On the apparent fragility of Moslem faith

A British schoolteacher has been arrested in Sudan for lese Islamicité because her 7-year-old students voted to name a stuffed bear Muhammad. There seems to be a constant dribble of stories like this out of conservative Islamic regimes, where laws forbidding disrespect to the religion and the Prophet are common. Apparently Islam makes every other religion in the world so incredibly seductive to its believers that apostasy can only be prevented by a death penalty and rigorous suppression of any proselytization. What explains this amazing fragility of Islamic belief (or the civil authorities’ perception of this fragility)? If one believes one’s confession so vulnerable to ephemeral disrespect (from non-believers, no less), never mind feeble in the face of direct challenge, that it needs to be shielded by the criminal law, doesn’t that belief constitute the primary irreverence?

In the present case, the policy is incoherent, as Muhammad seems to be one of the names of half the Moslem males around and about. Naming an infant Muhammad runs a finite and non-trivial risk of thus naming a criminal or otherwise really bad person, as some kids are always sure to turn out. Aren’t these bad apples a lot more dangerous to the reputation of the original than a stuffed bear, especially a stuffed bear a bunch of seven-year-olds were trying to honor? I don’t think bears are specifically unclean in Islam (contra dogs, pigs).

When I was in school, there was a lot of demanding that we not be taught about Communism, because, I guess, the doctrine had such incredible magnetic attraction that a couple of classes about Marx and [then] Russia would completely unAmericanize us. The flag attracts the same kind of insecurity about symbols, and generations of Boy Scouts were terrified about what would happen, in general and to them, if they folded it wrong, or hung it the wrong way, or it touched the ground, and so on.

My guess is that a bear named Abe or Moishe would not be a problem in even a very orthodox Jewish classroom, and I don’t see Sister Mary being put in the slam even in Italy or Spain for an ursine Jesus. Not needing the state to enforce respect for religious symbols, and trusting that the faith will survive argument and confrontation, never mind well-meaning mistakes and faux pas, looks to me like an indication of more, not less, confidence in one’s religion.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.