The Batley Grammar School teacher should not be sacked for blasphemy

It is more than 6 years since the Charlie Hebdo murders. 12 people were shot dead in the magazine office, murdered by Islamists to avenge its publication of cartoons of Mohammed. Their “crime” was that they had committed blasphemy. Over the next three days a policewoman and 4 customers at a Jewish shop were also murdered.

In the immediate aftermath of the atrocity it became fashionable so say “Je Suis Charlie” in solidarity with the magazine. At least a million people, including the French President marched through Paris to demonstrate their support for freedom of speech. The British Prime Minister joined them, as did many other world leaders.

Even the Saudi Arabian ambassador attended the demonstration, which might have seemed a little surprising given the Kingdom’s well-known disapproval of blasphemy. However, Saudi Arabia does not endorse the extra-judicial killing of blasphemers. Instead – as with Raif Badawi – it punishes them with lashes and imprisonment, only very rarely with beheading, and then only after a trial.

In October last year Samuel Paty, a teacher was beheaded, again in France, after apparently showing his students some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Mohammed. He had reportedly asked anyone who did not wish to see the pictures to close their eyes first. The precaution did not save him from a planned and premeditated attack by a religiously motivated mob.

And now in Yorkshire, a religious studies teacher at Batley Grammar School has been suspended for showing his students – some of whom were Muslims – more of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting Mohammed.

The Headmaster – faced with angry demonstrators protesting outside the school gates, issued an unequivocal” apology:

for using a totally inappropriate image in a recent religious studies lesson. It should not have been used. We are reviewing how we go forward with the support of all the communities represented in our school. It is important for children to learn about faiths and beliefs, but this must be done in a respectful, sensitive way. The school is working closely with our governing body & community leaders to help us resolve the situation.

The member of staff has been suspended pending an independent, formal investigation. The school is working closely with our governing board and community leaders to help us resolve this situation.”

It seems that the original wording of the apology had been changed after discussion with The Peace Institute, a local Islamic charity whose spokesman Iman Mohammed Amin Pandor speaking outside the school gates described the teacher’s behaviour as “totally unacceptable:”

The school … prepared a statement and we weren’t happy with that statement so we said, no the statement needs to be worded in this way.”

Having got the school to alter its statement, Mr Pandor moved on to how the teacher should be dealt with:

The teacher has been suspended. You cannot sack him… you can’t just dismiss somebody like that. You have due process. We’ve asked for an investigation, to be independent, and we have asked also for some of us to get onto the investigation panel.”

Due process” is a bit of a weaselly phrase here. It seems unlikely that substituting the school’s ordinary disciplinary procedure with an “investigation panel” containing members nominated by an organisation that has described the teacher’s actions as “totally unacceptable,” would be regarded as entirely fair by an employment tribunal.

It is important to point out that we don’t know the exact circumstances. It would be one thing to show the cartoons, for example, as part of a lesson illustrating the dangers of religious fanaticism, or indeed of Islamophobia. It would be quite another to do so as gratuitous muslim-baiting. The latter would be a sackable offence.

According to a petition apparently started by a pupil at the school:

The RS Teacher was trying to educate students about racism and blasphemy. He warned the students before showing the images and he had the intent to educate them. He does not deserve such large repercussions. He is not racist and did not support the Islamiphobic cartoons in any manner.”

However, to many – though as Kenan Malik has pointed out, not all – devout Muslims this is to miss the point. To them the motives of the teacher are irrelevant; the display of any picture of Mohammed is highly offensive and should not be permitted by any school in any circumstances.

The Headmaster has been criticised for cowardice – in the main by those who don’t have to worry about having their heads cut off by religious fanatics. But there is no doubt that he has been placed in an extremely difficult position.

If he fails to take enough action against the teacher, he will be condemned by many Muslims, and certainly by the “community leaders” who have already led demonstrations outside the school gates.

On the other hand if he takes too much action he will be condemned by supporters of free speech and secularists, and for very good reason. Capitulating in the face of intimidation will only encourage religious extremists to demand more say over what is taught in schools. Today it may be the display of cartoons in religious studies lessons, tomorrow it may be describing Ahmadis as Muslims – a serious criminal offence in Pakistan – or some aspect of sex education or history.

If the teacher has broken the criminal law it is a matter for the police. However, that sounds exceedingly unlikely.

It is an offence, under S.29B of the Public Order Act 1986 for a person to

“… [use] threatening words or behaviour, or [display] any written material which is threatening, … if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred.”

There are numerous obstacles to such a prosecution. There has been no suggestion that the material displayed was “threatening,” it would be extremely difficult to prove the necessary intent, and S.29J of the same Act provides a further safeguard against interpreting S.29B as a law against blasphemy:

Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, ….”

