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No teddy bear's picnic

November 28, 2007

Hello again,

I am unable to express my full views about Gillian Gibbons, the British teacher arrested in Sudan for allowing her class to name a teddy bear Mohammed. But no incident highlights more aptly the clash of cultures between countries that allow religion to operate as the rule of law and those that ...

...leave religion to the conscience of the individual and base law on a code that respects the rights of individuals to live in peace and security.

Teachers beware. If you plan to go to a country that puts religious dogma before human rights, then be prepared to take the consequences. Your government will do nothing to help you if you fall foul of these irrational rules. Vested interests mean that you will be sacrificed on the altar of your country’s self interest.

I do not advocate ‘blasphemy’ or showing lack of respect for the cultural norms of the host country. I believe that if you go to another country, you are a guest and should respect the culture as far as you can. But I do uphold human rights, and common sense. Any country wishing to join the European Union, for example, has to adhere to certain principles. Turkey, a secular country with a Muslim population wishes to join the EU. It must, therefore, renounce any legal punishments that involve corporal punishment or the death penalty. Fundamental also to European principles is freedom of religious belief and, indeed, the right to hold no religious belief at all. It sounded unedifying, therefore to hear Queen Elizabeth talk recently about her shared values with the rulers of Saudi Arabia, who permit no religious freedom and hold public beheadings. I cannot think of any values I share with the Saudi Kingdom, a country that recently sentenced a rape victim to corporal punishment.

It is a shame that the cultures are polarizing in this way. But they are; and teachers who choose to take up posts in countries that put religious taboos above human rights will need to tread carefully. Fall foul of their unpredictable rules and you will pay dearly.

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  1. Kevin Says:

    A wonderful comment and one I share. Having worked in Egypt, a moderate Islamic country, or so they say, I have first hand experience of the changing cultural rules applied to life there. One must stand firm in your own convictions but be very careful in which forum these are expressed. If one can fall foul over a toy's name think about what might indeed happen if you speak or act in public in manner that can be misinterpreted, because if it can be it will be.

  1. Michael Hazelgrove Says:

    Well said. Whatever happened to common sense, tolerance and loving our fellow human beings ? I am sure that this teacher meant no offence and it was an innocent mistake. I can tell that you have a lot more knowledge on these issues than myself but when I read the views of an intelligent lady like yourself, it makes me take more of an interest in such matters.

    Thanks for sharing your views with us, Michael.

  1. ron bobel Says:

    i am interested in finding an ESL job in suburban virginian or washington dc. I am fluent in Spanish and teach ESL as a volunteer now twice a week in Alexandria. How can you assist me in this? ron bobel.

  1. brian Says:

    You have an opinion which is biased;the same as I do and everyone else.We think that the way we are raised is right.So do they.Who knows for sure.You say you believe in religious freedom;but you want to restrict theirs in their own country.
    I think we need to remember that we are the guests in their country and be more observant of their ways of doing things.We would not like them to come to our country to visit and tell us what we should and should not do or believe.

  1. Abdullah Says:

    Well said Brian. It's a shame that people follow their own so called ideals, values and principles so blindly yet accuse others of lacking common sense based on their own extremely difficient standards. Oh and if you did your research, you would know that the area now known as, Saudi Arabia granted freedom of religious rights centuries ago when Europeans were too busy killing their own with clubs: I suppose not much has changed since, except for exporting their barbarism elsewhere using chemical weapons and multiplying the death toll by millions. Remember Hitler? Remember the Indians? Remember the treatment of Blacks? I suppose that was not the Europe you talk about.

    @base law on a code that respects the rights of individuals to live in peace and security. I wonder if you are talking about, for instance, Britain where the police are called thrice every minute regarding domestic violence and one person is murdered every week due to domestic violence? Hmm, I wonder, then you have the nerve to talk about equality and justice and how women of other cultures are treated badly.

    I'm sure I can find thousands of flaws in your so called democratic systems and they would be irrational to many around the world. The difference is they'd be able to substantiate their claims, unlike you!

  1. Kathryn Says:

    I am a 7th generation Aussie who chose Islam as my religion 13 years ago. I have no knowledge of the events that have been described in these comments so my comments are in general.

