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.
“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.