What if Boris called a tapeworm ‘Liverpool’?

suicide teddyBlue Peter got off so lightly. Sure, John Leslie would, back in the day, possibly have warmed to the idea of a few lashes administered in public, but the current crop of presenters seem less up for that sort of thing. So they can count themselves lucky that they didn’t name the programme’s cat Mohammed, as a popular news-satire show pointed out last week.

Personally, I feel for Gillian Gibbons, the British teacher accused of blasphemy in Sudan. With the best will in the world and the desire to be as culturally sensitive as possible in a foreign country, one is going to slip up occasionally. Just ask Prince Phillip.

But the story raises some important questions, not least for the anti-multicultural brigade who are often heard to cry: ‘This is our country – we don’t expect other people to accommodate our culture overseas, so why should we have to make allowances for theirs over here?’ Anyone who has been to Spain on holiday and met compatriots there can see the weakness in that argument, but it was further undermined by media reaction to the ‘Bear Trial’ last week.

Radio 4’s flagship Today Programme said that the natural response to the news was ‘outrage’ and when faced with an explanation involving cultural differences in the perception of bears, called the proceedings: ‘revolting’ and ‘barbarous’; ‘cultural differences notwithstanding.’ Now please don’t get me wrong: public lashings are something I object to regardless of the circumstances. But is that what most people were reacting to in last week’s frenzy over this story? Or was it more along the lines of ‘those crazy Muslims and their stupid ways,’ once again? I ask because the same programme later suggested to one Muslim guest that such incidents justified the practice of the media making Islam the religion ‘we love to hate’. They even framed the question thus: does this case hold up a mirror to all Muslims, or is this a case of extremists getting it wrong? No possibility, then, that there might be any reasonable cultural explanation or justification for the strong reaction of Sudanese parents, then. Objective.

It seems that we are quite happy to accept cultural and religious differences if they are about dress (no, wait, head-scarves ‘create distance’); the private practice of religion (oh, hang on—let’s qualify that: ‘as long as it is politically moderate’) and language (unless we’re in ‘Londinistan,’ where we feel like *gasp!* ‘foreigners in our own country—that country being the country for English speakers). Okay, we quite like curry. But we find it quite difficult to accept when another culture makes decisions based on views we don’t understand or share. We expect Christian forgiveness, Protestant willingness to see the heart above the outward expression and Liberal freedom for individuals to disagree with the majority in countries and cultures that may have fundamentally differing views on those subjects. I personally think our values are good and right, but it would be unspeakably arrogant of me to expect someone else to accept them purely on that basis.

What we heard little of last week was why our way of approaching it is better, even for us, never mind for Muslims. And if the reasons come down to our experience of faith, can we really condemn non-Christians for refusing to behave like Christians? More importantly, when we ask others to compromise within their faith, we should ask if we would be willing to do the same. And where we have already done so, perhaps we need to assess whether we that was motivated more by a desire to fit in than to be true to our God. In which case, perhaps we have something to learn as well as teach.



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