    There is no country in the world today that is operating in a totally Islamic manner. If there was you could go there and feel safe, as Islam is very strict on human rights. Unfortunately it is the nature of people that uses religion as a weapon against others.

    So please, when reading about such stories heed the advice of being careful, as we should be where ever we go, but also appreciate it isn't the religion that is at fault, it is people.

  1. Kristen [TypeKey Profile Page] Says:

    Having lived in Saudi Arabia for twenty years, I can say for certain that even in that fundamentalist country there are differences of opinion and moderation. Believe me, many people in Sudan were appalled by what happened to the teacher. But Sudan has been in a struggle between the Moslem north and the Christian south of the country for many years, and tensions and feeling are rising. Any chance for a fundamentalist to make their name even on such a seeming trifling subject will be jumped at, and in a Moslem country, other voices will be suppressed. This is also happening in Egypt, formerly a country whose many Christian and Moslem sects lived together in peace and harmony, even celebrating each others' holidays together. Now, there are frequent reports of killings that are religious based, and old trusts and relationships are dying.
    As an ESL teacher, one must be very sensitive when going to a country that is in such a state of change. Because of my long experience in Saudi Arabia, I know that in very strict households, and many are, dolls and representations of living beings, including teddy bears, must be removed from a room where one is to pray. They are considered demonic. Imagine what naming such an item after the Prophet Mohammed would result in, And it did. But I also had friends who loved to put up a Christmas tree and give presents. You must learn what the strictest common denominator is. You will learn to re-focus your cultural eyes from the outside looking in to the inside looking out. And remember, it is their country, not yours. I was often tempted to go on about feminist advancement for the women of Saudi Arabia, but in the end I realised that it was their fight, and must be fought on their own terms.
    Finally, remember that the fundamentalists feel their traditions and culture are under siege by the Christian west. You may disagree with this, but that is the case, nevertheless, and it should be kept in mind when deciding how to act. Your actions, no matter how truly innocent, will not be given the benfit of the doubt by those who are so insecure and frightened.

  1. Kevin Says:

    I read with despair Abdullah's comments. Why be so offensive to other cultures, this issue is about western teachers working in the mid-east and not about the problems Europe faces? No one was insulting other cultures but simply stating facts and offering advice about how to survive in such tense situations. Why be so defensive and aggresive, if you are right there is no need?

  1. elizabeth Says:

    This women showed unimaginable STUPIDITY in naming that teddy bear Mohammed/Allah can't remember which. Yes, it was horrible that she was imprisoned for it but the fact remains she was an utter moron and apparantly did NO research whatsoever on the culture of the country she traveled to.
    Really, who among us would name a teddy bear jesus christ???

  1. john jackson Says:

    All of the comments are indeed valid to some extent...As I see it we have 2 camps in the world today which are, indeed, polarising.To put it in "black and white terms", although there are many "shades of grey", where individuals are a combination of both these camps, and do not always mean to do evil, the following could be stated:
    The first is the Western camp-that of capitalism/communism, the philosophy that claims you can "make it" if you slap your fellow man/woman down (yes, "organised" socialism, too, believe it or not!), and where almost anything is permitted, in the name of "freedom" (yes,all well and good, but for WHOM, you may well ask!!!).
    The second is the world of organised religion, which is often well-meaning, as well as the first, but in which you are a Moslem, Christian, Buddhist, or whatever, instead of being Mohammed, John Smith, etc. This often constitutes a "soft asylum", where "I" can flee, and where "nobody in this big bad world can hurt me, because I am telling God I believe in him, SO THERE!!!!!!" You construct a protective "frame" around yourself, where everyone is cruelly excluded, simply if they don`t agree with your beliefs(God is not that stupid, surely???).
    Now, running through these two camps is a thread of extremism, which believes it will "impress" God by intimidating people into believing, and using threats of various kinds e.g. they will go to "hell", or, if good, will have lots of beautiful women in paradise, or, in particular in the case of the USA, of praying to God for money, quite often while doffing a Texan hat! (in both cases blatant sexist anthropomorphising of God, if ever I heard it!!!). In fact, I am not so sure that these ignorant individuals even BELIEVE in God: in fact, could religion,in this case, constitute (shock! horror! Perish the thought!!)a political tool to further one`s selfish ends, and feather one`s own nest???
    So-let us try to be independent-to follow a more spiritual path, whether we believe in God or not-after all, very few people have come back to tell us what`s going on...Faith is important too-faith in goodness and the dignity of man/woman, regardless of belief-everyone is entitled to make a mistake, and, if God exists, then God in his love and wisdom, understands and allows this, as he/she ("it" sounds too distant!) wants us to understand ourselves, and live in peace...So-Lets all wake up NOW and start showing some love and respect, even to tyrants, because they too need an outlet to change themselves!!!! Utopean? Maybe, but heed the words of John Lennon: "You may say I`m a dreamer-but I`m not the only one...I hope someday you`ll join us, and the world will live as one..." Peace and Love (m-a-a-an!!!).PS. Love isn`t really that "corny", or "uncool" you know!

