We may never really know why the Sudanese ruler, General al-Bashir, wanted to make an example of Mrs. Gillian Gibbons, the English school mistress who went to teach children in Khartoum. The class she was teaching called a teddy bear Muhammad, and for this fictitious “insult” to the Prophet the unfortunate woman was arrested, and threatened with a jail sentence and forty lashes. Perhaps the Sudanese wanted to distract from the proposed intervention in their genocide in Darfur, insipid as those proposals are. Britain once ruled Sudan with no soldiers in garrison, and a civil service of 200 – since Sudan became independent, the civil warfare has been incessant and deadly, and perhaps General al-Bashir saw the chance for a historic revenge by holding hostage and humiliating an English woman out to do good. The Iranians have just given him a splendid example of how profitable this trick can be, by hijacking some fifteen British sailors and then gathering praise for releasing them. And maybe they roused the mobs to shout for Mrs. Gibbons’s execution just to show the world what Islamist business is like.
Everyone must welcome the imminent return of Mrs. Gibbons physically unharmed to her home in Liverpool. She is not to be imprisoned or lashed after all. What has happened is that two British members of the House of Lords, by name Lord Ahmed and Lady Warsi, flew to Khartoum, and interceded with General al-Bashir, and he consented to their petition for mercy, thus hoping to show himself in a benevolent light, and that too may have been an objective all along.
The two Muslim emissaries may be cast-iron figureheads in today’s establishment, but Lord Ahmed recently denounced the novelist Salman Rushdie’s knighthood, likening it to honouring the 9/11 hijackers, and Lady Warsi recently said that expecting British Muslims to weed out extremism is “a very dangerous step.” Rather than send these two characters, the British government might have broken off diplomatic relations with Sudan, cut off millions in aid, revoked the visas of the thousands of Sudanese students in Britain, and prosecuted this barbarous regime for genocide. Instead it outsourced its foreign policy to two Muslims precisely and only because they were Muslims. Sic transit gloria mundi, as the philosopher Thomas à Kempis long ago said, which in translation is, can’t you see we’ve put our hands up.