Respect, Religion, and the Teddy Bear
Readers outside the UK may be unaware of the teddy bear incident that has been one of the headline stories the UK press this week. For those of you who don’t know, Gillian Gibbons, a primary teacher from Liverpool, recently went to Sudan to work. She asked her class for ideas for what to call the class teddy bear. One pupil, named Muhammad, suggested “Muhammad”. Someone on the school’s administration staff reported the incident and Gillian was charged with insulting Islam – a crime which could have resulted in 40 lashes, a six month prison sentence, or a fine. Gillian, who protested that no insult was intended, was found guilty and given a 15 day prison sentence. Because of public demonstrations against the leniency of the sentence, she is being kept in close police custody for her own protection.
The philospher A.C.Grayling argues that no religious person is automatically worthy any more respect than any other person. In fact, if anything, the opposite is the case. Faith is a commitment to belief, contrary to evidence and reason. Therefore to believe something against evidence and against reason is irresponsible and ignorant and merits the opposite of respect.
Muhammad (and his millions of followers) and Gillian Gibbons are automatically worthy of respect, first and foremost as significant, creative, talented human beings. Respect for individuals has to be based on their humanity, irrespective of things that they have no choice over – ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, natural gifts, presence or absence of disability. Secondly, they can be afforded respect for the things they choose. These choices will influence the kind of person they are – kind, considerate, peace-loving, loyal, truthful, aspiring to knowledge, seeking after the good of humankind, or ungenerous, willfully stupid, narrowly moralistic, superstitious, and violent. These choices will influence their belief systems, political affiliations, and lifestyle. They have respect because of their humanity. They may gain more because of the choices they make.
And just out of curiosity, who do you think is more worthy of respect – a woman who gives up a comfortable lifestyle and job to go to a third world country to teach children, or a man screaming that he wants another human being whipped for calling a teddy bear Muhammad?
Personally, I do respect the decisions taken by Muslim associations in Britain and in Canada, to appeal to the Sudanese government to release Gillian immediately.
Religious founders and their followers do not merit respect simply because they are religious. No-one would dream of arguing that political parties (and their founders and members) should be afforded respect simply because they are political. Why shouldn’t politicians and their followers be subject to the views and skills of satirical cartoonists and puppet makers? Why shouldn’t presidents be likened to teddy bears and vice-versa? Why shouldn’t leaders be written into soap-operas with Jerry Springer? I don’t suppose for a minute that Gillian Gibbons wanted to insult the prophet Muhammad, but why shouldn’t she be allowed to if she wants to?
I leave A.C. Grayling to conclude:
… all who have secure grounds for their views should not be afraid of robust challenge and criticism ; if they are confident in their views they should be able to shrug off satire and mockery. The more insecure people are, the less confident they feel, the less mature their outlook is, the angrier they are made by what they label as ‘offence’ to their religious sensitivities – even to the point of violence. They undermine and refute themselves thus. (p.9 in Grayling, A.C. (2007) Against All Gods. London: Oberon Books.)
– A Thinking Man
Update: 03/12/07 Gillian Gibbons has been pardoned by the Sudanese President al-Bashir after a meeting with two British Muslim peers.