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Transcript of Newsnight Interview Concerning Events in Sudan

Thursday 29th November 2007

The Archbishop is interviewed by the BBC's Religious Affairs correspondent about the jailing of a teacher in Sudan for allowing a child to name a teddy bear Mohammed.

Intro: Our religious affairs correspondent Robert Piggott has been talking about the case tonight with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams. He asked Dr Williams if there could be any justification for imprisoning a teacher for allowing a child to name a teddy bear Mohammed.

ABC: I can't see any justification for this at all, I think this is an absurdly disproportionate response to what is at best a minor cultural faux pas and I think that it's done the Sudanese government no credit whatever to allow this prosecution to proceed.

RP: We've had a lot of people calling, a lot of religious people calling for very stiff penalties, but do you think that there are really politics lying behind this?

ABC: It's a difficult question because I think that there are elements in Sudan which are prepared to use the rhetoric of extreme Islamist philosophy for local and political purposes and I suspect that this may have a lot to do with that. Certainly, as we heard very eloquently, Muslims in this country have no time for this sort of thing and have felt very embarrassed by this.

RP: How should we in Britain react to this prosecution?

ABC: I'm very glad to know that the Foreign Office has stepped in immediately with a very strong statement and has made it quite clear that we don't regard this as acceptable or rational behaviour.

RP: Do you think it could have anything to do with Darfur?

ABC: I don't know, I think that, again there are elements in Sudan which are almost paranoid about outside interference and therefore even the most benign and positive interventional presence from people outside is somehow seen as threatening. And again I can't see whose interest that is in the long run, it seems to be cutting against the real humanitarian priorities which are so strong in that country.

RP: How far is what the Sudanese have done in line with what you would regard as true Islam and how much is cultural baggage, if you like?

ABC: Quite a lot of what people outside the situation regard as Islamic sharia law is often a matter of local implementation local custom or tradition from a few centuries ago. Muslims that I know and speak to in this country and indeed across the world would, I think, be very alarmed at the idea that severe penalties could be threatened or implemented for this sort of thing, and the whole idea that what as I said is at most a faux pas should be regarded as actively, deliberately promoting the hatred of Islam. That doesn't seem to me to be consonant with what most Muslims here would think.

RP: Some Muslim countries do seem to be undergoing something of a rethink about what true Islam is, by going back to the hadiths, the sayings of Mohammed to get a better idea.

ABC: In a strange way it's almost the other way around, that the very primitively minded people who want to apply a very literal reading of the Koran without any kind of qualification or interpretation, these are the ones who are I think posing the greatest problem in the Islamic world generally. Those who are really literate in the hadith and the tradition of legal interpretation, these are people who are doing justice to the full historical richness of Islam and what I see in this situation is a sort of primitivist and crude application of the law in a spirit of real insensitivity and self destructive absurdity.

RP: How far do you think what's happening in Sudan has damaged the Christian perception of Islam in this country?

ABC: Again I think that there are a good many people here in the Muslim community who would, as I've said, feel embarrassed about it, who would feel that they have to make it clear that this is not where they stand, I don't think it is going to set back Christian Muslim relations, and I think most Christians know what their Muslim neighbours are like.

RP: In a recent interview with the Muslim magazine Emel, you said that the West's definition of humanity was clearly not working very well, you said "there is something about Western modernity which really does eat away at the soul". But of course the West does allow freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

ABC: That's right, and I think what a religious commentator would want to say is that for freedom of speech to be something other than just an 'anything goes' attitude you need a strong sense of responsibility, of reverence for other people and for God, for the soul and for other people and human rights, human dignity, I think always had strong religious framework, so I don't think it's a question of a choice between religion and human rights or modern dignities.

RP: As you see how this case has unfolded in Sudan, what would your request to the Sudanese government be to get out of this position?

ABC: Well as I've said I don't think the Sudanese government has done itself any favours with this, as indeed with other policies of theirs in recent years. It would be very good if this sentence were in some ways set aside, if Julie Gibbons were allowed to return home promptly. I think everyone here is bound to be thinking with enormous compassion and sensitivity, and indeed some indignation about her situation. I hope she knows how strongly she's supported and how many people are bearing her in mind at this time.

RP: Recently 138 moderate Muslim scholars wrote a letter to the Christian and Jewish worlds making clear that there were considerable parallels between the three faiths, I think they were trying to set up a court of Muslim opinion. How far is that needed in today's world, given what we've seen in Sudan?

ABC: Islam isn't at all a hierarchical religion with a single centre of command, so what you need is the kind of consensus of responsible scholars which that letter amply represents, I hope that the Christian Leadership to whom it was addressed go on responding to it, we've responded here, rather Christian groups and Christian leaders have responded. I think there's a very significant dialogue to open up there.

RP: Dr Williams thank you.

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