My prophet is stronger than your prophet!

May 23, 2016

A comparison of Jesus and Muhammed in a Christian private school made the news. The following debate raises some interesting points.

 As part of an assignment in a lesson on Christianity, the pupils of the Christian private school Danielsen Sotra were given a list of bullet points comparing Jesus and Muhammed. The list compares the lives and teachings of Jesus and Muhammed in a way strongly favoring Christianity over Islam. When parents reacted, the list made headlines. The principal of the school was quick in condemning the list for not being in line with the school’s values and standards for teaching religion. The debate afterwards is worth some attention though.

Children need to know this

 One of those voicing support for this comparison was Vebjørn Selbekk, the editor of the Christian newspaper Dagen. This is interesting because Selbekk is a prominent voice in the Norwegian debate on the freedom of expression. He was chief editor of Magazinet, the first Norwegian newspaper publishing a facsimile of the Muhammed cartoons in 2006. Selbekk received the Freedom of Expression Foundation Tribute Award in 2015 for courage in the fight for liberal principles and for furthering the understanding of freedom of expression as the most fundamental human right.

Selbekk makes the point that the reason parents choose a Christian private school in the first place is the opportunity to favor Christianity over other religions. But he then goes on to commend the comparison for being a good one, and to stress the importance of teaching children the problematic aspects of Islam. In “Dagsnytt atten”, a televised news program, he elaborates on this point.

Private schools in Norway

 Education in Norway is strictly regulated. A private school will need to be based on either a specific pedagogic or religious alternative to public schools. In order to be approved as a Christian private school it is required that Christianity is explicitly formulated as part of the statutes of the school. When it comes to the subjects, most Christian private schools only differ from public schools when it comes to religious education. Instead of a subject giving equal treatment to different religion, Christianity is favored. Other religions are given a minor part in the curriculum. Thus a comparison favoring Jesus isn’t in itself in violation of the educational laws in Norway. Favoring Christianity over other religions is a condition for establishing a Christian private school in the first place. In this light most of the list is within the standards for what is acceptable in a Christian school. Statements like “Jesus healed many, Muhammed healed none”, or “Muhammed claimed to be the last and greatest of the prophets sent by God. Jesus was the Son of God and died for our sins”, might be problematic if the aim is to give a balanced presentation of the two religions. But within the framework of a Christian private school, this is not unreasonable.   

So what is the problem?

 Well, the problem is that the comparisons go a lot further than saying that Christianity is the true religion. The real problem lies in what is being said about Muhammed, and thus about Islam. In four of the sixteen bullet points on the list it is stressed that Muhammed spread Islam by war, he had a woman killed for being an adulteress, he married a child and he urged his followers to kill their enemies.  Choosing these themes and highlighting them as core parts of Islam, the teacher moves into murky waters, also in a juridical sense. No school in Norway is allowed to teach in a way that further intolerance or fear of other cultures or religions. The Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training were quick to issue a statement to this effect.

 In my opinion it is the support of Vebjørn Selbekk that makes this case worthy of attention. In itself, this case isn’t really that important. When brought to the principal’s attention, he responded promptly by stressing that this way of teaching was not in line with the school’s values, and that this is not the way religion should be taught in the school. And here the case could have ended. But the support of one of the most prominent voices on freedom of speech in Norway changes things. What Selbekk is supporting is not mainly the way such a comparison favors Christianity as the true religion. He advocates the importance of pointing out that Muhammed was a man of war and that this is something that is good for seventh graders to be taught in school. Then focus is no longer on the right to teach children Christianity from within a belief-system. If the important thing is to teach children that Islam is problematic, then I would argue that we face a problem.

 Promoting tolerance and respect is one of the most important parts of Norwegian schools, public or private. I believe there should be room for private schools offering education from within a faith –system, in the same way as I think there should be room for criticism of religion in schools. But we need to keep it within the boundaries of the larger aims of Norwegian schools, such as respect and democratic citizenship.