Tuesday, November 27, 2007

You Better Watch Out

An article in today's KC Star reports that Gillian Gibbons, a British teacher working in northern Sudan has been arrested for allowing her class to name a teddy bear "Muhammad."

The kids in the class are seven years old.

Officials in Sudan allege that allowing a stuffed bear to bear the Prophet's name is an insult to Islam.

Yeah, maybe she should have realized that she might get this kind of reaction. And yes, it was probably a bad idea to send a letter home telling the parents that she'd let the kids name the bear "Muhammad" and that they should take a picture with the bear. Sudan is in the grasp of a really rabid religious fundamentalism that has cost the lives of a pretty substantial portion of its citizens, so it would be wise to be extra careful. A parable there, perhaps...

So, okay, it was a lapse in judgment, though certainly a well-intentioned one. Her letter noted that the bear was "intelligent," which is surely why the kids wanted to name it after the Prophet.

If Gibbons is found guilty, "she will face punishment, possibly including lashes."

This is appalling. To quote four dark-haired chicks, "What's Going On?"

In a related story, hate crimes are on the rise in the U.S., right alongside Christian fundamentalism.

Yeah, I know the difference between correlation and causation. I make the case anyway: there is a link between those two events. The kind of fundamentalism that sets marginalized people in its crosshairs can lead to violence against those people. Its rhetoric is violent, and not all of its adherents are stable and nonviolent.

Kelly Fryer has taken up this very topic on her blog, "Reclaiming the 'F' Word." (The "F" is for faith. What were you thinking?) She includes a disturbing video of Rev. Ken Hutcherson at a Microsoft shareholders' meeting. Rev. Hutcherson threatened the company with a boycott (which turned out to be imaginary, not ready-to-launch-with-a-phone-call as he asserted) over their support of gay rights initiatives in Washington state. Read through the comments, where Kelly takes on the question of the link between the Christian right and hate crimes pretty forcefully.

Here's the thing about this kind of fundamentalism: it picks and it chooses. It divides and it conquers. It is an imperial ideal, a ruse, really. It takes the language of faith, and the holy words of a religion, and bends them and twists them, until they support hateful works.

It is not patient. It is not kind. It is envious, and boastful and rude. It is especially arrogant. It insists upon its own way.

The good news is that this kind of fundamentalism does end. As soon as enough people stand up to say "Excuse me, but that's not what our scripture says. That's not what Jesus taught. That's not what the Prophet wanted."

I realize I'm not being particularly charitable (or merciful, to quote myself back to me, from the fraction of my sermon which was actually spoken aloud). But there is grave danger afoot. Our country has been coerced into war abroad and fierce battles at home, by people who claim Jesus Christ and don't seem to have even a fleeting acquaintance with him. And we've only just begun to see the effect of it all, at least those of us who aren't connected to the war personally. Some have suffered and died for the new "Christian" Imperialism.

And while we're at it, why don't we stop calling it "fundamentalism?" Is hate a "fundamental" of Islam or Christianity? Not last time I looked (and I do know just a little bit about Islam, having had a very good class at the UU seminary in Berkeley).

I'm thinking "religious detrimentalism" might be a better term. That would separate opportunists using religion to advance their own interests from sincere people of faith who are also evangelical Christians, or strict Muslims. This isn't about liberals vs. conservatives. There are conservative people who are doing their best to live out the call of their Lord. We disagree, but at least we're reading the same book.

I just think it is time to take that book (or those books, to include the Koran) out of the hands of the people who are using them but not actually reading them.


Paul B. (Chicago) said...

I think you're being too easy on the teddy bear teacher in Sudan Donna. I honestly think she could have learned a little more about the country before she moved. And according to the AP today, it was the parents who actually turned her in! I think she'll get off with a fine and get deported.

As far as fundamentalism goes, this story from the latest issue of the Advocate chilled me to the bone. Right in Sacramento. Have you heard of this Scott Lively?


"Killed in Broad Daylight

Sacramento has long been considered a tolerant city, but a gay man’s violent death has exposed the wide divide between LGBT residents and the area’s Slavic evangelical Christians [...] in Sacramento point to individuals like Scott Lively as a major instigator of tensions between LGBT people and Slavic evangelicals. Lively is president of the antigay organization Defend the Family International and coauthor of the 1995 book The Pink Swastika: Homosexuals and the Nazi Party, a text widely derided by scholars for suggesting that a politicized cabal of gay men drove the rise of the Third Reich. More recently, Lively, a U.S. citizen, has been reaching out to Slavic evangelical communities in both the United States and Europe through an organization he cofounded called Watchmen on the Walls, which he described in a statement posted online October 22 as “a global coalition of men and women of every race, color, and nationality who believe in the superiority of the natural family and marriage between one man and one woman.” The statement says that, while the group does not condone violence, “We do not apologize for opposing homosexuality because it is morally, physically, psychologically, and socially wrong, unnatural, and harmful. This is self-evident to the vast majority of the citizens of the world, whom we represent.” The statement goes on to say, “Public advocacy of homosexuality should be, like public drunkenness, culturally discouraged to minimize its impact on society.”

Earlier in October, Lively posted on the Defend the Family International Web site his “Letter to the Russian People,” discussing his visit to Russia and warning of a “homosexual political movement,” which he spoke of at length during his travels. “This is a very fast-growing social cancer that will destroy the family foundations of your society if you do not take immediate, effective action to stop it,” Lively wrote, also noting that The Pink Swastika is being translated into Russian in 2008. The letter follows similar polemics in which Lively has addressed Lithuanians and Latvians. "

Donna said...

I may be letting her off easy, agreed. She did show some real cultural ignorance. But still, a public beating for blasphemy? Can you imagine it? It's just crazy.

Paul B. (Chicago) said...

OK -- this teddy bear teacher story is starting to really freak me out --

"By MOHAMED OSMAN, Associated Press Writer KHARTOUM, Sudan - Thousands of Sudanese, many armed with clubs and knives, rallied Friday in a central square and demanded the execution of a British teacher convicted of insulting Islam for allowing her students to name a teddy bear "Muhammad.""

And Donna -- this comment follows what you said so closely --

"Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the world's 77 million Anglicans, said Gibbons' prosecution and conviction was "an absurdly disproportionate response to what is at worst a cultural faux pas.""

This has really erupted into something far beyond the original incident and I'm frightened about where it's headed -- worse than this news today.