So the mop-headed ingenue teacher Gillian Gibbons has been released from her torment in Sudan without being horsewhipped or banged up for too long. The Scousers — Ms Gibbons is from Liverpool, naturellement — had insufficient time to organise a candlelit vigil for her or a minute’s silence at Anfield, but they did manage to festoon lots of railings with yellow ribbons and bouquets from the local garage.
The world, you might think, never changes. The Sudanese government — arguably the worst administration on earth — can now bask in the knowledge that they are deemed by the West to be compassionate and conciliatory. The charges against Ms Gibbons — ‘to have knowingly allowed several children to call a teddy bear Mohammed, pbuh’ — are breathtakingly stupid, of course, but nonetheless among the more minor infractions committed by Sudan in recent years: sadly there are no Muslim peers in Khartoum petitioning President al-Bashir about all that Darfur business, and I don’t suppose it would do much good if there were.
Meanwhile, that strange Frank Spencer manqué Gibbons returns safely to Blighty all jolly with stories about how the Sudanese prison authorities gave her lots of apples, what lovely people they all are, and she doesn’t regret a thing, etc. Fine, love — however, on that latter point, we do, so you can pick up the travel bill for the Muslim peers who supposedly sprang you from chokey, you deluded, asinine fool.
My own rather uncharitable view is that she was released from prison far too soon; having told us all that Islam was a gentle and peaceable religion, she should have been allowed proper time inside to reflect upon this interesting perspective. And without apples. The whole affair also made me worry about my children’s education; teachers interviewed on TV seem to get more stupid, further down the league tables of sentience, with every year that passes. And now we have Gillian Gibbons. Please God, they can’t all be that thick, can they?
But — whisper it quietly — some considerable good may have come of the whole shebang. The most unequivocal and persistent protests about Ms Gibbons’s arrest, back home, came from Britain’s self-appointed guardians of Allah, the Muslim groups. Including the Muslim Council of Britain. Note the word ‘unequivocal’. They protested loud and strong and without those previously ubiquitous caveats always beginning with the conjunction ‘but …’. As in ‘We condemn this outrage entirely, but you have to understand that….’ This time there were no buts, just condemnation. And it was truly heartening to see a niqab-clad British woman protesting outside the Sudanese embassy holding aloft a placard bearing the photograph of a teddy bear, under which was written, with wit and acuity, ‘Not in my name’.
The domestic Muslim reaction to Ms Gibbons’s incarceration represented an extra-ordinary change in attitude, and should not be underestimated. Suddenly our Muslim leaders seem to get it, to understand the point — or our point, at least. Five years ago — maybe even one year ago — the protestors would have been calling for the infidel Ms Gibbons’s head to be chopped off, for the British embassy to be ransacked, for London to be visited by fiery vengeance, etc. And the MCB would have been doing its ‘more in sorrow than anger’ stuff and its usual profusion of ‘buts’. Not now, however.
For sure, we should attach a few caveats of our own: Sudan’s government is almost universally perceived to be repulsive. And Ms Gibbons did not actually intend to insult the Prophet but merely did so by a sort of congenital idiocy, or accident if you prefer. We might add that Muslims are being dragooned and bullied into toeing the line these days in Britain. And this case made it easier for them to do so — the charge was so plainly unjust and laughable, from a Western secular perspective, that it seemingly cost them little to take a rigorous line. But that phrase — ‘from a Western secular perspective’ — is the key. Britain’s Muslims saw the case against Gibbons from a truly Western and secular perspective, rather than from an Islamic perspective.
And therein lies the cause for hope. Because, let’s be honest, from an Islamic perspective Gillian Gibbons was bang to rights. And by ‘Islamic’ I mean according to the wider Muslim world, beyond our shores. For example, if I revealed to the police authorities in even the most moderate and consensual of Islamic countries — Malaysia, say, or Turkey — that I had in my rucksack a rather dishevelled teddy bear called Mohammed, then I would be hauled up before the courts before you could say Inshallah. The wishful thinking expressed by some who call themselves lefties, like the self-regarding waste of space journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and the Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Teather, that this was primarily a Sudan thang, rather than an Islam thang, could not be further from the truth. In fact, the decision of the Sudanese court to sentence Gibbons to 15 days in prison was, by the standards of the world’s 54 Islamic countries, compassionate and extremely lenient. Muslims are a bit touchy about the name Mohammed being misused, you know? Especially so where cuddly toys are involved.
Do you remember those cartoons of Mohammed which were published in Denmark, and the awful fuss occasioned? Such an awful fuss that every single British national newspaper, through consummate and shameful cowardice, declined to republish the drawings. Do you remember the case of a chap called Salman Rushdie? Dissing the Prophet, by accident or design, is a capital offence for Islam. Sudan is undoubtedly an appalling country, led by unprincipled thugs, but it was by no means more vicious in its treatment of Gibbons than would be the case in any other Islamic country. And a lot less so than in some, we might add. Believe me, she wouldn’t have been given many apples in Saudi Arabia. She would, right now, be looking for a new back. At best.
A short while ago, one of the leading members of the Muslim Council of Britain, Inayat Bunglawala, announced that he had changed his mind on the subject of Salman Rushdie. Maybe he shouldn’t be killed, flayed, banged up, whatever; maybe he should even have been allowed to publish, Bunglawala conceded. It must have taken a fair amount of contemplation and, in the end, courage for Bunglawala to become, effectively, an apostate to the fatwah issued when The Satanic Verses was published. He deserves a lot of credit for that, and the MCB deserves credit for its principled stance on the issue of that obviously lesser transgressor, Gillian Gibbons. Whether that stance was Islamic is another issue entirely — and maybe we shouldn’t worry ourselves about that question. If Britain’s Muslims are happy, then that’s sufficient.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 8, 2007