Sudan: The great teddy bear fiasco
Gillian Gibbons’s recent imprisonment in Sudan led Albaqir A Mukhtar to ask if the Khartoum government is protecting Islam or defiling it The naming of a teddy bear after a pupil, and not after the Prophet of Islam, is for all intents and purposes a trivial matter. It does not constitute an insult of Islam, […]
12 Dec 07

Gillian Gibbons’s recent imprisonment in Sudan led Albaqir A Mukhtar to ask if the Khartoum government is protecting Islam or defiling it

Gilllian Gibbons

The naming of a teddy bear after a pupil, and not after the Prophet of Islam, is for all intents and purposes a trivial matter. It does not constitute an insult of Islam, or a blasphemous act. In a normal setting, English teacher Gillian Gibbons would probably be informed by her Sudanese colleagues that toys are not normally given names in the local culture, and that if the need arises to name a toy, people usually give it a foreign name. That’s all that was needed in such a case. So why was such a trivial matter blown up out of proportion to become an international issue?

To answer this question accurately, we need to understand the nature of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), and the political context in which the incident was used. Throughout its history, the Islamist organisation, previously known as the National Islamic Front, has always been extreme, dogmatic and violent. It has a long record of using and abusing Islamic symbols for political ends. The teddy bear incident is not the first and will not be the last. In 1965, they campaigned against Sudan’s Communist party after a leftist student at Khartoum University was alleged to have insulted Aisha, a wife of Mohammed. In 1968, their student activists at the same university attacked a theatrical performance of a Sudanese folklore dance called ‘Ajako’, killing a student and injuring many. This time the banner that they marched under was that the dance was anti-Islamic, and corrupting the children of Islam. They also agitated for the trial and execution of Mahmoud Mohammad Taha, founder and leader of the Republican Brotherhood, for apostasy in January 1985, when they were allied with Gaafar Nimeiri, the former dictator of Sudan.

When they took control of the country through a military coup in 1989, they built a system of governance based on exclusion, domination and jihad. They have a grand project of moulding the Sudanese people in their own fundamentalist Islamic image. That project has stumbled on the rock of the multi-cultural nature of the country, the entrenched culture of tolerant Sufi Islam in the Arabised North, and the awakening of the marginalised regions of the country.

Politically, the NCP is under immense pressure, internally and by the international community. It is bent on reneging on the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in January 2005, forcing the latter to withdraw from the Government of National Unity (GNU). It is also placing obstacles delaying the deployment of a peacekeeping mission in Sudan.

Freedom of expression is curtailed; the NCP government is engaged in an increasingly blatant effort to muzzle and intimidate Sudan’s independent press, with journalists frequently harassed, detained, and threatened by assassination.

The government has banned peaceful demonstrations. In February 2005 the security forces shot live ammunition at a peaceful demonstration in Port Sudan, killing 38 and injuring 150 people. In June 2007, the security forces shot at another peaceful demonstration in Kajabar in the far north, killing four and injuring 20. The demonstrators were protesting against the construction of a dam in their area, without proper consultation and adequate compensations.

The NCP government needed to divert the focus from these issues. It is almost certain that the teddy bear row was motivated and escalated by the government for political ends. The demonstrations against Mrs Gibbons were staged by the government; all mosques were instructed to flare up their congregations, and incite them to demonstrate. In many schools, students and pupils were told in their classes about Mrs Gibbons’ insult to the ‘Prophet’, and that is part of the international conspiracy against Islam and Muslims by the ‘universal forces of arrogance’: i.e. the western world, especially the USA and the UK.

The line of defense adopted by Mrs Gibbon’s defence was simple:

1. Mrs Gibbons was not the person who named the teddy bear; it was named by the pupils.

2. The pupils themselves did not name teddy after the prophet, but actually one of the boys suggested his own name for the teddy.

3. The issue of insulting the prophet never crossed anybody’s mind; neither Mrs. Gibbons, nor her teaching assistant, who is a Muslim lady, nor the parents.

Mrs Gibbons’s assistant, a practicing Muslim and who wears a veil, testified in court. In her testimony, she said: ‘It never crossed my mind, and I am a practicing Muslim, that naming the teddy bear Mohammad would insult the prophet.’ The prosecutor failed to bring a single parent to testify against Mrs Gibbons. The defense lawyer brought one of the parents that hosted the teddy to give testimony. The attorney asked the parent: ‘Your daughter brought the teddy home?’ ‘Yes’, he answered. ‘What was your feeling when you learned about the teddy’s name?’ asked the attorney. ‘What do mean by my feeling? Here is the teddy’s diary, which includes everything we said and did.’ ‘I mean did you and your family feel offended, as Muslims, because of the teddy’s name?’ ‘Sir, no sane person would be offended, or think this way’, the parent responded to the question. Mrs Gibbon’s defence made a strong argument to the court that there was no case to answer. Had Sudan an independent judiciary, the case would have been dismissed. In his cross examination of the prosecutor, Mrs Gibbons’s attorney Kamal Jizuli, asked the prosecutor how many murderers, rapists, and fraudsters that he knew of from his experience that are called Mohammad?. He answered that he knew of many. The attorney asked him: ‘Have you taken them to court because they defiled the name of the Prophet?’ ‘No’ he answered, ‘I took them to court to be tried for the offences they committed.’ Then the attorney asked him ‘you also bear the Prophet’s name?’

‘Yes’, he answered.

‘Do you see yourself as perfect, infallible and holly because of that?’


‘Then do you agree with me that the sanctity is not for the name, but for the person?’


In addition to that, I would add that we didn’t know of any judge that had ‘confiscated’ the names of any of the criminals named Mohammad, if the name in and of itself is sacrosanct.

However, Mrs Gibbons was convicted because of the government wanted so. This is a political issue; it is neither legal nor religious. We’ve already made the case that it is not legal. The evidence that it is not religious is that the president pardoned her. If it was really a religious case, nobody, even the prophet himself, let alone the president, would have the right to pardon her. I believe the government manipulated the incident to score a point against the British government, and to divert the international focus on Darfur and the crisis created by the ruling party in the process of reneging on the CPA. By exploiting religious symbols for political ends in this way, the government insulted Islam and ridiculed the Sudanese people.

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.