Blasphemous Bear

British National Gillian Gibbons, who teaches children in Sudan, has been arrested and charged with offending religion.

She had been held without charges for several days. Today, Sudanese officials filed formal charges. She faces a potential sentence, if convicted, of 40 lashes, a year in prison, or a hefty fine.

She came under suspicion after the children in her class voted to name the classroom's new stuffed bear mascot "Mohammed." Naming a stuffed bear "Mohammed" is apparently offensive to Islam, and Sudan has laws against offending a religion.

Allegedly, Sudan's anti-blasphemy law is religion-neutral. The classroom contained both Muslim and non-Muslim students. Sudan is 70% Muslim (Sunni).

The relevant statute is Chapter 21, Section 242:

Insulting or Exciting Contempt of Religious Creed: Whoever by any means publicly insults or seeks to excite contempt of any religion in such a manner as to be likely to lead to a breach of the peace, commits an offence and shall on conviction, be punished with imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or with fine or with both.

[Aside: I looked through the whole penal code, and I couldn't figure out how Ms. Gibbons could potentially be subject to whipping as a sentence. The statute above does not provide for whipping as a punishment, and the statutes only allow the imposition of whipping in lieu of imprisonment by certain judges trying cases summarily against male defendants. And in such a situation, such lashings are limited to 10 strokes. I cannot find any provision in the materials available to me (there may be others outside my purview that allow it) that would allow the imposition of a sentence of 40 lashes on Ms. Gibbons. I assume it's a discretionary substitute, but for the life of me I cannot turn up any statutory text. That might be by design, of course.]

There is no question whether any government has the moral authority to enact or enforce anti-blasphemy laws. No government legitimately holds that authority. The freedom to criticize an idea is an essential component of the liberty required for a rational mind to function. Any government that outlaws blasphemy cripples the minds of those subject to its jurisdiction and is therefore morally repugnant. So I'm really not interested in whether what she did (naming the bear after one of her students, pursuant to a classroom vote) counts as blasphemy or offense to Islam, or whether she is guilty of the unjust statute.

What interests me is the authority of the British government to intercede. They have no legal authority under Sudanese law, of course. Such a thing would be contrary to Sudan's notion of its own sovereignty. Instead, I think the British government has an obligation to step in and prevent Ms. Gibbons' prosecution, in exactly the same way and for exactly the same reasons that Sudan has an obligation not to pass repugnant laws: Because the purpose of government - any government - is to preserve and defend individual rights. The alleged sovereignty of an oppressive government to enact laws obnoxious to individual rights notwithstanding.

Of course, Britain will likely not be willing to use whatever force is necessary to protect Ms. Gibbons. The US was not willing to do so back in 1994 in the case of Michael Fay. (Granted, that was on a charge of vandalism, not blasphemy, but the principle can be applied in the context of excessive or extreme punishment, not just the context of an improper law.) In Ms. Gibbons' case, the British government is morally obligated to protect her from any prosecution, regardless of the particular sentence imposed.

To those who would say that Ms. Gibbons assumed the risk of prosecution under an unjust law by traveling to and living in a country that does not respect individual rights, I say nonsense. Rights exist. It is government's job to preserve and defend them.

I see a parallel to the 1951 nationalization by Iran of British oil interests in that country. In that case, the property rights of British nationals were violated by the capricious and unjust action of the Iranian government. Not only would Britain have been justified in using force to defend those property interests, they were morally obligated to do so, and failed. In that case, the persons whose rights were violated were British nationals presently in Britain, whereas Ms. Gibbons is a British national presently abroad. If there is any difference between the two situations, this is it.

Nationality, by which I mean citizenship, appears to become relevant in the analysis of government power, but in fact it does not. Any just government, dedicated to preserving and defending individual rights, has the moral authority to protect those rights of any person anywhere in the world, citizen or not. It is only the duty to do so that arises by virtue of citizenship.

Or do I have it wrong? Does a just government owe a duty to every person in the world? If I have it right, what is citizenship? Does it grant additional rights beyond those enjoyed by every individual? Is that a good idea?

Tom G Varik