Dissing the Prophet: Not a Smart MoveAnother foreign teacher in a predominantly Islamic country is in trouble. This time it's a college teacher. She's accused of showing her students a picture of the prophet Mohammed. "Improperly dressed," as the Gulf Daily News put it. It's anyone's guess what that means, specifically.
The charge is insulting the Prophet Mohammed.
It gets better. She also insulted a student for wearing a head scarf. She called it "a barrier to knowledge."
The news doesn't say who this wunderkind is. The American ambassador in Bahrain won't even confirm that an American is involved. Whoever she is, I'd guess that she may have forgotten where she was.
This case, the latest example of religious sensitivity in Islamic countries, shows how hard it is for Americans to understand people from (most) Islamic countries, and vice-versa.
Bahrain? Where's That? For That Matter, What's That?Bahrain is a little island, and a bunch of smaller islands, off the coast of Saudi Arabia. They've started running out of oil sooner that most of the other Middle Eastern nations. Bahrain's leaders seem to be rather smart: they're diversifying. They've shifted from oil production to petroleum processing and refining and have made their country into an international banking center.
The islands of Bahrain cover an area about three and a half times the size of Washington, DC. Roughly 718,000 people live there: 81% of them Muslim, 9% Christian, and 10% something else.
Bahrain is a fairly literate country: 86.5% of Bahrainians over 15 can read and write. For comparison, here's the literacy rate for Bahrain and three other countries.
One of the big differences between Islamic countries and places like America isn't so much the number of people who can read and write: there's quite a range of literacy in the Islamic world. It's the cultural values that go along with how people are taught.
Educational Standards of Behavior, Culture, and CommunicationIt looks to me like the case of Sudan's blasphemous teddy bear and Bahrain's teacher with a naughty picture of Mohammed have something in common: a western educator failing to understand just how seriously people in many Islamic countries take their beliefs, and how little reverence they have for "academic freedom."
In some countries where Muslims run the schools according to their standards, conventional respect for the Prophet is a must. In other words, teddy bears must not be named Mohammed, and students must not be shown a picture of Mohammed improperly clothed. Or any picture of Mohammed, I gather. Many flavors of Islam have an understandable concern about preventing idolatry: which translates into banning any picture of the Prophet, among other things.
That sort of tightly controlled, ideologically pure, approach to education reminds me of my college years in the eighties, when political correctness was in bloom. The American university where I learned which thoughts were rewarded and which were punished didn't have the same ideological foundation as Bahrain's system, of course, but the prudent student learned that some things were best left unsaid.
Times have changed since then, a bit. American colleges and universities - in common with most of western higher education - holds academic freedom in very high esteem.
That's why, when an associate professor in a Minnesota state University had someone steal a host from a Catholic church, took a page from the Quran, another page from the works of a respected atheist, drove a nail through all three, tossed the lot in the trash, and posted a photo of the mess, his superiors explained that his actions were protected by academic freedom. (" 'Self-Satisfied Ignorance?' Eucharist, Quran, and Atheist Book Trashed" (August 5, 2008).
Communication is easier when there's some common ground. In some ways, people from America and people from some Islamic countries live in vastly different worlds:
- Legal sanctions against insults (real or imagined) against their beliefs
- Defense of sacrilege, to uphold academic freedom
Still, I insist on being optimistic. I prefer to believe that there are reasonable people in the Islamic world, and in the west.
Bahrain, this isn't: Academic freedom, American style.
Is it any wonder that some Muslims believe that America is anti-Islamic?
In the news:
- "Bahrain charges US teacher with insulting Prophet "
International Herald Tribune (September 12, 2008)
- "Bahrain teacher 'insulted Islam' "
Gulf Daily News (September 11, 2008)
Related posts, on Islam, Christianity, Religion, Culture and the War on Terror.