In reality, hardly anybody seriously suggests that the teacher has done anything criminal.

However, criticism of his actions is not because he is said to have broken any law, and nor is it confined to Muslims. Many non-Muslims will think that to show cartoons that he must have known would be considered hugely offensive to some of his students was unnecessary and inflammatory. Certainly it could have been avoided; but do we want schools, especially non-denominational secular schools, to have the content of their lessons censored by the religious?

There are many different types of school. There are religious schools for Christians, Muslims and Jews. Batley Grammar is not one of them. Some parents will favour schools where their children will be exposed to a wide a range of opinions. They may want their children to debate religious observance, religious tolerance and religious extremism. They may want them to hear arguments from as many points of view as possible. They may want, in short, a liberal, secular education for their children. They too have rights.

The teacher has apparently been driven out of his home and is having to live under police protection. It is quite disgraceful that it should have come to that, far more disgraceful than upsetting the sensibilities of the religious.

I hope that the school does now conduct a genuinely fair and impartial investigation into what happened. Self-evidently that does not mean an investigation by a panel containing those who have already pronounced him guilty. If he has set out to mock and upset his Muslim pupils he has, of course, no place in the teaching profession. If, on the other hand, he has conscientiously tried to teach them to the best of his ability about a controversial subject, he must be defended.

Teachers should not be sacked for blasphemy.

Author: Matthew

I have been a barrister for over 25 years, specialising in crime. You may also have come across some of my articles I have written on legal issues for The Times, Standpoint, Daily Telegraph or Criminal Law & Justice Weekly

11 thoughts on “The Batley Grammar School teacher should not be sacked for blasphemy”

  1. This isn’t my cuntry. Not been for a long time….you can’t cure me of this delusion by drugging me, electro shocking my brain or taking it in turns anally raping me as it’s not an actual delusion!

  2. A well balanced piece. Thank you.

    As I understand it, parents are still able to withdraw their offspring from RE lessons…or has that changed? If this is indeed the case, I’m uncertain why the teacher didn’t warn Muslim parents in advance of the potential (as they see it) insult to their faith. Knowing the sensitivities surrounding the cartoon this may have saved a lot of hostility. And yet, should the education system be held hostage to such people? In this I am drawn towards the Charlie Hebdo position, but as you’ve rightly observed, I’m not likely to face death threats.

    This issue is especially pertinent because this past week or so has seen protestors in Bristol (supported by many but abhorred by others), Priti Patel’s Police Bill which could reduce the right to protest (ditto but in reverse), and the vote in the Commons to extend controls over our freedoms due to the Pandemic (ditto, ditto but mixed).

    It does seem to me that many who object to the Bateley protestors would probably object to any curbs on rights to protest about things to which ‘they agree’.

    There’s also the equally worrying aspect that the Bateley protests falls into the laps of the extreme right, racist and/or anti Asian groups. Were Tommy Robinson (aka …..) not in financial trouble I’m sure he’d be exercising his right to protest against these “forrin immigrants” and “illegal asylum seekers”.

    Such divisions could turn into something nasty and far beyond Bateley Grammar School.

  3. could Imman Patron withdraw comment about reoommending not having the vaccine? essentail all have that done sap

    1. looks like you got your way in the censoring there….but people like you really do disgust me, you’re a large part of the problem….how can people give informed consent when only one side of the argument is censored? never mind children or dogs for that matter….?

  4. Teachers should not be sacked for blasphemy, absolutely; I don’t think this teacher should suffer any consequences more serious than a stern word from the Head (and perhaps having to go on a course). That said, I’d find it hard to defend the teacher’s action. Since 2000 – under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act and subsequently the Equality Act 2010 – schools have been under a duty to promote good relations between different communities, religious communities included, and displaying an image likely to cause offence to one group in particular has to at least ring alarm bells in terms of that duty.

  5. A well-balanced informative piece as always Matthew.

    No we don’t want ” schools, especially non-denominational secular schools, to have the content of their lessons censored by the religious ” And yes, parents can still withdraw their children from the compulsory curriculum RE lessons in state maintained schools.

    But I find is astounding that the teacher as an RE teacher – given that such teaching in secular schools is ‘non-sectarian’ and generally about the right of respect and values etc – would not recognise the deep insult to muslims of using a Charlie Hebdo cartoon of Mohammed to illustrate ‘blasphemy’. And of course the likely incitement to all kinds of ‘extremist’ propaganda. It seems to me the topic could and should have been taught without the ‘offending’ image (apparently one with a bomb on the head instead of a turban – of course the ‘satirical’ point is lost in ‘translation’). There is of course the Gay News trial of 1977 with the homoerotic poem that upset some christians. I don’t suppose the the further back ‘rupert bear’ pedo?philia or the ‘little red schoolbook’ cases would pas muster for discussion on any terms now. However there are plenty of historical examples of ‘blasphemy’ re catholics etc (the Pope in particular) that would have outraged in the past but are seen as acceptable now. And catholics have learned to live with such. They don’t have an ingrained belief in such ‘iconoclasm’.

