November 28, 2007

Linguistic crime report: bear nomenclature flogging threat

The Linguistic Crimes desk at Language Log is closely following the case of Gillian Gibbons. For those who have not heard about her crime, she is a 54-year-old schoolteacher from Liverpool, England, who has been charged with permitting a child to name a toy bear. In case this still sounds a bit baffling, let me clarify: the charge is "insulting religion, inciting hatred and showing contempt for religious beliefs". Perhaps I should give slightly fuller details of her brutal crimes against God and man?

Mrs Gibbons was in charge of an elementary class at a private school. She used a toy teddy bear as a prop in various classes on writing, letting students take the bear home and getting them to write an account (as if written by the bear) about his experiences. There was a shared exercise book with a picture of the bear on the cover. Clearly, the bear needed a name. Mrs Gibbons suggested "Faris". The class disagreed, and accepted the choice of a class member who wanted the bear to have the name of a boy in the class. She agreed to that, and so the bear had a name: Mohammed.

No parents of students in the class (class 2X at the Unity High School in Khartoum, Sudan) complained or felt offended (see this article by a teacher at the school). But it is forbidden under Islamic laws to make an image of the prophet Mohammed in any kind of medium. (Yes, I know, the picture was of Mohammed the bear named after Mohammed the boy; it was not of Mohammed the prophet. But please don't interrupt me; I'm just trying to tell this story the way it has apparently unfolded.) Eventually, although the bear was removed from circulation and replaced by some other soft toy, government officers from the Ministry of Education came calling and asked to interview Mrs Gibbons. Then they took her to the police station and grilled for another five hours.

The school assured them that the teacher was entirely innocent of anything but a slight and understandable error of cultural misunderstanding. But it was to no avail. She has now been charged with blasphemously defaming the Prophet, and faces a punishment of 40 lashes or jail time or a large fine. Top clerics including the Sudanese Assembly of the Ulemas insist that she is part of a Western plot against Islam and must suffer the full punishment laid down by Islamic law. The school has been temporarily closed, and other teachers who work there are travelling in vehicles from which the school's name has been removed. Angry Muslims are gathering outside the police station where Mrs Gibbons is imprisoned.

Keep these facts in mind: (1) it's a bear, not a pig; (2) some years ago the Islamic Society sold a soft toy made for British Muslim children named Adam the Prayer Bear (Adam is also the name of a Muslim prophet); (3) Mrs Gibbons did not name the bear or advise on the name; (4) she actually recommended a different name; (5) it was a Muslim boy in her class insisted on "Mohammed"; (6) he was naming the bear after another boy, not after the revered prophet; (7) "Mohammed" (in any of its scores of different romanized spellings) is the single commonest male personal name in the world, and the second most popular in Britain; (8) nobody has suggested that Mrs Gibbons either intended or perceived any possible religious implications; (9) everyone at the school where she works has defended her on those grounds; (10) the Muslim Council of Britain has also defended her, calling the arrest and charges "disgraceful".

Here on the Linguistic Crimes desk we try to highlight the lighter side of language offenses: the zany character of victimless criminality that amount to no more than uttering strings of letters of syllables, the mad asterisking of words too awful to print, the giggleworthy character of loony attempts to suppress free speech. But we are finding it a bit hard to develop a humorous hook for this story, coming to you as it does from the home of the regime that is raping and slaughtering the people of Darfur. Perhaps we should be seeing a ribald vein of comedy in this story of a place where middle-aged male religious leaders insist that women should dress so modestly as to be almost invisible in public, but those same guardians of morality salivate at the thought of giving a woman forty lashes of the whip in private. But we just aren't seeing it; we just cannot get into the right mindset to see the laughs in this one.

News source links:
Times OnLine;
BBC News;
CNN World News
Guardian op-ed

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 28, 2007 02:23 PM