Friday, 7 December 2007

The teddy bear affair

I said I would comment on the case of the lady teacher in Sudan who unfortunately let her pupils call a teddy bear ‘Mohammed’. Although the affair has apparently now blown over some points seem worth making. While there was a lot about it in the British press, it seemed to me that most comments missed the mark.

Anyway, as someone who has taught in this sort of culture for eight years (some time l must tell you about the unfortunate incident to do with Thomas Aquinas) let me give you my take on it. Obviously, there was a lot of politics involved, no doubt related to the appalling business of Darfur where the government of Khartoum must take the lot of the blame. But then politicking is pretty much standard in this region. I think there are three things that are worth considering.

Firstly there is the issue of shame and honour. As in almost every part of the Islamic world, life in Sudan revolves around honour. From my experience in Lebanon and elsewhere, most people spend most of their time trying to gain honour and avoid shame. Honour ranks above fortune and pleasure and to bring honour on one's family is perhaps the greatest good that you can do. Shame must be avoided at all costs. There is a famous story from the Lebanese Civil War of a journalist interviewing a sniper who was being paid to kill people from another community on a per-body basis. The journalist asked him, ‘How does your boss know that you have really killed the number of people that you claim you have?’ The sniper turned furiously on the journalist. ‘Are you saying that I might not be an honourable man?’ Incidentally if you think this is bizarre, you need to read the gospels again. So many of the issues there revolve around matters of honour: the ‘shame of the cross’ is a real matter. Anyway, my first point is that the issue was not really that of blasphemy but bringing dishonour on the name of Mohammed.

A second issue is that animals have a much lower value in this part of the world. It is a pretty deadly thing to suggest in the Arab world that anybody is like an animal: they don’t do the cuddly creature thing. So to say that he is ‘a mule’ or she is ‘a kitten’ is asking for trouble. Here incidentally, it may be us rather than them that are odd; the British in particular, seem to rate animals above humans.

The third issue – and here I have to choose my words delicately – is that there is a real concern over the status of Mohammed. Islam prides itself on being a later – and better – revelation than Christianity. Linked with that but rarely expressed is the need that their prophet be on at least equal terms with the Christian’s Jesus. And here there is a problem. It has been pointed out by many people that if all that had to be done was to rate Mohammed against many of the Old Testament’s kings of Israel then he could indeed be accorded a place of honour. But he must be rated against the character, teaching and works of Jesus of Nazareth and compared to him, who can stand? The result is, I think, that there is almost a collective inferiority complex. And that makes matters sensitive.

So my take on the whole matter is that putting aside the evident politicking involved this was something of a perfect storm. Three things came together: the failure to recognize the high value of honour; the assumption that everybody thinks bears are cuddly; and the perpetual unease about the status of Mohammed.

Finally, there is a relevant comment to be made here about the role of fantasy. One of the key points of fantasy is that it forces us to engage with very different cultures and the values. As such it is an excellent preparation for being able to put ourselves in other people's shoes; something that didn’t happen here. Don't believe me about fantasy? Well, if you try and explain the concept of living by honour to people of a particular age and background you all too frequently hear them say, ‘So it's a little bit like the Klingons?’ I suppose so.

Have a good week.