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A problem in class

21 February 2014

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JUST as you cannot blame an organist for not listening to every word of the sermon, it would be a little harsh to criticise a continuity announcer for not paying attention during one of the many radio documentaries that he or she is required to top and tail.

Even so, it appeared like a lapse in joined-up thinking when, at the end of Falling for a Student (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week; a repeat from October), the announcer supplied the familiar spiel about details of organisations that might help listeners affected by the issues discussed. For, if there was one take-home message from Falling for a Student, it was that there were no organisations offering support on the issues discussed: namely, what to do as a teacher if you find yourself attracted to a pupil.

Since the law was changed ten years ago, having a relationship with any student up to the age of 18 and when in a position of trust is a criminal matter; and this is where difficulties arise.

The head teachers who were asked to comment on Anita Anand's investigation were unambiguous about the inappropriateness of anything that invited intimacy, and even the teacher-support helpline played the issue with a straight bat. So I suspect that anybody asking the Radio 4 helpline would receive the same "Pull yourself together" message.

All of this was of no help to "Alex", the female teacher whose relationship with "Tim" provided the main case-study here. The couple are still together, and insist that nothing happened physically until the boy had left school; but in her blunt answers to Anand's questions, Alex displayed a fierce sense of guilt. "We are immensely damaged," she admitted at theend of the interview. The boy said little.

On Monday of last week, Edward Stourton, in Analysis (Radio 4), provided us with a useful bluffer's guide to Wahhabism, the strain of Islam which dominates Saudi Arabian religious practice, and has been blamed for much of the extremism of recent decades.

Naturally, the real story is more complicated than that. The founder of the "movement", the 18th- century scholar and dissident Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, was a fundamentalist in the sense that he challenged the traditional commentaries on Islamic practice, and insisted instead on establishing a direct relationship with the early texts.

In that sense, and in the way in which he emphasised the importance of the direct engagement of believers in these texts, his call was something analogous to that of the early Protestants.

Whether or not al-Wahhab was socially conservative in the same way as his modern-day followers are is debatable. He was keen on the education of women in scripture; but he was not averse to a good stoning. So it is no surprise that Stourton was able to find two British Wahabbis whose interpretations of what they saw as being authentically Wahabbi were hugely different.

We who stand as interested observers cannot fail to be impressed by the way in which the messiness of religious belief and affiliation, familiar from our own experiences, appears to be replicated in this other world of faith.

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