Saturday, 8 December 2007

The Blaspheming Teddy Bear

IT has probably reached Philippine ears by now, this strange, strange saga of a Liverpool schoolteacher in Sudan, who has been threatened with 40 lashes of a cane, for having allowed the children in her class to name their teddy bear Muhammad.

Sudan practices Islamic Shariah Law, where the crime of blasphemy to the Prophet Muhammad is punished rather severely. Unfortunately, naming a bear, albeit a teddy one, after the prophet is a grievous transgression – the rationale being that the bear is a “wild animal” (though a teddy bear surely isn’t, but the Sudanese don’t know that), and something “wild” is surely not in the prophet’s character.

To the West, none of this makes sense. In a society where secular humanism rules, and all religion is considered “superstition” and basically frowned upon, there is just no logic behind the Sudanese action.

Unfortunately, in the Sudanese world view, there is perhaps nothing wrong with what they have done, as far as they are concerned. After all, they are merely upholding their beliefs and traditions, and administering punishment to a Westerner who has broken their laws, just as if she was one of their own.

Echoes of Rudyard Kipling perhaps? East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet?

In more ways than we can measure the length of a twain with – yes.

Globalization has forced a convergence of sorts among different cultures and societies. Western consumerism — the new Socialism –- has conquered the world with the speed of the Internet. Trends like business process outsourcing (BPO) have allowed people of erstwhile different backgrounds to work and interact harmoniously and productively, enhancing social integration at a pace that would never have been possible previously.

Having said this, it has also emphasized certain key differences among our societies, and forced us to confront those realities that still separate us.Religion is one of those realities.

With the exception perhaps of the USA, most of Western society has shunned anything religious. Secular humanism rules all aspects of life -– from government, to education and the consequent social institutions they give rise to. Christians and Muslims alike are treated similarly –- as superstitious individuals who are not capable of rational behavior.

Not surprisingly, individuals have lost respect for all aspects religious.

The wearing of religious symbols of any kind is frowned upon in Britain, so much so that even small Christian crosses that are common ornaments for us cannot be worn to the office, at the risk of serious consequences. Even the celebration of religious festivities is downplayed. As we mentioned in this space before, holidays like Christmas have been renamed to strip away their religious connotations, and make them inclusive for everyone.

It is within this greater context that the “teddy bear” furor takes on more significance.

On the one hand, we in the West need to be more sensitive to those beliefs and values that people in other places hold dear. Our “rational” secular humanist values may make sense of the world for us, but they do not necessarily govern the world view of people elsewhere.

And for those of us in societies where the spiritual holds more sway over the temporal, perhaps we need a sense of moderation in our beliefs, especially when it comes to imposing punishment for transgressions that are more accidental than intentional, as this one surely was.

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, December 08, 2007

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