    And there’s the rub. Many Muslim ‘beliefs’ are contrary to the liberal secular society they live in here and other such countries. For the most part, we tolerate their beliefs, and they us, as they are bound to do within the law. But you wouldn’t wave a hock of pork in front of a class of mostly orthodox Jewish children (or Muslim ones). We would recognise this as a deeply offensive ‘insult’. But many people, while accepting ‘dietary customs’ , simply don’t like that Muslims are insulted by ‘images’. They think it’s silly and should not be respected, because they don’t share a similar belief.
    While it’s quite right in our society that ‘free speech’ should allow for satirical depictions of Mohammed, the Pope, or whomsoever this is not the same as saying all such should be condoned in schools. In fact we know that the ‘curriculum’ is very tightly drawn as to not offend ‘diversity’ – LGBT sensibilities in particular. So I don’t see why something that is clearly insulting to a religious minority should be condoned in RE teaching.
    You can still withdraw your child from RE lessons in state secular schools (though not the controversial ‘relationships and sex education’ ones. This is a peculiar anomaly of our peculiar country that does not have the ‘laicity’ underpinning as in France. No doubt the Muslim parents at Batley were confident that RE lessons were anodyne enough not to require this measure as a rule. Whether this will continue to be the case remains to be seen. If 75 per cent of the school withdrew from such classes what would they do instead?

    On a personal note, as a child I was withdrawn from assembly by my parents at a state primary, because we (or my mother and us kids) were catholic. I was the only one in the school and had to sit alone in class ‘learning my catechism’ (there was no catholic primary in that part of Cornwall). I hated this and was rewarded by having kids throw stones at me shouting ‘you worship the virgin mary’ (I didn’t – but I didn’t tell anyone about the ‘shame’ of being ‘stoned’). For some reason my parents didn’t withdraw me from RE lessons though – I don’t know whether they couldn’t at the time or what. I wasn’t allowed to join the Brownies for the same reason.Consequently I enjoyed the delights of the King James bible (never telling my mother what was up!). I’ve no idea what was ‘offensive’ in the assembly to catholics. I think it was simply a way of ‘marking’ the difference. When I went to a covent school at secondary level I felt perversely proud that I didn’t know my catechism well, and also had a wealth of old testament stories from the King James.
    The point of this anecdote as to the current debate is simply that it makes sense in compulsory RE lessons which are non-sectarian to deliberately avoid insulting people’s faiths. I never felt ‘insulted’ in the ‘CoE’ type lessons of my childhood – even though there was, at that time, still considerable prejudice against catholics in some more remote areas – as evidenced by the ‘stoning’.
    Since now we ‘walk on eggshells’ in so many areas of ‘free speech’ it seems to me to be glaringly obvious that liberal secular schools in this country should proscribe insulting images to faith. That’s only in schools – not society. I further think that muslims and mosques have a duty to educate their children on the facts and responsibilities of living in a liberal secular society and that ‘turning the other cheek’ to such insults is the proper course unless deliberately inciteful.

    However, there are some people – a small minority – who – like the ‘stoners’ want to insult. They should be educated too.

  6. The contrast between the cowardly reaction of the secondary school headteacher and officialdom in general in this case and the provocative, authoritarian and repressive reaction of another headteacher, Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, and Birmingham City Council and the mass media (not to mention the Times Education Supplement) in the circumstances that prevailed at Anderson Park (primary) School in 2019 (when I found myself in court defending my freedom to comment on the “our Children, Our Choice” protests), could hardly be starker. I’d have enjoyed reading Matthew’s take on that contrast. I hope I don’t need to explain what my own take on this contrast is. My comment on the TES hagiography should give the reader enough of a clue.

  7. You can teach the point without showing the actual image. The students are free to view them independently. I would assume they are on the internet. Given the history and how offensive some find the images, I struggle to see how a teacher, let alone a Religious Studies teacher would think it was appropriate. It seems very poor judgement. It’s like sex education, you don’t need to show some actual porn to make the point. I’m not keen on censorship, and as an atheist I struggle with how offended some people can get. I don’t see how showing the image, when they are readily available outside of class, does anything but make some pupils feel uncomfortable. They can discuss and debate the issues without a teacher showing such an image.

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