Controversy over cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed hit home in Seattle recently, culminating in a protest outside of southend refugee service provider on Friday.
A group of Somali Americans gathered outside the Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWA) on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way to demand the resignation of a teacher who showed the cartoons to her teenage students on the day after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.
“We’re not gonna be silent when it’s something that’s not right,” said Hassan Aden, who was one of between 15 to 20 people who attended the protest. “We’re trying to show that we’re not happy with what she did.”
The teacher, Deepa Bhandaru, recently earned her Ph.D from the UW Political Science department, and works for ReWA teaching a free class on world affairs for youth, where she showed the cartoons during a lesson on free speech and religious pluralism.
A post by the Stranger (where Bhandaru has written a number of film reviews and other articles) came to her defense, saying that she’d already sent lengthy letters of apology to her colleagues at ReWA and to a local mosque attended by some of her Somali students.
Bhandaru told the Stranger she thought the protest organizers were harping on the issue to score political points, and manipulating community members who didn’t speak English fluently. You can read the full post here (warning: the linked page contains a copy of one of the cartoons in questions).
When protesters arrived Friday afternoon the ReWA offices were shuttered, with all staff gone for the day, and an official statement taped to the door (posted in full below).
Shahzad Qadri, a member of ReWA’s board of directors said the decision to close was based on fears for the safety of the staff, following incidents of vandalism early in the week.
“A lot of teenagers in our community were very angry and frustrated,” said Fatma Yessef, who attended the protest with her daughter Sumaya. “We told them we have to vent our frustration in a peaceful, nice way and say ‘you cannot do this to our prophet.'”
Like Yessef, many at the protest said they’d lived in the U.S. for decades and emphasized that they embraced American values of freedom of speech and religion. But more than one participant said they felt that showing the cartoons to youth had crossed a line, and insisted that they would only be satisfied if Bhandaru were fired.
Qadri said the decision about Bhandaru’s future at ReWA would be made based on an ongoing internal investigation, the results of which would be public.
“We serve a multicultural group. Seventy percent of our client base is of Muslim descent, and I myself am a practicing Muslim,” he said. “Our goal is never to offend anyone.”
For Yessef, who said she’s know Bhandaru several years, the apologies were too little too late.
“She should respect us as much as we respect her — her religion, her personality,” she said. “I don’t want to disrespect anybody for the way they are…I don’t think it’s free speech to talk about somebody’s religion, somebody’s beloved prophet like that.”