Like most Americans, I am astonished at the Sudanese government’s 15-day jailing and planned expulsion of British school teacher Gillian Gibbons for allowing her 7-year-old students to name a classroom teddy bear “Muhammad.” Mobs have organized over what they see as an unforgivable insult to the Islamic religion and some protesters have called for the teacher’s execution. Such extreme reactions are unfortunate and reinforce the view that Islam is a religion of violence, which hurts Muslims around the world.
Many in the Western world see the much discussed incident as an example of Third World ignorance and confirmation of prior views about the dangers posed by an overly-sensitive group of worshipers.
The issue, however, is more complicated than it appears at first glance. It requires us to suspend judgment long enough to consider the nature of the violation and what should be the proper response of believers when non-believers unwittingly or deliberately insult their faith.
Let’s put the shoe on a different foot. Would a conservative Christian like me be offended if a Muslim school teacher in the U.S. allowed or encouraged her first-grade students to name a stuffed animal Jesus Christ? Yes, I think I would be offended, depending on whether the stuffed animal was a lamb, a pig, or a dog. Unless it was a lamb that could symbolize Christ’s sacrificial life and death, I might view the naming situation as further evidence of the disrespect that secular humanists often display towards Christian believers.
Would I organize a protest or write the school board and call for the teacher’s dismissal? I probably would not engage in such actions. However, I would view the act as an insensitive missed opportunity for the teacher to explain to her students why the selected name might not be such a good idea. In the Sudanese case, no evidence exists that the teacher meant to be disrespectful to the Islamic religion. The name Muhammad is common across the world. In fact, I have heard of people named Mohammad who are not Muslim.
The overreaction to what took place in the classroom is disrespectful to the notion that the God of the universe is omnipotent. If God is omnipotent, then let him defend himself against attacks by his enemies. By making this a religious insult and demanding harsh treatment for the teacher, the Sudanese government and the religious protesters come across as weak servants of a weak God.
There are many battles to fight in the world, victories to win, and losses to savor. However I believe the teacher’s offense falls into the category of much ado about nothing.
Carol Swain is professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University. Her work on representation and race relations has earned her national and international accolades. In 2003, Swain founded the Veritas Institute, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting justice and reconciliation among people of different races, ethnicities, faith traditions, and nations.
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