Sudan Teacher Arrest

A first-year British international school teacher has been charged with “inciting religious hatred” in Sudan. In Sudan, where the legal code is based on Sharia law, it is considered an insult and is illegal to give the name Muhammad to an inanimate object. The charge is that by giving this name to a toy bear in her second-grade class, she insulted Islam.

Apparently, as a student-centered teacher would do, she got her seven-year-olds to suggest possible names for the toy, and in the end they held a vote and 20 out of 23 voted for the winning name. They were studying bears or animals generally, and each weekend a different child would take the bear home and write diary entries about what they did with the bear. Judging from the fact that there were 23 students who would all spend a weekend with the animal, this was not a one-off activity but one that went on for some time.

The school was founded by a Christian group but some 90% of the students are Muslim.[“an independent school founded in 1902, [it] is governed by a board representing the main Christian denominations in Sudan but teaches both Christians and Muslims aged four to 18.”] (Muslim) Coworkers have said they took no offense and realized it was an innocent mistake; it was apparently parents – reports differ on whether it was one set or many – who called the police to complain; several Islamic leaders, including some in other parts of Sudan, have spoken out in disagreement with the arrest and charge.

Having made my own fair share of cultural blunders, my heart goes out to this teacher. I hope she is released and the whole thing is resolved soon. Regardless of whether she should have known or the school should have trained her better about cultural norms and respecting them, I hope she does not receive forty lashes or six months imprisonment for this.

At the same time, I do wonder how the situation got to this extreme point. Does an international school – and especially one with a board representing Christian denominations – working in an area essentially under Sharia law really not give its teachers any training in the nature of that law or in being culturally sensitive towards the religion of its conservative community? I don’t know much at all about Sudan or Sharia law, but even I know Sudan is very conservative and Sharia law not so much open to “oops”. Did it not occur to any of the parents whose children had taken home the bear that, although it didn’t offend them, it could well offend more conservative members of their community? Was the school taking any measures to check in with their new teacher in a very different environment from home?

As obviously ridiculous as it sounds to arrest and punish someone for giving a toy bear the wrong name, I can empathize with the idea of feeling offended at something perceived as careless disregard for local beliefs. In my mind it raises questions like, “To what extent are teachers responsible for learning about local beliefs – and to what extent are schools responsible both for orienting their teachers and providing a realistic picture of the situation?” Obviously forty lashes and jail time is way out of proportion in the eyes of most people in the world, including, according to this report, most people in Sudan.

In addition to hoping the teacher is released and the whole thing resolved soon, I also hope this one bizarre and extreme case does not add more fuel to the fire of existing prejudice against Islam or Muslim people. I don’t adhere to any conspiracy-theory type of scenario, but I do believe that fear, prejudice and ignorance are a significant reasons why the world took so long to help Bosnian Muslims in a situation where they were very clearly victims. It would be great if this case led to raised awareness of the situation of many people who do live under extreme laws which they may or may not be in favor of, even if they are not foreigners but people in their own countries.

My information is taken from here, here and here. Thanks to Guy Courchesne for posting that last one at the ESL Cafe.