Charlotte commented on the editorial out in the London Telegraph which was probably drafted before the people of Khartoum took to the streets today calling for the execution of Gibbons, ie the Teddy Bear Teacher. The entire situation has become downright dumbfounding. It also illustrates the malleability of uneducated crowds to the suggestions of hard-line religious leaders which is unfortunate for those Muslims who are working to bring the true teachings of the Quran to light and practice within Islam.

God help us if word gets around Sudan that the Teddy Bear is named after US President Theodore Roosevelt. In the current environment it seems anything is fair game. 

But there is more than one story out in the media these days involving what could be termed unjust punishment that is in no way in accordance with the alleged “crimes” that have been committed. The two cases both involve women and actions that would in most cases not even be punishable offences on about half the planet.

The two cases vary greatly in that one involves a violent crime and one could easily be cited as a cultural misunderstanding. However, both cases do involve strict interpretations of Islamic teachings and the enforcement of these interpretations under sovereign law. While these interpretations are not embraced by all Muslim communities or cultures, they are still very much on the books in countries like Saudi Arabia and Sudan, illustrated this week by ongoing coverage in the media of a gang-rape victim and a teddy bear wielding school teacher. The punishment in both cases is unacceptable for a man and it is unacceptable for a woman, especially women without malice of intent.

The first case involves a Saudi woman who was raped in 2006. The unidentified woman’s plight has drawn international criticism after an appeal increased her 90-lash sentence to 200 lashes and six months’ jail.

The men found guilty of the attack were sentenced to two to nine years in prison. The woman, the victim, was convicted of violating Saudi law by not having a male guardian with her at the mall. The Associated Press explains the situation this way:

Under Saudi Arabia’s strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, women are not allowed in public in the company of men other than their male relatives. Also, women in Saudi Arabia are often sentenced to flogging and even death for adultery and other crimes.

The women’s husband also a Saudi has been quoted as saying:

“From the outset, my wife was dealt with as a guilty person who committed a crime,” said her 24-year-old husband. “She was not given any chance to prove her innocence or describe how she was a victim of multiple brutal rapes.”

The Saudi government has sought to distance itself from this case as a product of a judge, the judicial and courts system and not of the ruling government per se. Word now is that the case is going to be reviewed. Let’s hope the review goes better than the appeal.

Second out of Sudan and here via Reuters is the Teddy Bear incident:

Gibbons, of the private Unity High School in Khartoum, was arrested Sunday after one of her pupils’ parents complained [news reports filed after this one have since revealed that the school’s office assistant, Sara Khawad, not a parent, had complained to the education authorities—leading to the teacher’s arrest], accusing her of naming the bear after Islam’s chief prophet. “Muhammad” is a common name among Muslim men, but connecting the Prophet’s name to an animal could be seen as insulting by many Muslims.

If found guilty of inciting hatred and insulting religion Gibbons could face up to 40 lashes and six months in prison.

But here again as in the Saudi husband’s defense of his wife; even people in Sudan intimately involved with the incident, see the prosecution of the offense as excessive. As first quoted by Reuters and here from the London Evening Standard a quote from the mother of one of Gibbons’ students:

“I’m annoyed … that this has escalated in this way,” his mother said. “If it happened as Mohammad said there is no problem here – it was not intended.”

And from The Christian Science Monitor:

“I didn’t complain and neither did any of the other parents,” said one Sudanese mother whose 7-year-old son had hosted the bear for a weekend. “Anyway, she didn’t name the bear – it was the class. Really, we think she is a good teacher.”

But the other side says this, according to news reports leaflets distributed in Khartoum read:

“What has been done by this infidel lady is considered a matter of contempt and an insult to Muslims’ feelings and also the pollution of children’s mentality as an attempt to wipe their identity.”

Both cases are being watched closely. The teacher has been sentenced to 15 days in jail and deportation. My opinion is that deporting those who are working toward positive change in Sudan is hardly the right direction for that country.

Many have likened this case to the Muhammad cartoon controversy that erupted international discord. But I was reminded of the case of Micheal Fay. These women’s punishments make Michael Fay’s four cane lashes after being convicted of vandalism in Singapore in 1994 look like some exotic spa treatment (a link for those who may not remember the Fay-Singapore incident).

In regards to that case:

The official position of the United States government was that while it recognized Singapore’s right to try and punish Fay with due process of law, it deemed the punishment of caning to be excessive for a teenager committing a non-violent crime.

Here is what the US has had to say about the two above cases.

Even with the Annapolis conference on the horizon on Monday, White House spokesman Dana Perino condemned the Saudi court action:

I don’t think it matters if you’re a female or a male. I think that the situation is very discouraging and outrageous. There is an appeals process and we hope that the verdict changes. It is certainly not consistent with the judicial reforms that the Saudis have said that they would undertake.

While the blogosphere and the cable news channels have latched on to both stories, and Ms. Perino commented from the White House, the US State Department has noted the events but not taken any solid stance on either. On the Saudi Case:

We have expressed our astonishment at such a sentence. I think that when you look at the crime and the fact that now the victim is punished, I think that causes a fair degree of surprise and astonishment. But it is within the power of the Saudi Government to take a look at the verdict and change it.

And this as a follow-on, both from State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack:

This is a part of a judicial procedure overseas in the court of a sovereign country. That said, most would find this relatively astonishing that something like this happens.

Regarding the Teddy Bear Incident McCormack had this to say:

We are following the situation of the British teacher closely and with concern.

But official positions of the State Department are not limited to only what Sean McCormack has to say in the daily briefings. Note this excerpt from the State Department’s latest country reports on human rights practices:

Saudi Arabia 2006
The following significant human rights problems were reported: no right to peacefully change the government; infliction of severe pain by judicially sanctioned corporal punishments; beatings and other abuses; inadequate prison and detention center conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention, sometimes incommunicado; denial of fair public trials; exemption from the rule of law for some individuals and lack of judicial independence; arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home, and correspondence; and significant restriction of civil liberties—freedoms of speech and press, including the Internet; assembly; association; and movement.

Under Sudan, following references to the genocide in Darfur, accompanied by the heading “Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment” is this:

Sudan 2006
In accordance with Shari’a (Islamic law), the Criminal Act provides for physical punishments, including flogging, amputation, stoning, and “crucifixion”—the public display of a body after execution. Under the interim constitution, the government officially exempts the 10 southern states from Shari’a law, though some judges in the south reportedly still observed it. Northern courts routinely imposed flogging, especially for production of alcohol.

These reports are required by statute and use internationally recognized human rights as a baseline.

It is well known what is going on in regards to these issues. These two cases have only brought these issues more closely in focus for America and the world. It is unfortunate that those who would seek to live through Islam as a religion of peace are continually hamstrung by unreasonable and irrational responses that only make the divide amongst cultures and peoples broader, deeper and more vehemently held. It would be my hope that a response from those who do seek to live as Muslims in peace join the chorus of outrage and condemn these actions.