demanding her execution, Muslim groups in Britain spoke out in favor of Gibbons, saying that the Sudanese government's actions in the case have created greater misunderstandings about Islam. Inayat Bunglawala, the assistant secretary-general for the Muslim Council of Britain, the United Kingdom's largest Muslim group, spoke to NEWSWEEK's Jessica Au about the case. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Did Gillian Gibbons deserve the treatment she received or was this incident a case of Khartoum playing politics?
Inayat Bunglawala: It was apparent from the outset that there was no malicious intent on Gillian's part to offend the Islamic faith or to insult the Prophet Muhammad. She did not deserve to be jailed. She should not have even been arrested or charged, as she did not commit any crime. No parents from the school took any offense at the naming of this teddy bear, and the children themselves have since said that it was their decision to name the teddy Muhammad. All Gillian did was to endorse their choice. The school should really have dismissed this complaint, which came from a secretary at the school. This case has also done quite a bit of damage to how the Sudanese government will be perceived. They mishandled this incident right from the outset and it has done their image no good at all.
Is it acceptable for Muslims to name animals or toys Muhammad?
Muhammad's name is held in great honor among Muslims, and many parents are very proud to call their children Muhammad. However, it's not normally the done thing to call animals Muhammad—it would be like calling your dog Jesus.
Are you concerned that reactions like this will reinforce the stereotype that all Muslims are hardline fundamentalists?
It has been difficult for the community, as the affair has given those who have always been hostile to Islam and Muslims the opportunity to reinforce their prejudices—to portray Muslims as being intolerant and quick to take offence. However, all the mainstream Muslim organizations in the U.K. responded with one voice on this issue and have made their support for Gillian clear. We believe the Sudanese authorities have grossly overreacted.
Do you feel that the protests in Khartoum on Friday calling for Gibbons to be put to death were spontaneous?
Given the nature of the demonstrations—with people on the streets waving swords and demanding that Gillian be killed—it's hard to believe that many of those demonstrators really had accurate facts about this case. Gillian had not set out to offend the Sudanese people and their religious beliefs. I don't think the protesters had been made aware that she was merely responding to a choice made by her seven-year-old pupils; otherwise they wouldn't have reacted so strongly. They had been told by clerics at a mosque they had been praying at that a Westerner has come to Khartoum and insulted the prophet. It's not difficult to whip people up into a frenzy if you feed them false information.
Do you think the Sudanese government is speaking with one voice on this issue?
The Sudanese government is certainly divided on the issue. Parts of the government, as well as many Sudanese people, were very embarrassed by what had occurred. They must have realized that this affair had gotten way out of hand. And some officials, including the Sudanese ambassador here in London, were just as surprised as many of us were when Gillian was sentenced to jail over such a crime. The two Muslim peers [Lord Nazir Ahmed and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi] who flew out there allowed the Sudanese government a way out of this. It was a way of demonstrating to the hardliners that they weren't caving in to foreign pressure but instead responding to appeals by fellow Muslims.