Four days after she was spared the lash but jailed by a Sudanese court for insulting Islam, British schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons received a presidential pardon Monday and was deported from the country. But while her alleged crime permitting her primary students to name a Teddy bear Mohammad garnered the Khartoum regime a good deal of international condemnation for its radical justice, the charges against Gibbons and her famous bear were incidental to a larger struggle playing out in Sudan the manipulation of Islam in the pursuit of personal and political power.
From the beginning, in fact, the case against Gibbons was never really about her alleged insensitivity to Islam. Western and Sudanese sources tell TIME the ordeal began from an employment dispute at the school where Gibbons worked. Sarah Khawad, a former secretary at the school who had recently lost her job, allegedly dug up a letter Gibbons had sent to her students' parents in September informing them that each child would take home a teddy bear and record the evening in a diary. The class had named the bear Muhammad, Gibbons wrote. According to the sources, Khawad, a Sudanese citizen, encouraged two parents to register a complaint of religious outrage with the Education Ministry. When the parents declined, she allegedly registered the complaint herself. Khawad's simple charge of a Westerner defiling the Muslim prophet was too explosive for the regime to ignore, and Gibbons was soon arrested.
With international outrage growing, two British Muslim parliamentarians, Lord Ahmed and Lady Warsi, traveled to Sudan in the hopes of securing her release. The government was amenable. For one thing, an internal investigation by the Sudanese government apparently revealed Khawad's role. Indeed, many members of the political elite expressed private embarrassment over the affair. As the Britons arrived in Khartoum, Gibbons' release seemed all but assured.
But just as the deal seemed imminent, an outsize and vocal hard-core Islamic minority hijacked the political majority's desire to make it go away.
Islam is a double-edged sword in Sudan. In many instances, the regime harnesses it to advance its own power witness the decades-long war successive Arab regimes in Khartoum waged against non-Muslim Africans in the south. Then, too, there are the regime's frequent charges of anti-Islamic bigotry against the West for its diplomatic pressures on Khartoum.
But just as often, as the controversy surrounding Gibbons illustrates, it is Islam that harnesses the Sudanese regime. Far from being a radical Islamic autocracy, the Khartoum government is a tenuous regime riven with factions and dissent.
Fearing that radical Islamist leaders would use their Friday prayers to whip up anti-government fervor, the usually lethargic regime moved up Gibbons' trial, originally scheduled for Saturday, to Thursday. For the most part, the strategy worked: the Muslim day of prayer witnessed only one demonstration, itself relatively small and easily dispersed.
The reaction by most Sudanese to Gibbons' lenient sentence was mostly benign; still, the government's fears of a larger backlash bordered on paranoia. Riot police were deployed, and Internet access to some stories was denied. Lord Ahmed, one of a pair of British parliamentarians who traveled to Khartoum as private citizens and as co-religionists with the Sudanese to secure Gibbons' release, told TIME that Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir admitted to them he was weighing a retrial on stricter charges.
In the end, however, as British foreign minister David Miliband said, "common sense" prevailed. Gibbons was freed and Khartoum remained calm. But rather than view the Gibbons case as yet another example of a radical regime's autocratic abuse, the West would do well to realize that the events in Khartoum expose the government's weakness, and not its strength.