Teddy bear: No picnic

Self-important Labour peer Lord Ahmed is delighted to be returning to a hero's welcome after rescuing the innocent teddy bear teacher Gillian Gibbons from spending another six days in what was, by all accounts, an unusually comfortable cell. Thanks to his intervention, and that of the even more self-publicising Tory Baroness Warsi, Mrs Gibbons will shortly be in the arms of her family (and no doubt an exclusive newspaper deal/ TV interview/ film rights: My Week in Hell), a whole week early. Sadly, her release does nothing for the people of Darfur or the almost completely forgotten victims of the Khartoum regime's war in the south.

Still, it's a great victory for common sense and moderation and a defeat for the Islamic Offence Industry. Or is it?

As part of the deal, Mrs Gibbons issued an obviously heartfelt but rather OTT apology for her outrageous action in letting her children choose a popular boy's name for their class bear.

"I have great respect for the Islamic religion and would not knowingly offend anyone and I am sorry if I caused any distress," it ran.

She is sorry if she caused distress? The only distress that I'm aware of was caused to Mrs Gibbons and her family by the Sudanese authorities and assorted religious nutcases, whose mock-outrage last Friday did so much to confirm people's impression of Islam as an enlightened and tolerant faith.

To their credit, of course, the leading Muslim figures in Britain have been unusually forthright in their criticism of the Sudanese decision. Although since the case threatened to make Islam a laughing stock, there wasn't much else they could have done. (Though I prefer the more imaginative gesture of Canadian Muslims who sent teddy bears to the Sudanese ambassador.) Still, their attitude was an improvement on that of the usual white liberal self-haters, who lost little time in criticising Gibbons for her failure sufficiently to accommodate herself to the local culture. Appeaser in Chief Rowan Williams somehow managed to criticise the sentence, but only as "an absurdly disproportionate response to what is at worst a cultural faux pas". Disproportionate, eh? I wonder what a proportionate response should have been? Since none of the children's parents were actually offended (the complaint came from a disgruntled ex-employee) it's hard to view the "local culture" as quite as monolithic and cretinous as such "liberals" seem to believe.

Here's an extract from Lord Ahmed's careful, slyly insinuating statement:

"This is a case which is an unfortunate, unintentional, innocent misunderstanding, and as British Muslim parliamentarians we, Baroness Warsi and myself, we feel proud that we've been able to secure Gillian Gibbons's release."

This is the same Lord Ahmed who, a few months ago, made such an ass of himself over Salman Rushdie's knighthood. In an interview with Le Figaro, he absurdly compared Rushdie to the perpetrators of 9/11. "What would one say if the Saudi or Afghan governments honoured the martyrs of the September 11 attacks on the United States?" he asked. Martyrs! So Ahmed's stress on "innocent misunderstanding" is pointed. It's one thing for Rushdie to consciously write a provocative book: he deserves anything he gets, presumably, up to and including Khomeini's fatwa. But Gillian Gibbons was "innocent".

Of course, no-one is likely to run out into the streets of Khartoum and shout "Mohammed was a war-mongering paedophile, and rather too fond of his camel." But the notion that offending Islam is only acceptable if it's "unintentional" hardly bodes well for the future of free speech.


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