Last week, a controversy erupted in Batley, Yorkshire, after a teacher showed his class a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed, during a discussion about the Charlie Hebdo massacre of 2015.
The school has many Muslim students and some of their parents were angry at the teacher for having done this. As we are all probably aware by now, some branches of Islam (not all) consider any depiction of the Prophet to be undesirable and blasphemous.
Where there is an alleged blasphemy, free speech rights are engaged, and people like me become motivated to opine. In this particular case, I was not so much motivated as mobilised: TalkRADIO called me at short notice to chat to Kevin O’Sullivan about it. Here’s our conversation, the first draft of my thoughts on the matter.
There is more to say, however. As I have come to realise whenever such controversies kick-off, there are usually several issues rolled up in the debate. I think it’s more intellectually honest to post ‘notes’ on what those issues are, rather than posting a piece of unequivocal click-bait that condemns one side or the other.
Threats of violence are never acceptable
It’s worth affirming, as I did in the TalkRADIO discussion, that violence in response to offensive or blasphemous expression is always wrong (I think this is true even when the offensive expression is violent in itself, while other people think you should always punch Nazis).
So the sinister publication of the name of the teacher in question was A Bad Thing. He has apparently had to go into hiding and may not return to teaching at the school.
It’s also pretty obvious that blasphemy should not be a crime. We should be free to criticise and insult religion (this is a centuries-old argument, but I summarised the main talking points here). Yet much of the reaction to the Batley incident amounted to no more than affirming this consensus. I agree that blasphemy should be legal… but I don’t think saying so is particularly interesting or brave.
Don’t get me wrong — I think we should make space for blasphemy and apostasy and support those who live in countries where it is illegal, or where socially conservative religious groups are gaining political ground. But it is simply wrong to suggest that there is any great pressure in this country to criminalise insult to any religion. People who claim that there is such pressure are either ill-informed or charlatans peddling falsehoods to their own ends.
Which leads to my next point, which is…
The religious fundamentalists are allies of the far right
The divide exposed by this controversy is not between Muslims and the rest British society. As I said to Kevin O’Sullivan, it’s lazy and wrong to ascribe to the Muslim ‘community’ a single stance on this affair. Muslims are as diverse as any other demographic you can to mention. It is made up of believers, agnostics and atheists; of Tories, centrists and socialists.
Nor is the division between a religious minority and a secular majority. Instead it’s between people who want to create a them-and-us conflict, and those of us who do not.
(And yes, I am aware of the irony in making that delineation).
When a culture war skirmish like #Batley happens, we should be wise to who benefits. I can think of three sets of people.
The first are the leaders of the protest, who are well-aware of the irrationality of their demands to censor blasphemers and how out-of-step their views are in a liberal democracy. They whip up complaints because a demonstration of piety is an easy way to win kudos points from a perpetually embattled minority group. The sub-text of the campaign to get this teacher sacked is to say to those people: “They don’t care about you… but I do.”
The second group of people to benefit are the far right, who can point to the irrationality of the religious fundamentalists and claim vindication. They can use the protests to ‘other’ the entire Muslim community. The relationship between the religious fundamentalists and the far right is symbiotic. They both draw strength from the division.
The third group of people to benefit are pundits like me. We burnish our credentials with op-eds and ‘talking heads’ media appearances, repeating our well-worn maxims for retweets.
Islamophobia and bullying
In my MCB speech last month I noted that context is crucial to meaning. A discussion that might be purely theological or historical in one situation, may actually be a clear example of racism in another.
So it is with Mohammed cartoons. Many of those that have been in circulation since the Jyllands-Postern controversy of 2005 are nakedly Islamophobic, seeking to demean all Muslims by labelling them as terrorists and pædophiles. Others, like ‘Jesus and Mo’ or the Mohammed portrait that adorned the cover of Charlie Hebdo after the massacre, are satirical. Other drawings, such as Molly Norris’s ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed Day’ comic, are merely conceptual. They have no meaning other than to interrogate the extent of the supposed ‘ban’ on depictions of the Prophet.
It’s not clear exactly which cartoon the teacher at Batley Grammar School showed to his pupils. Nor do we know exactly what he said when he showed it to them. Legality aside, there is a significant moral difference between brazenly displaying an Islamophobic image, challenging the Muslim kids to take offence; and contextualising the same image in a wider discussion about blasphemy, offence and the limits of free speech.
One thing I would want to know is what other images were shown during the lesson? If the Mohammed cartoon was shown alongside images of The Terror of War, Piss Christ, McJesus, The Holy Virgin Mary, Oz Magazine, Bharat Mata, Ms Ruby May, Standing, Aylan Kurdi and Open Casket, then that would suggest that the image had been properly contextualised. If it was the only image to be shown and discussed, then I would probably be less generous in my assessment of the teachers lesson-planning skills… and his underlying motives.
Are schools where we test the limits of free speech?
Some of the commentary framed the teacher’s lesson as an exercise in free speech or academic freedom. I think that is a mistake. School curricula are heavily regulated and teachers do not have a free rein to teach what they want. PSHE lessons are carefully constructed so as to communicate challenging topics to young people in an appropriate way. The topics and lesson content are usually communicated to parents beforehand, giving them an opportunity to give feedback or to remove their child from the lesson if they so wish. This is a good thing, because it respects their rights as parents.
Even if the content of a lesson is not against the law, it may still be inappropriate for children. If some families have been offended, then that points to a failure of planning and of pedagogy. There is no contradiction in criticising the teacher’s actions on those terms, while opposing any role for the criminal law in policing offensive speech.