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Facing Down a Bullying Mob

By David Warren

Let us not be timid in the face of bullying.

I am thinking of the mob that formed in Khartoum yesterday, after Friday prayers in the mosques, demanding the execution of a British schoolteacher who was arrested by Sudan's ruling Islamist junta. Gillian Gibbons has already been "tried," and jailed 15 days, by one of this regime's kangaroo courts.

She was found guilty of "insulting Islam," and barely escaped forty lashes or worse -- for what? For having named a class teddy bear "Mohammad," in complete innocence, at the suggestion of one of her pupils, whose own name is Mohammad, and who, after she was charged, bravely stood up to defend her. In other words, a wilful misunderstanding, in which the wilful misunderstanders are calling for blood.

From the BBC's reports, we read the signs and hear the shouts from that mass rally: "No tolerance." "Execution." "Kill her." "Kill her by firing squad," etc. The paradox is that the idea of "zero tolerance" came from the politically-correct West, just as the idea of "tolerance" came from the civilized West before the era of political correctness.

The British Foreign Office is naturally on the case, and doing what it can to free Mrs Gibbons, and get her out of that murderously dysfunctional country, which anyone of charitable intention (teachers, missionaries, the deliverers of food aid, invited foreign "peacekeeping" troops) enters at his own risk. A country in which slavery is still openly practised, and slave raids against Christians and Animists have been documented. Let us not be diplomatic when speaking of Sudan, or of the vicious government that has created not only the conditions for massacre and rapine, but also, the administrative problems that have followed from these. And which expects the world to solve its problems.

Alternatively, I am thinking of the violent mobs that have formed repeatedly in Calcutta, demanding the execution, or in the case of some moderates only the flogging and incarceration, of Taslima Nasreem. She is a witty feminist author from Bangladesh, whose memoir, Dwikhondito ("Split in Two," published in 2003) contained several remarks which fanatics consider to be derogatory to Islam. The government of West Bengal had already banned the book, in deference to the state's Muslim minority. And now, at the demand of the union government in Delhi, Ms Nasreem has agreed to remove two pages from editions of the book available elsewhere. She has required heavy security and been whisked from one hiding place to another, around India.

Yet as the eminent Bengali artist, Shuvaprassana, has said: "This is a compromise that she has been forced into for the sake of getting refuge. But if she can drop two pages to get refuge in India, she can drop three pages and go back to Bangladesh."

This remark conveys more than first appears. Obviously, no matter what Ms Nasreem does, she cannot return to Bangladesh. The point to be read between Shuvraprassana's lines is that if we don't make our stand where we are standing, there is no end to retreat. The defence of freedom demands that we make no concessions -- no concessions at all -- to a bullying mob. And should people in the mob wish to impale themselves on the pikes of lawful authority, let them.

My third example of bullying is a more subtle one. It is from the conference at Annapolis this week, and could be seen on television, by any perceptive person. Naturally, it was widely noticed in Israel, but not elsewhere. The royal Saudi delegates not only did not politely applaud, as is the genteel custom, after the Israeli delegate spoke. They had declined to put in their earphones, to hear the translation while that delegate spoke. From a party to actual peace negotiations, comes this rude gesture to announce that nothing a representative of Israel could say would be worth hearing.

After the conference, the Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, whose national affiliation is compounded by the fact she is a woman, made an unprecedented public complaint. She said that none of the Arab foreign ministers would shake her hand; that she was treated as a pariah. Or as Frans Timmermans put it -- a Dutch government minister who was in attendance -- they "shun her like she is Count Dracula's younger sister."

The questions should ask themselves: Why do we treat Arab foreign ministers diplomatically, who are themselves incapable of diplomacy? Why do we confer dignities upon Saudi royalty who will confer no dignity upon our friends?

These are fair questions, to be asked boldly.

© Ottawa Citizen

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