Don’t Let a Teddy Bear Mask the Horrors of Darfur
So the Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir has “pardoned” Gillian Gibbons after meeting with two Muslim members of the British House of Lords. Hold the applause, please.
Gibbons was the British teacher jailed in Sudan for allowing her 6- and 7-year-old students in Khartoum’s Unity High School to name a teddy bear “Muhammad”, a name chosen by the young learners themselves. While in custody for eight days, cruel clerics and assorted Sudanese “defenders of the faith” chanted for Gibbons’s execution.
That they were doing so under the patronage of a government desperate to deflect the world’s attention away from Darfur was plain for all to see.
But we must not allow Darfur to be eclipsed by the zany tale of a teddy bear.
The Janjaweed Arab militia, armed and recruited by the Sudanese government, has massacred over 200,000 tribal people in the Darfur region, and 2.5 million were forced to flee their homes, in four years of fighting.
Conspiracy theories cannot be admitted here: it is a case of Muslims killing mostly Muslims.
No private citizen has been more vocal, daring and persistent in opening our eyes to the genocide in Darfur than the actress Mia Farrow.
Farrow put the Gibbons episode in perspective: “One white woman in peril with a teddy bear has captured more media attention than the past three years of our brothers and sisters in the Darfur region. I look back at what we were doing during the Rwanda situation and in America we were watching the O. J. Simpson trial.”
A goodwill ambassador for UNICEF who visited Darfur seven times since 2004 and witnessed the effects of the carnage firsthand, Farrow launched a fund for the region and said: “This is the first genocide of the 21st century and the one genocide that is ongoing as we speak. We have a regime that launched a military campaign on an unarmed population for no other reason than that they are not Arab.”
Actors George Clooney, Don Cheadle, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon have also worked tirelessly to raise our awareness of the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Their Not On Our Watch project seeks to "focus international attention on the continuing carnage in Darfur, encouraging governments and international organizations to take meaningful action to protect the vulnerable, marginalized, and displaced. Where governments have remained silent, we are committed to working to render otherwise invisible atrocities, visible."
Zealotry and illiteracy can be a potent mix. Spectacles like the Sudanese clerics making a mountain out of nothing, not even a molehill, can both enrage and demoralize Muslims.
Consider: In the six years since 9/11, public opinion in America has shifted significantly against Muslims. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, 35 percent of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Muslims, up from 29 percent in 2002. Whereas 27 percent of Americans in 2002 thought that Islam was more likely to encourage violence than any other religion, the figure in 2007 stands at a whopping 45 percent.
For Muslims fighting bigotry and distrust and striving to earn their rightful place in Western societies, incidents like the one in Khartoum can sap the energy and make us wonder if we will ever make any progress.
Yet, as grim as the situation looks, we must not forget Darfur. If we are to remain true to our faith, we must join hands with people of conscience around the world in forcing the Sudanese government to stop the genocide.
A group of retired statesmen, including South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former president Jimmy Carter, have issued a report this week for the Sudanese government to honor past peace treaties, for rebel groups to participate in peace talks and for the international community to support a peacekeeping force with money and manpower.
Muslims can be a catalyst for such efforts, at least at the grassroots level. We can be the largest donors to Farrow’s Darfur fund. And we can demand that our imams and leaders address the Darfur situation forthrightly and unsparingly in their sermons and lectures.
In the four years since the Darfur genocide began, I did not hear a single sermon on it in the mosques that I attended in the San Francisco Bay Area, nor come across a single conference organized around the atrocities of the Sudanese regime.
It may be that as a minority, we feel overwhelmed by a few hate-mongers in the media. It may be that we are frustrated by our inability to reach out to many of our fellow-Americans despite the open houses and the interfaith dialogues. It may be that some of us experience discrimination at work because of our faith. And it is a fact that more than any other group, we are singled out for scrutiny at airports.
But none of these indignities can ever justify our silence when Muslims kill and commit injustice. We must speak out unequivocally against the world’s current “heart of darkness” in Darfur.