Gillian Gibbons, a native of Liverpool, was working inside the Unity School in Sudan last week when she was arrested for blasphemy. Gibbons, who taught a class of seven-year-olds in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, had asked her students to name a teddy bear they were adopting as part of a project on animals. The children came up with eight possible names. After Gibbons explained what it meant to vote, her students resoundingly chose to name the toy Muhammad.
Gibbons sent home a letter with students explaining the class project that involved a teddy bear named Muhammad. In response, a number of parents complained to Sudan’s ministry of education that Gibbons had insulted the Prophet Muhammad. Such an insult is a major offense in Islam and is illegal in northern Sudan, where Khartoum lies. Under Sudanese law, Gibbons’s action was punishable by up to six months in prison, a fine and forty lashes.
Gibbons was sentenced last Thursday to 15 days in prison and deportation for insulting Islam. On Friday, thousands of Sudanese protestors gathered at a rally in Khartoum to burn pictures of her and demand her execution. Some were armed with clubs and swords, and some beat drums. “Shame on the U.K.” they yelled, and “Kill her by firing squad.”
On the same Sunday that Gibbon was arrested, two French teenagers died after their motorbike collided with a police car in Villiers-le-Bel, a suburb of Paris. The deaths of Moushin, 15, and Larimi, 16, both of Algerian descent, set off a string of violent incidents eerily reminiscent of the unrest of 2005. The recent violence has received less media attention than the incidents two years ago, but that doesn’t make the situation any less grave. Perhaps it is even graver now; two years after, little has changed. Promises to aid the immigrant communities around Paris have not been kept, and frustration and fury have only heightened over the past two years.
Among the residents, there remains the same lack of education, employment, housing, and money—not to mention the largely unexpressed alienation and anger felt by the children of Arab and African immigrants in the Parisian suburbs.
The only significant change between the violence of 2005 and 2007 has been the way in which young people protested. Two years ago, they were throwing rocks and burning cars. Now they are picking up shotguns and pointing them at police. Over 100 officers have been wounded.
Now eight-year-olds are denouncing police racism and eighteen-year-olds are declaring, “We want two cops dead.”
President Nicolas Sarkozy has increased police presence in the region. But when it comes to taking action, “Sarko,” who has been hyperactive in implementing all kinds of changes during his brief tenure, seems not to know what to do. Of course, his behavior in 2005 as the “tough-on-crime” Interior Minister does not help matters. Sarkozy notoriously called the protesting youth “voyous” (thugs) and “racaille” (scum) and vowed to clean out the suburbs with a “Kärcher,” a brand-name, high-powered hose used to wash graffiti off of walls. Nor to his current advantage are his efforts to downplay the effects of colonialism. (In a recent address in Senegal, Sarkozy asserted that France “did not exploit anybody” in its past role in Africa.)
Yet, the issue reaches beyond Sarkozy’s political attentions. The violent uproar in Villiers-le-Bel is nothing new: it is a protest against the same old racism and resentment against “foreign” populations (in this case, the French offspring of immigrants, who are not “foreign” by any important standard).
As the uproar over school teacher Gibbons has become enmeshed in the larger struggle between the Islamic regime in Sudan and its sense that the West is besieging Islam, the two unhappy events from that same November Sunday are sadly analogous. Both are characterized by the same “us versus them” mentality.
While governments across the globe struggle to remedy this discord, we find a creative example of how to bridge the problem of “otherness” in a surprising place: the Girl Scouts of the USA. In America, where hawkish, jingoistic citizens (our president, for example) like to judge certain behaviors of fellow Americans as un-American, Girl Scout troops are proving a successful tool for young Muslim girls to assimilate or acculturate into their communities.
In Minneapolis alone, about 280 Muslim girls have joined the Girl Scouts, which helps to shake off non-Muslims’ perception that Muslims are somehow “different.” Asma, a 12-year-old Somali immigrant (and member of Troop 3009), says that fellow Minnesotans feel more comfortable sitting next to her on the train when she has on her trademark green Girl Scout sash over her everyday clothes—usually involving a long skirt worn over pants and a traditional head scarf.
Importantly, the Scouts have not only moved away from their longstanding mainstay of middle-class, white, suburban Christian folk by recruiting Muslim girls, they have begun to accommodate and incorporate Muslim traditions, as well. A number of troops have stopped saying grace before meals, and many have modified the Girl Scout Promise (“On my honor I will try to serve Allah and my country…”). Muslim badges have been created. A Khadija club, named for the first wife of the Prophet Mohammad, was founded to teach girls about renowned Muslim women. And certain Muslim traditions appear to be changing along with Girl Scout ones, in permitting girls to participate in scouting instead of housework right after school.
The image of a sixth grader in Minneapolis breaking the Ramadan fast with her very first s’more at a Girl Scout cookout might not be one found in guidebooks for world leaders. But, considering the often mind-boggling lack of tolerance in our “post-colonial” melting-pot world, maybe it is not so silly to look to the Girl Scouts as a model after all. The French and Sudanese (and American) governments could certainly learn from the merging of cultures and easing of tensions seen in the Girl Scouts, who have fostered a sense of belonging among groups often at odds.
So many of the clashes that fill the newspapers these days seem rooted in a lack of acceptance or a grievous misunderstanding of differences. As much as modernity celebrates the glory of differences, citizens are tripping up themselves and others in their every-day focus on divisions instead of diversity. In a pluralistic world, we should be able not only to tolerate heterogeneity, but to honor it. We can all learn from the words of Rodney King, the victim of racially motivated police brutality in Los Angeles: “Can’t we all just get along?