  1. Swee Yin Says:

    I read with interest all the above views and comments. Coming from a multi-cultural country with Islam as the national and official religion I would say that the Sudanese authorities are making mountains out of a mole hill and have prosecuted an innocent victim. In the first place, this is a lesson held in class. Parents and authorites should realise that this is not a real life situation but merely a role playing exercise. It should not be taken so seriously.
    Secondly, if ever any punitive action is to be taken, it should not be taken against the teacher. After all she is a foreigner and should be excused for not fully understanding the full implications of such a name. In fact the child should be called up to be reprimanded and counselled for having violated her own religion. If she has been brought up well in her own religion she wouldn't have made this blunder also.
    What I find offensive about this situation is that they (you know who I mean) always think they are self righteous and would not go deeper into the problem but quick to put the blame on others.
    Why don't they find out what was it that caused the child to use such a holy name on a toy. Why blame the teacher? After all it is the child who named the toy and not the teacher. Advice to all teachers who wish to work in Orthodox Islamic countries - Don't ever ever think of it and stay away.

  1. Shadi Says:

    With respect to the writer's point of view about cultures, I believe religions were meant to be the guidelines not only to worship God with certain concepts and names, but also to show people how to lead thier lives, behave with respect and accept others. I think every messenger of God had to change the way people were following for a better world. If we create any code of conduct, it must contain these principles of living together in harmony, so why be confused, or confusing? In Europe or in the Middle East, people have the freedom to live together with mutual respect which grants peace and understanding. Instead of asking for help, if the teacher had apologised for her lack of knowledge, nobody would've sent her to prison at all. It's as simple as that.

  1. Christina Says:

    When I heard about this woman's story on the news, I was totally appalled. Absolutely ridiculous. I've been living in the UAE for the past 4 years, Qatar for over 3 years before that and Indonesia, for a number of years. All Muslim countries, so I am well aware of how one needs to be sensitive when it comes to certain issues. The first comment was excellent, well written and so, so true. Am sure the woman involved in this story meant no offense, and had she thought she would cause offense, to the point of almost being beheaded, she'd have called the cute little stuffed bear Ali, or Ahmed. Give me a break, whether it's Sudan, or wherever else these kinds of silly things happen. The reality is, there are some people who love to stir the pot and use such opportunities to spread hatred or even to get camera time with stupid protests. I'm quite sure most of those who were protesting and demanding Gillian's head on a platter, didn't even know what they were protesting about! Let's face it, any opportunity to show anti-Brit or anti-American sentiments are relished. To Elizabeth, if a Sudanese teacher or Muslim teacher, were working in Canada or other country and called a Teddy Bear, dog, cat, goldfish Jesus Christ, no one would care. And he's certainly not be sent to prison or worse. And don't forget, it was her STUDENTS idea to call the bear Mohammed, so maybe the blame should have been directed to their parents for not teaching thier kids not to use their prophets name in such a way. It was all blown out of proportion, thank God the woman got out alive!

  1. adam Says:

    To the writer of the article .The most important thing in any country for foregier to take note of it is religion because it can cause more problem than imprision So sudannese govt cant blame.

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