People gather outside the gates of Batley Grammar School, after a teacher was suspended for showing an image of the Prophet Muhammad (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Britain’s blasphemy laws

We must stand up to intimidation

In 2021, a teacher was suspended from a school in Batley, Yorkshire for showing pupils a caricature of Muhammad during a religious studies lesson. Protests from aggrieved Muslims were fierce. The teacher went into hiding, and has never emerged again — doubtless remembering the fate of Samuel Paty, the French teacher who was killed for a similar “crime”. 

Wakefield is seven miles from Batley. In Kettlethorpe High School, in the city, four boys have been suspended. Their sin? Causing slight cosmetic damage to a copy of the Quran — with, as their headteacher states, “no malicious intent by those involved”.

Slightly damaging a book — and a book, no less, that the students had purchased themselves — is grounds for suspension now? It sure is, but not because the authorities at Kettlethorpe High School are iron disciplinarians but because they are trying to appease a mob of activists.

Apparently, one of the pupils brought the Quran into school after losing a bet. (This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me but kids make odd decisions.) According to the school’s investigation, it appears that one of the students dropped the book after being collided with. It also picked up a smudge of dirt — which will surprise no one who is familiar with the hygiene of teenage boys.

Somehow, rumours spread. Activists came to believe that the Quran had been kicked or spat on, which inflamed a “huge uproar” in the Muslim community. Some even suggested that the Quran had been torn up in front of Muslim students.

Had that taken place it would have been deplorable. (Just as if a Bible had been torn up in front of Christian students, or a Torah in front of Jewish students.) As far as I can tell, though, there is no evidence that it did.

But activists were unsatisfied — elected officials among them. Usman Ali, for example, a local Labour councillor, announced that the Quran had been “desecrated” and that the school, the police and local authorities should be taking “swift and appropriate action to deal with this grave situation”. “We all need to work together to make sure that this terrible provocation does not set back community relations,” Ali wrote — blissfully unaware that the people endangering community relations were those, like him, who were treating an incident of teenage rambunctiousness like a school shooting.

The school, after liaising with the police — because of course the police have nothing better to do than investigating slight cosmetic damage to a book — and “community leaders” — whoever the hell they are — suspended the boys.

Independent councillor Akef Akbar is playing the peacemaker in this situation. He has emphasised that “absolutely nobody should engage in any violence”, and that the kids who have been suspended should be “protected and safeguarded”. Well, that’s good. 

But while I think Mr Akbar is sincere in his desire to stabilise community relations, the premises he works from need interrogating. He is asking local Muslims to be magnanimous enough to tolerate an outrageous provocation — when in reality it was a non-event that should not have caused a scandal to begin with.

In one video released on his Facebook page, he addresses Wakefield residents alongside a woman who he introduces as the mother of the boy who brought the Quran into school. The boy, it turns out, was “highly autistic” — yet more reason to sympathise with him! But while Akbar is preaching peace — certainly better than the alternative — he is still behaving as if the boy committed some sort of monstrous crime. He was “rightfully expelled”, he says. His mother has “of course shown her remorse”. “Of course”! What do you mean “of course”!? Why should she feel remorse because her son brought a book into school?

Somehow, Britain has adopted de facto blasphemy laws

Akbar tells us that the autistic boy has been receiving death threats and threats to beat him up. You might think this would be cause for fierce condemnation. “Passions do flare,” says Akbar, “And sometimes we let them out in the wrong manner.” Passions do flare? We’re talking about death threats — not someone using the f-word. Imagine the uproar if a Muslim child received death threats and a white politician shrugged “passions do flare”.

“The mother has had to inform the police,” Akbar says, but “to her credit” she doesn’t want the children to be prosecuted. Why shouldn’t she?

Again, I think that Mr Akbar is doing the right thing according to his values. But we should not accept a preposterous situation in which a child handling a book with some degree of carelessness is framed as a more grave misdeed than sending death threats. That Muslims view the Quran with great reverence is entirely their right. But in a secular society they cannot expect everyone else to do the same.

The school, meanwhile, has betrayed its students — hanging them out to dry to appease hair trigger sensitivities. That at least one of them was heavily autistic rubs home the base cowardice and irresponsibility of adults who should have been standing up for kids. 

Somehow, Britain has adopted de facto blasphemy laws. They don’t even have to be formalised. In one town, a teacher had to flee for his life for the crime of showing a picture. In another, just down the road, four kids were kicked out of school and showered with death threats for the crime of dropping a book. This cannot be allowed to continue.

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