Suspended Tolerance?

Photo by RODNAE Productions on

I’ve just had time to look a little bit more at this story that emerged over the weekend.  On social media, the story has been presented focusing on one severely autistic boy being suspended and then receiving death threats due to a Quran being scuffed/damaged.  A local councillor defended the school for suspending the boy arguing that this crossed a line.  However, those accused of making death threats have not been punished. 

Pursue the story in the media and there’s a little more detail.  There were four boys suspended not just the one autistic lad.  There were rumours circulating that the Quran had been burnt, these were untrue.  It’s claimed that the book had been kicked around on the floor but this is denied and the school insists that there was no malicious intent.

The media also do not seem to be majoring on the death threats, but these have been referred to by the councillor who has got himself involved.

Now, first of all, it is important for those speaking up on this from a libertarian perspective to clearly communicate all of the facts surrounding the story.  Four boys being involved and suspended is a different matter to one severely autistic boy being singled out. 

Secondly, if this were a matter of bullying or deliberate provocation, an attempt to incite others then suspension would have been right. Note, this does not mean that people have a right not to be offended.  This isn’t a criminal matter but it is about how you treat others with respect, tolerance and compassion and it is legitimate for a school to have rules that encourage that.

And, it is worth stating in that context, that if a boy had been involved in behaviour that he knew to be wrong, then that is different to being involved in challenging behaviour arising out of his autism. It is important to be alert to his health needs and to challenge the behaviour in an appropriate manner for him but that doesn’t mean that the behaviour is ignored.

Thirdly, if the story is as the school suggests, a bit of a dare, accidental damage, even if it goes a little further and there has simply been some horseplay, a throwing about of a book -and yes I can envisage that happening- then the punishment was completely inappropriate.  It might be appropriate for the boys to be told to pick the book up, to look after property well, to use a book as intended for reading and to also be aware about how others might feel about their actions.

Fourthly, the issue of death threats needs to be addressed. The school, police and community leaders need to be clear that there is no place and no excuse for such responses. Passion, upset, anger are one thing, threatening to kill someone quite another.

Fourthly, consider this  language from the school:

“However, we have made it very clear that their actions did not treat the Quran with the respect it should have, so those involved have been suspended and we will be working with them to ensure they understand why their actions were unacceptable.

This seems to be moving beyond encouraging respect and tolerance of others to imposing religious belies onto others.  Muslims believe that the Quran should be revered, it must not be damaged, it must not be mistreated because of the particular view they have of it, not just that it is Scripture but that because of that the pages it is written on are to be treated as holy.  Some Christians would view the Bible, church buildings and religious symbols such as fonts, crosses, the elements used in communion similarly. 

Personally, my non-conformist beliefs take me the other way.  I don’t think that buildings or objects take on special properties because of their association with the faith.  In fact, if Councilor Akbar were to inspect the Bibles in our home, then he would struggle to find one that had not got some damage to it.  The damage is in fact evidence not of a lack of respect but of a deep love and respect for the words in the book because it has come from much use.  My Bible has been carried around with me, it’s been opened regularly, it’s been passed to others.  And perhaps because some of us are clumsy, we’ll find that our Bibles have been occasionally dropped.

So there are a few things to note here.  First, from a Western, secular perspective it is in fact none of the Councillor’s business what happened to the book.  The idea that someone can dash in to inspect the property of others is a peculiar turn of events.  From the perspective of what is best for a free and functioning, pluralistic/democratic society we would want to discourage this.  However, from a  Christian, missional perspective, it would be helpful for us to understand how a different culture perceives things. 

Secondly, as I’ve suggested, it seems on the facts available that the school have moved beyond encouraging respect and tolerance for others.  There is no compulsion on non-Christians, or even on Christians who take a different view about sacred objects to revere and honour crosses, Bibles, fonts and Cathedrals beyond concern for the feeling of others. In the same way, there is no compulsion on non-Muslims to revere the Quran. Respect for others is different to reverence of symbols. The school seems to have slipped towards the latter.

 Thirdly, I would gently suggest that if he truly cares about Islam and encouraging teenage boys to consider it and come to a place of respect, maybe even adherence then surely rather than worrying about the state of a copy of the book, he might want to encourage people to be reading it. 

I say this because sometimes the reaction we see to challenges to Christian faith make the same mistake.  We rush to be outraged when a Christian comes under public attack or when the Daily Mail reports on an Air Stewardess.  There was even outrage recently about a University dropping reference to Christian names.  Instead of getting worked up about such things, we would do better to focus on seeking to ensure that the Gospel is heard.

%d bloggers like this: