Sometimes a bear isn’t just a bear.
Last week, many in the Muslim community, including myself received media requests to comment on the “teddy bear incident” that took place in Sudan. Caring little about this matter, I managed to ignore the issue completely. But it seems that the Western story of culturally archaic African Muslims was written long before that incident, and it took the media little to no time to make a mountain out of a molehill.
All the elements of a good Western narrative were in place. The Caucasian protagonist, in the shape of a British school teacher tutoring a seemingly backward populace; an antagonist, skillfully played by primitive African Muslims; and of course the symbol of innocence and solace, a teddy bear. This thematic tale was masterfully weaved into a story of a struggling heroine that faces untold challenges, even to life and limb, for a seemingly selfless goal.
Call this story what you will, but in the end it is eerily similar to those stories told of “savage Indians”, of “three-fifth” humans (African Americans), and of “undemocratic”, “illiberal” Arabs. Only names and locations have been altered.
It is not that the “teddy bear incident” is inconsequential or unimportant. It is that it lacks perspective, framed to overly vilify one group while enhancing the other. It is what the late scholar Edward Said referred to as ‘positional superiority.’ Define the other and you define the self. If they are backward, we are enlightened. If they lack civility, we are civilized. But to achieve this, “framing” is necessary.
Imagine, if you would, a picture frame of yourself. Now slowly zoom in until all you can see is a lone pimple. Is the pimple an accurate reflection of you or only part of a whole? It was only around 20 years ago that Americans began to see African Americans beyond one-dimensional stereotypes, not because blacks didn’t have a wide spectrum of beliefs and personas, but because the media began to show people like Oprah Winfrey and Alan Keyes, Denzel Washington and Colin Powell. Unless you have a voice, you don’t exist except in the imagination of those who don’t know you beyond the stereotype.
But let’s go back to that pimple, the teddy bear incident. I asked my mom, who speaks fluent Arabic, why some Sudanese were angry at such a simple mistake – naming a teddy bear after Muhammad, the beloved prophet of Islam. “While the symbol of a teddy bear in Western culture represents something good and innocent,” she said, “calling someone, in Arab culture, a bear is worse than calling them a dog or a pig.” How many times has the media pointed out that cultural difference? Now couple a natural rage with political opportunism by agenda setters on each side and suddenly you have an international circus.
The truth is that every culture has its symbols. When radio DJ Don Imus used “nappy” to refer to African American women on a college basketball team, this unassumingly plain symbol caused a firestorm. The LA riots, which claimed billions of dollars in damage and some 50 human lives, started with a symbol, Rodney King.
The truth is, sometimes a bear isn’t just a bear. Sometimes it’s a symbol in a much larger and more nuanced narrative.
Hazem Ibrahim Kira is a political analyst and syndicated columnist working in the San Francisco Bay Area.