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Muhammad & the teddy bear: a case of Intercultural Incompetence


Every now and again we get an international story that demonstrates the importance of cultural awareness in the modern age.

Examples include the Israeli tourists who got into trouble for kissing in a Hindu shrine, the movie poster depicting someone sat on the head of the Buddha that offended Buddhists and sparked protests in S.E. Asia and the now infamous Prophet Muhammad Cartoons.

It is again the Prophet of Islam who is the centre of attention in the latest example of intercultural incompetence.

British teacher Gillian Gibbons, 54, is currently facing charges in Sudan on the grounds that she insulted Islam and incited hatred by allowing her class to name a teddy bear Muhammad. The story has again been pounced upon by the media as another example of Muslim extremism, irrationalility and their obvious discomfort with the "modern world".

Firstly, it should be first stated that this is not a "Muslim" reaction. It was the reaction of some "over-senstive" parents (as quoted by Mr Khalid al Mubarak of the Sudanese embassy in London).

Most Muslims appreciate this was simply an error of judgement based upon ignorance of the respect afforded to the Prophet within Islam. Many have publicly come out in support of Ms. Gibbons:

Muslim Council of Britain, (MCB)

"This is a disgraceful decision and defies common sense. There was clearly no intention on the part of the teacher to deliberately insult the Islamic faith. The children in Ms Gibbons' class and their parents have all testified as to her innocence in this matter. We call upon the Sudanese President, Umar al-Bashir, to intervene in this case without delay to ensure that Ms Gibbons is freed from this quite shameful ordeal."

Ramadhan Foundation

"The Ramadhan Foundation urges the Sudanese Authorities to immediately release Gillian Gibbons as she has not set out deliberately to offend or demonise Islam and Muslims," said Mohammed Shafiq. "This matter is not worthy of arrest or detention and her continued detention will not help repair the misconceptions about Islam. Like migrants coming to this country have to learn English, our values and customs, it is imperative that British citizens learn the values, customs and beliefs of their adopted country."

The reaction of the parents may be somewhat extreme but it does demonstrate that when the Prophet Muhammad is involved one always has to be careful, especially when in a conservative country such as Sudan.

The crux of the matter here is that the decision to name the teddy bear was based on ignorance. This could have been something avoided through a simple cultural awareness course.

In any basic cultural awareness course on Islam, reverance towards the Prophet is always discussed and elaborated upon. Most people from Western Europe or North America do not appreciate the level of respect afforded to the Prophet and how this manifests. In 'the West', religion and Prophets are seen as open to criticism and ridicule in name of freedom of speech. However in more religious countries this is not tolerated. Within Islam it is an absolute no-no, whether it is Muhammad, Jesus (Isa), Moses (Musa) or Abraham (Ibrahim). The reason is that Muhammad is seen as the best of creation and the bringer of God's final message to mankind. In a narration (hadith) of the Prophet he tells his followers:

"None of you believes until he loves me more than he loves his children, his parents, and all people." In another hadith he says: "None of you believes until he loves me more than he loves himself."

A man of this stature is therefore afforded the highest of respect. Jokes are therefore out and naming teddy bears is not really appropriate either.

The whole saga is though a prime example of why people really need cultural awareness training before they go to live and/or work in a foreign country. It opens their eyes to potential problems and challenges they may face as well as help them in the settling in process. Cultural awareness helps the foreign become less alien and most importantly less unexpected.

Below are some basic cultural awareness tips for expatriates planning to move to a foreign country:

  1. The easiest place to start is to get a good book that explains the local laws, customs, religion, society, etiquette and culture. There are now many websites that offer such information for free.
  2. Enrol onto a generic online cultural training course, or, country specific online cultural training. Alternatively, if you're part of a group, then arrange group cultural training via webinar. 
  3. Join a forum on the internet. Ask for advice and what cultural awareness tips they have.
  4. Try and learn some of the language - if you can not dedicate time to language lessons then why not learn some simple phrases?
  5. Draw upon friends or acquaintances that may be nationals of the country you are moving to. Seek their advice and insight.
  6. If kids are moving to then involve them as much as possible in building cultural awareness - give them small tasks that will slowly introduce them to their new homes.
  7. Once in the new country respect local customs and dress codes. As you are a guest in their country it is important not to behave in a manner that could offend people.
  8. Even if local customs and ways of doing things may be frustrating always remember that it does not make it wrong. People across the world simply do things differently.
  9. Pay attention to any religious observances especially in with less familiar religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism. In some countries there are restrictions on what can be eaten or worn.
  10. If you are ever unsure whether your behaviour is appropriate, simply observe what the locals do and follow their lead.

Photo by Oxana Lyashenko on Unsplash

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