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Issue Date:  December 14, 2007

-- Getty Images/Joe Raedle

Gillian Gibbons is seen shortly after arriving in London Dec. 4.
Teddy bear ruckus shakes old school ties


It’s been 16 years since I’ve graduated from Unity High School. Located in Khartoum, Sudan, it’s in the news for all the wrong reasons.

Unity was established in 1928 by British missionaries, and over the years grew to be, some argue, the institution that still provides the best English education one could receive in Sudan.

I was there between 1986 and 1991. My parents had repatriated to Sudan after living in English-speaking countries for years. Unity wasn’t a parochial school, but it was very strict and there was a profound respect for religion. The large majority of students were Muslims. In addition to twice a week religious studies courses, every day students were divided into Christians and Muslims for a religious assembly. One of the Islamic studies teachers would talk to us for 45 minutes about issues relevant to Muslim teens. The Christian students would gather and sing hymns, pray or talk. And when the bell rang, we’d all come back to class, and the day would continue.

The teachers at Unity were exemplary and diverse: the Greek lunch lady, the Armenian history teacher, the British Indian librarian and the Sudanese Copt math teacher. My classmates were as diverse. We’d have debates about Islam and Christianity, but they were always civil, always intelligent. It’s like we all went by the Quranic verse: “You have your religion, and I have mine.” That’s how it always was in my school. Respect, learning and discipline.

Fast forward 20 years to 2007 and I see pictures of an angry crowd outside my school calling for the death of the British teacher Gillian Gibbons, 54 years old. She had asked her 6- and 7-year-old students to vote for a favorite name to give a teddy bear, as part of an assignment. The children chose a common household name in Sudan -- Muhammad. A school secretary then made the fateful move of complaining at the Ministry of Education that a British woman had ridiculed the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s most revered figure. The news quickly spread.

Generally, the Sudanese are a tolerant and kind people, their hospitality renowned worldwide. But with the fury over Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet still fresh in their hearts, mistrust of the U.N. force of foreigners that is to “invade the country” by taking over peacekeeping in Darfur, and the historic suspicion toward the United Kingdom as Sudan’s former colonizer, the reaction was fierce.

The Sudanese haven’t been exposed to the “teddy bear culture,” where a bear is cuddly and warm. To them, a bear is a ferocious, gluttonous, dumb animal whose name is often used to insult obese people. Naming a toy bear Muhammad, regardless of intent, was offensive. The flame lit, it grew in days to become a red-hot fire, wiping out logic and understanding. The school closed down and immediately did what you do in a country like Sudan -- play by society’s rules. It ran ads in local papers that affirmed the school’s respect for all religions and essentially apologized for the teacher’s conduct.

The angry mobs are now satisfied for having “taught the school a lesson” and have “stood in the face of Western Islamophobia.”

Although Ms. Gibbons has been released, what saddens many in this whole fiasco is the Sudanese government and judicial system’s mishandling of the gross cultural misunderstanding that brought this about and (again) tarnished the image of Muslims. But for me and fellow Unity grads, there’s another painful fact -- an esteemed educational institution that has attracted the best teachers, with a proven history of religious tolerance and coexistence, has been, at least for now, branded anti-Muslim in Sudan, no matter how many ads Unity runs in the papers. It will always be my alma mater, but the idea of Unity has been tarnished.

Hana Baba is a Sudanese-American writer.

National Catholic Reporter, December 14, 2007

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