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?


Jon said...

The lawyer's comment strikes me as simplistic. For example, on Dec. 1, MSNBC reported that, while Muslim clerics chose not to call for public protests, saying that the court ordered punishment was sufficient, nevertheless: "after prayers, several thousand people converged on Khartoum’s Martyrs Square, near the presidential palace, and began calling for Gibbons’ execution."

Certainly, protest may be curtailed by the government. But this is also a religious controversy, and, like the Danish cartoons, challenges deeply held beliefs about Islamic representation. I feel like Kierkegaard's notion of the "horror religiosus" is helpful here: the gap between the word/voice of the divine and the general ethic opens up the grounds a demand(s) that the government is incapable of satisfying. External repression may eliminate the most visible forms of protest for a limited period and may repress the public voice (though I'm not sure how to define "public" in this context) of true minorities altogether. But it will not stop protest, and I find it hard to believe that, in Sudan, it would be able to wholly curtail public, Islamic protest for any length of time. Even the religious leaders don't seem able to do that at the moment.

Other thoughts?

timmybuckets said...

I think these are two separate arguments that may implicate each other in a particular case but need not. Matt seems to be arguing that there are times where a non-liberal government may be manufacturing and even controlling protest as a sign of democratic legitimacy when in fact there is no democracy. He seems to be arguing that as critics, we generally assume (and therefore "read") that protest is a show of public will against governmental authority, when in fact it could be something quite different (or sinister, or whatever).

Jon seems to be saying that there are protests that exceed the government's ability to satisfy or quell or dismiss because of their source.

Can't these both be correct at different times? Jon, can you envision a protest that does not emanate from a groundswell of fervently-held religious belief? Pushing further, can you envision one that calls itself religious but disingenuously so?

Matt, can you envision a public so moved that its display of force, emotion or even demand is such that the government is incapable of satisfying it? Pushing further, can you imagine a public display that doesn't even really ask the government for anything?

Well, what of it? If your answers to these questions are "yes," what do you think is going on in Sudan, a country that, to my knowledge, has a public (Jon's gaggle in Martyrs' Square) but no liberal democracy and a sectarian conflict that many commentators call genocide?

I don't know much about the Sudanese case, but here's a stab at some thoguhts. I'd be surprised if the people calling for her execution would be satisfied with her repatriation; I'd be equally surprised if they did not release her, since executing or jailing a British national would foolishly antagonize an international community that so far has strained to look the other way concerning the tragedy of Darfur. I'd be even more surprised if the government (calling this government illiberal is generous) told "the people" that it was repatriating the teacher for these instrumental reasons, since it would look impotent. But for the same reasons, I don't think that the protest (such as it is) is fooling anyone in the West into believing that Sudan is a representative democracy. So if it's a legitimacy show, that show is directed at someone else.