Monday, December 3, 2007

Teddy Bear Discipline

Over the past week there's been a little controversy in Sudan about a British woman who teaches in the country, and who allowed her class to name the class teddy bear Muhammad. This is illegal in Sudan because it is an insult to the prophet. She was recently sentenced to 15 days in jail, provoking protests in the country about the leniency of her sentence which could have been as high as six months and forty lashings. The woman was just pardoned by the president and sent back to England, apparently in an effort to avoid any more negative international reaction towards the Sudanese government.

What I think is especially interesting about this situation has less to do with the international politics involved in the pardon, and more to do with statements made by the defense lawyer for the British teacher. Asked to comment on the possible public reaction to the pardon, the lawyer said he doesn't expect any more protests because: "If the government doesn't want people to go into the streets, they won't go into the streets. That's how it works here." This seems to offer a way of thinking about the relationship between publicity and politics in this area of the world in a way that's much different from the American media's typical portrayal. If you remember the Dutch cartoon outcry, that was all about public violence and people taking to the streets to show a sort of indigenous animosity to Western infidelity to religious symbols. At least in Sudan, however, I think this quote shows a certain cynicism towards the efficacy of public protest. It perhaps goes so far as to suggest that protest in Sudan has become either a sort of strictly governmentally regulated popular catharsis, or perhaps even a governmentally manufactured mode of political dialogue with the people. In this latter case, protest against the government would serve as a legitimating device and disciplinary technique for that government, since the government itself seems to have an important influence on the production of public displays of political sentiment. Rather than assuming a necessary link between this kind of protest and some kind of democratic display or a "voice of the people," it seems like we should think about a more complicated relationship between protest and governmental legitimacy, and especially the predictable way this legitimacy is negotiated on an international stage in the media.

If I remember right, there are some good articles about public political practice in the issue of Public Culture on "Cultures of Democracy" (vol. 19, no. 1), for people who want to think about this more. In the mean time, however, are there any thoughts on the discrepancy between one local Sudanese voice and international media representations of the voice of the people? How should we understand (or speculate on) the function of political protest in Sudan, here?