Sunday, September 14, 2008

Another Teacher in Trouble in a Muslim Country

Remember Gillian Gibbons? The British teacher in Sudan who was (mercifully) merely booted out of Sudan for letting one of her students name a teddy bear "Mohammed?" ("Good News for Infidel Teacher: Still No News on Anti-Islamic Teddy Bear" (December 3, 2007).)

Dissing the Prophet: Not a Smart Move

Another 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.
Literacy Rate All Women Men
Bahrain 86.5% 83.6% 88.6%
Saudi Arabia 78.8% 70.8% 84.7%
America 99% 99% 99%
Sudan 61.1% 50.5% 71.8%

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 Communication

It 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
In some ways, there just isn't much common ground.

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: Statistics from "The World Factbook," Central Intelligence Agency.

Related posts, on Islam, Christianity, Religion, Culture and the War on Terror.

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.