THE ARREST OF a British school teacher in Sudan last week--amid demands for her execution--had all the earmarks of a Samuel Beckett play, a theatre of the absurd that is attracting sell-out crowds in many parts of the Islamic world. The latest source of Muslim rage: a teddy bear.
Gillian Gibbons was arrested and convicted of insulting Islam because her class of seven-year-olds innocently named a teddy bear Muhammad. Initially sentenced to 15 days in jail, she could have spent six months rotting in a Sudanese prison and gotten 40 lashes or worse, courtesy of Sudan's shari'a law. After an international outcry, President Omar al-Bashir granted her a pardon and kicked her out of the country earlier this week. The private school in Khartoum where she taught, which educates Christian and Muslim students, has been shut down.
The saga of Ms. Gibbons has hardly been more stupefying than the reaction of media elites and others desperate to avoid charges of "Islamophobia." The BBC's Amber Henshaw, for example, euphemistically dismissed the protestors as "a small group of hotheads." Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times similarly downplayed the intensity of incensed locals. "Aside from a large gathering outside the presidential palace, most of Khartoum was quiet," he reported. Sure, imams "brought up the case" in sermons--New York Times doublespeak for a fiery call to jihad--but not to worry, since "few of them urged violence."
Here are a few teddy bear tidbits for balance: Riot police were deployed to face a carefully orchestrated mob, rushing from mosques to the presidential palace. Numbering in the thousands, some were armed with loudspeakers, others with swords. Most were openly seething with resentment. Protesters set pictures of Gibbons on fire and chanted "No tolerance: Execution." Others yelled "Kill her, kill her by firing squad." Another group demanded death the old-fashioned way: "She must be killed by the sword."
The reaction of political and religious leaders abroad was less than Churchillian. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, after several days of silence, expressed his "serious concerns"--and was quick to emphasize that his government "fully respected" Islam. The archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, called the actions of the Sudanese government "an absurdly disproportionate response." Muhammad Abdul Bari, of the Muslim Council of Britain, considered it "unfortunate" that Sudanese officials "were found wanting" in common sense. The U.S.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations blandly lamented "an inappropriate use of Sudan's legal system."
Well-intentioned responses like these don't make them any less insensible or misleading. Reassurances about respect for Islam fail to see the violent irrationality of the mob in Khartoum for what it was: an expression of barbarism, shamelessly cloaked in religious garb. Complaints about a "disproportionate response" by the Sudanese government fatuously imply that some sort of punishment was justified. Moreover, it is not "unfortunate" that Sudan's political and religious establishment stoked the embers of sectarian blood-lust: It is a ghoulish throwback to the Inquisition.
Perhaps most significantly, calling it an "inappropriate" application of Sudan's religious law to threaten a school teacher with torture and execution misses the point. It is, rather, the predictable result of an Islamist theocracy and the culture of hatred, paranoia, and violence it generates. Under Article 125 of the Sudanese constitution, Ms. Gibbons was convicted of "insulting Islam" and "inciting hatred"--catch-all provisions that assuredly create exactly what they pretend to prohibit. (It was, in fact, an aggrieved Muslim ex-employee of the school who complained to education officials.) It's no surprise that this radical shari'a mindset provoked a civil war in Sudan that killed millions. Nor should it shock anyone that al-Bashir's teddy bear brigades are fueling the ethnic cleansing and butchery in Darfur. This is the social mayhem that Islamist regimes threaten to produce wherever they exist--in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and beyond.
Indeed, the pattern is depressingly familiar. Militant Islamic states not only criminalize vast realms of ordinary human activity. As scholar Paul Marshall describes it, virtually all areas of civic and political life--the judicial system, the role of women, educational systems, the media, religious freedom--are forced into the imagined model of seventh-century Arabia. It is an environment made ripe for terrorist recruits. "The adoption of extreme shari'a by a state should be viewed as inimical to American foreign policy interests. It is the most serious ideological challenge of our time," writes Marshall in Radical Islam's Rules: The Worldwide Spread of Extreme Shari'a Law. "Nevertheless, the phenomenon of the rise of extreme shari'a states is widely ignored in the West."
The disease of jihadi Islam is becoming harder to ignore with each passing outbreak. Two years ago the publication of Danish cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad sparked global protests, riots, and lethal violence. A speech last year by Pope Benedict critical of Islamic militancy led to more protests and dozens of deaths. When a London policy group published a study into hate speech being peddled by British mosques, the Muslim Council of Britain instigated a backlash of vitriol and charges of Islamophobia.
"For almost two decades we've allowed the message of political Islam to breed unchallenged within the British Muslim community, preaching separation and confrontation," writes Shiraz Maher, a former member of the militant group Hizb ut-Tahrir, in the Sunday Times. "Our indifference has allowed Islamism to become the dominant political discourse among young British Muslims."
Fortunately, voices of protest like those of Shiraz Maher are being raised more frequently within the Islamic community. Like the long struggle for religious freedom in the West, many are openly condemning militant clerics for confusing religious zeal with an insatiable lust for power. In this, they might take a cue from an earlier generation of dissenters. "All persecution rises out of an impatience of Spirit, which makes a man less able to bear contradiction," wrote Gilbert Burnet in his 1688 work, The Case of Compulsion in Matters of Religion. Burnet joined John Locke and an inner circle of Protestant dissidents to challenge the theology of repression in their own day. At great personal risk, they produced sermons, tracts, pamphlets, books--anything to make the case for freedom of thought and conscience.
"There is a tyranny in most men's nature, which makes them desire to subdue all others by the strength of their understandings," Burnet said, "and such men have an implacable hatred to all that do not render themselves to their reasons, and think that they are affronted when other men refuse to submit to them."
The tyrannies and hatreds located in human nature have not changed much over the centuries. Yet radical Islam seems to draw from them a special, diabolical strength--as even a stuffed teddy bear, if it were able, could now attest.
Joe Loconte is a commentator on religion for National Public Radio and the editor of The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering Storm.