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Batley, blasphemy and the price of cowardice

Three years on, we need a reckoning with Islamic zealotry.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater
Editor

Topics Free Speech Politics UK

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‘Forte non Ignave’, ‘Bravely not cowardly’, is the motto of Batley Grammar, a free school in West Yorkshire, founded in 1612. How grimly ironic, then, that three years ago, it became the site of one of the most craven capitulations to religious bigotry Britain has seen since the Satanic Verses controversy.

On Monday 22 March 2021, a religious-studies teacher at Batley Grammar showed his pupils cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, as part of a lesson on blasphemy. The cartoons were from Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French magazine whose staff paid the ultimate price for their supposed blasphemy in 2015, when two al-Qaeda gunmen showed up at their offices.

The cartoons had been on the syllabus for at least two years, and no one had batted an eyelid. Up to that point, Batley Grammar – a secular state school – had no reason to suspect it should have to respect Islamic blasphemy codes, especially when teaching about religion, free speech and blasphemy. It was in for a rude awakening.

‘The lesson descended into chaos as pupils took out their phones and attempted to film the teacher’, according to one report. The teacher, according to another, had a heated phone call with the father of one Muslim pupil. Then things spun out of control. Word got out online. Protesters – a mix of parents and activists from Leeds, Rochdale and beyond – pitched up outside the school gates, shutting down the school for a number of days.

All the while, the teacher was menaced by death threats. A local Islamic charity, Purpose of Life, published a statement, outing the teacher and comparing his indiscretion – bizarrely – to the brutalisation of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. A group called Muslim Action Forum also published his name, alongside more lurid libels, accusing the teacher of ‘inciting hatred’ and accusing his supporters of ‘blind hatred of the Muslim community’. These groups were, in effect, putting a target on the back of a man they had likely never met. Young men were spotted knocking at the door and trying the handle of the teacher’s house, where he lived with his wife and their children.

The bigoted caricature bore no relationship to reality, of course. According to the teacher’s Muslim neighbour, his was a nice family, who bought cards and sweets for the Muslim kids in the neighbourhood during Eid. Even so, no one should be expected to go through what this teacher went through – facing all the violent intolerance and hysteria of a medieval village, only spread far and wide by social media. He spoke to Dame Sara Khan, for her new report on modern-day mob censorship, which was published by the UK government this week. His treatment, Khan writes, left the teacher feeling suicidal.

He feared for his life, and with good reason. Five months before that fateful religious-studies class in West Yorkshire, French teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded in a Paris suburb by an Islamic extremist. Paty’s ‘crime’ was almost identical: showing Charlie Hebdo cartoons to his pupils in a lesson on freedom of expression. Adil Shahzad, an imam from Bradford who shot straight to Batley to lead the protests, warned darkly at the time that Britain risked ‘becoming like France’. Shahzad insisted Muslims should make their feelings known in the ‘democratic way’. But it turns out he has a history of praising murderous anti-blasphemy groups in Pakistan.

Where Britain after Batley certainly differed from France after Paty was in the reaction. Thousands took to the streets in France, in solidarity with the slain teacher and in support of free expression. The murder inspired President Emmanuel Macron to mount a personal crusade against Islamist extremism. In Britain, there was just capitulation. The school suspended the teacher and penned a grovelling apology. For some reason, a West Yorkshire Police officer was enlisted to read it out to the protesters. All this was welcomed heartily by Labour’s Tracy Brabin, then MP for Batley and Spen. She said she was ‘pleased that the school has recognised it was inappropriate and apologised’. After an investigation, the teacher was cleared of any personal wrongdoing, but the cartoons were removed from the syllabus. The mob won. And the teacher is still in hiding.

None of this has calmed tensions, of course. It has only emboldened the hardliners. Capitulation always does. There’s been a string of similar blasphemy scandals since. In 2022, Sunni Muslim protesters managed to get Cineworld to pull screenings of The Lady of Heaven, a Shia-made film they deemed to be blasphemous. In 2023, another school, less than 10 miles from Batley Grammar, this time in Wakefield, found itself in the zealots’ crosshairs, after a schoolboy brought a Koran to school and accidentally scuffed it. He too was bombarded with death threats. In the end, the police took no action against those trying to intimidate a child. A child who also happened to be autistic. But they did record a ‘non-crime hate incident’ against him.

A hardworking teacher forever looking over his shoulder. Shias censored at the behest of sectarians. A schoolboy threatened with death and arson. This is the cost of our cowardice, of our institutions’ inability to make clear that no one can expect to have their views forcefielded from criticism and that a free society cannot tolerate violence and threats in response to mere speech, words, cartoons. Blasphemy trials are back – only they are conducted by the mob, rather than a court. We’ve sent out a signal – loud and clear – that threats and violence and intimidation work.

And we’ve done so due to some genuinely bigoted assumptions about British Muslims. The first is that they are incapable of being citizens of liberal democracies – that, unlike any other religious group, they should expect to have their heretics burned, or at least punished. The second misconception is that the screeching rent-a-mobs that now show up whenever a ‘blasphemy’ scandal erupts are the authentic voice of British Muslims. They’re not. In fact, British Muslims and ex-Muslims are often on the sharp end of anti-blasphemy intolerance. In 2016, Glasgow’s Asad Shah and Rochdale’s Jalal Uddin both lost their lives, within weeks of each other, for their respective ‘blasphemies’. Hatun Tash, an ex-Muslim turned Christian preacher, has been stabbed and been the target of a terror plot for railing against her former faith. Thankfully, she’s still alive.

Three years on from Batley Grammar, we need to fight for the right to blaspheme all over again, before any more Brits – Muslim, non-Muslim or ex-Muslim – pay the price for our cowardice.

Tom Slater is editor of spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_

Picture by: YouTube.

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Topics Free Speech Politics UK

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