A British teacher is facing 40 lashes in Sudan for naming a teddy bear Mohammed as part of a primary school project.
Gillian Gibbons, 54, was being interrogated at a police station in the capital Khartoum last night over allegations that she has insulted Islam. An angry mob shouted death threats as the divorced mother-oftwo was taken away and the school has been closed until January amid fears of reprisals from Islamic extremists.
Mrs Gibbons has worked at the independent Unity High School, one of a number catering for the children of well-heeled Sudanese professionals and expatriate oil and aid workers, for three months.
The teddy was brought to school by one of her six and seven-year-old pupils, who have been studying bears and their habitats. The name was chosen in a class vote. The children came up with three choices, Abdullah, Hassan and Mohammed. Twenty out of the 23 pupils voted for Mohammed, which is also the name of one of the most popular boys in the class.
Children were asked to take the teddy home each weekend and keep a note of his activities in a diary entitled: “My Name is Mohammed.”
Police turned up to arrest Mrs Gibbons on Sunday, saying they had received a complaint from Muslim parents, though a source at the school said the complaint had come from another female teacher who was nursing a grudge.
Officers seized the book and are reportedly seeking to interview the seven-year-old girl who brought the teddy to school. The bear itself was not marked or labelled with the name in any way.
The Sudanese Media Centre website, which is closely associated with the religious conservative Sudanese government, said she could be prosecuted under “Faith and Religions” laws. If she is found guilty under Sharia law of insulting the Prophet she faces a fine, six months imprisonment or 40 lashes.
British consular staff have visited Mrs Gibbons in her cell. “She was clearly shaken up but otherwise well,” said a spokesman.
Yesterday Robert Boulos, the school’s director, said the Sheffield-born teacher was guilty of nothing but an innocent mistake.
“We have lost one of our best teachers. She was maybe a little naive but she really had no idea what she was doing,” he said. “No parents or teachers complained because they knew she had no bad intentions. She has done nothing wrong but now we are very concerned that there’s a risk to the school and the students from the men in the street.”
However, in an arabic statement sent to More4 News last night, Unity High School announced that Mrs Gibbons’ employment with the school was being terminated with immediate effect.
“The administration of Unity High School would like to proffer an official apology to all students and their families and to all Muslims for what was an individual action, which does not represent the sentiments of the administration or the school,” it read.
Earlier a pupil from the school, who did not wish to be named, contacted the Daily Mail to speak up for Mrs Gibbons. “She’s a lovely teacher and I don’t think she deserves any of this because the students are the ones who chose the name, not her.
“The teddy bear is not a symbol of anything bad and I’m sure that she did not mean any harm. I hope she’s okay and we should all pray that Allah helps her.”
One mother, whose seven-year-old son hosted the bear for a weekend, said her family had not been offended by the name.
“Our Prophet Mohammed tells us to be forgiving,” she said. “So she should be released. She didn’t mean any of this at all. I know Gillian and she would never have meant it as an insult.”
Unity High, founded in 1902, is governed by a board representing major Christian denominations in Sudan, but teaches both Christians and Muslims aged 4 to 18. Many of its teachers are exiles from the British education system.
Sharia law was introduced there in 1983 and the country’s religious leaders hosted Osama bin Laden during the 1990s. Sudanese women must cover their heads and alcohol is banned.
Mrs Gibbons had spent her career working in primary schools in and around Liverpool as a supply teacher and then as a literacy adviser.
She was deputy head at the Dovecot primary school in the city from 2002 until July this year.
She previously worked at the Garston Church of England school. She arrived in Khartoum in August.
She separated from her headmaster husband Peter last year after 32 years of marriage. On her Friends Reunited website entry she describes herself as a “free agent” and tells of plans to live and work abroad, adding: “Unfortunately, after being married for 32 years I am getting divorced. Shocked? Not half as much as I was!”
The couple have two children, Jessica, 27, and John, 25. Neither they nor her estranged husband would comment on the news from Khartoum.
Louise Ellman, Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside, called for Mrs Gibbons to be released, saying: “I hope that the Foreign Office will do everything they can to calm the situation. I will be giving every assistance I can.”
Hassan Aberdeen, a researcher at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, said the case might be linked to British colonial rule in the country, which ended in 1955. “Sudan has gone through a great deal of turmoil. There was an Islamic revolution and the British quashed it. “Sudan has a very harsh memory of British treatment, and the recollection of that is probably causing part of the problem.”
Bishop Ezekiel Kondo, chairman of the school council, said that the school was in dispute with the authorities over taxes, and Mrs Gibbons may have been caught up in that dispute.
• PERILS OF ‘INSULTING’ THE PROPHET
Mohammed is the central role model for Muslims. He is seen as the ideal husband, father and friend, as well as the ultimate political leader, general, diplomat and judge.
The perception that he has been insulted, whether by writers, artists or cartoonists, has frequently caused outrage.
The most famous case involved British-born novelist Salman Rushdie, who was issued with a death sentence, or fatwa, by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini after his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. Cartoons depicting Mohammed published in a Danish newspaper in 2005 provoked a violent backlash in many Muslim countries. Western embassies in Syria, Lebanon, Indonesia and Iran were attacked.
Muslims believe that neither Allah nor Mohammed can be captured in an image by human kind. To attempt such a thing is seen as an insult in itself.
There is no specific or explicit ban in the Koran. But chapter 42, verse 11 does say: “[Allah is] the originator of the heavens and the earth [there is] nothing like a likeness of Him.”
Since President Bush’s war on terror, which some Muslims have interpreted as an attack on Islam, fundamentalists have been quick to see an insult where none is intended.