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No end of a lesson

Monday 29 March 2021

The Batley Grammar School case shows what happens when liberalism loses its nerve and allows theocratic cherry-picking

One of the few absolute certainties about living in a liberal, pluralist society is that you will be offended. Not just occasionally, but routinely, daily – possibly more often. You will see and hear things that rub you the wrong way, insult your beliefs or your intelligence, outrage your deepest sensibilities. How could it be otherwise? 

The whole point – the glory, I would say – of a diverse, heterogeneous community is the sheer cacophony of views expressed. It is not accidental, but axiomatic, that each and every opinion, statement or image will affront somebody, perhaps many people. As is often (and correctly) observed, there is no right not to be offended. But one can go further: as citizens of a liberal society, we should expect, and be braced, for such offence, as the flipside of our own freedoms.

In authoritarian regimes and theocracies, the range of permissible expression is radically restricted and the potential for offence limited accordingly. But there are – shall we say? – collateral costs attached to this immunity from ideological, religious or philosophical distress.

This is the principle that is at stake in the struggle at Batley Grammar School in West Yorkshire, and the mostly pusillanimous response to the drama at the school gates. Last Thursday, the head, Gary Kibble, announced that one of his teachers had been “suspended pending an independent, formal investigation” into his use of a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad in a religious education class on Monday, reportedly for Year Nine pupils (ages 13-14).

The school, Kibble said, “unequivocally apologises for using a totally inappropriate image in a recent religious studies lesson. It should not have been used.” The teacher – whose name has been revealed online by the Purpose of Life charity – is now apparently in hiding, after police voiced concerns that he might be at risk of physical attack (quite rightly, the Charity Commission is investigating this disgraceful act of disclosure).

Yet even this abject capitulation by the school was not enough for the protesters, who issued a statement condemning the allegedly “deliberate, threatening and provocative manner” in which the image of the Prophet had been used; insisting that the incident be “investigated from a criminal perspective, given that it was a clear attempt to stir up religious hatred”; and calling upon Muslim parents around the UK to scrutinise the way in which their children were being taught, not least with reference to “inappropriate relationship[s] and sex education”.

The final item in this inventory of demands rather tellingly recalls the furious controversy in Birmingham in 2019 over the “No Outsiders” programme pioneered at Parkfield Community School. The project, created by assistant head teacher Andrew Moffat, was intended to introduce children to the British values of inclusion enshrined in the 2010 Equality Act, which protects ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ people, those with disabilities, and other groups; in which context, it is worth noting that Moffat’s work was singled out for praise by Ofsted in 2016 on the grounds that “the provision for pupils; spiritual, moral, social and cultural development is a strength and permeates the school’s work. This is an inclusive school that celebrates diversity”. 

Yet, three years later, No Outsiders became the focus of angry protests by Muslim parents on the grounds that it transgressed Islam’s aversion to homosexuality. Several schools withdrew hastily from the programme, there were calls for Moffat to be sacked, and police were sufficiently worried about his personal safety to advise him to carry out a risk assessment on his travel arrangements. In the end, Birmingham City Council had to seek an injunction from the High Court to prevent disruption outside schools – disruption which, it emerged, had been aggravated by fundamentalist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Exhaustion is an underrated factor in political discourse. It is now more than 32 years since the fatwa against Salman Rushdie over his allegedly blasphemous depiction of Muhammad in The Satanic Verses, and we are no closer to resolving the frictions between Islam and liberalism, or addressing rigorously the causes of these frictions.

In September 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons of Muhammad – triggering a global furore in which Danish diplomatic missions were attacked and more than 250 people killed. In January 2015, two French Muslim gunmen entered the Paris office of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo – which had also lampooned the Prophet – and slaughtered 12 people, injuring 11 others. 

In October, Samuel Paty, a history teacher, was decapitated outside the Paris school where he worked by 18-year-old Abdullakh Anzorov, after showing his pupils a cartoon of Muhammad in a class on free speech and blasphemy. Earlier this month, it emerged that the girl whose testimony had instigated the initial parental complaints about Paty had been lying, and was not, in fact, present at the lesson in question.

It is unconscionable to suggest, as bigots do, that all Muslims are potential terrorists, or sympathetic to acts of terror. Equally, it is idle to deny that these episodes represent a clear pattern of behaviour and one that looms over all such controversies. One can well imagine what fears have haunted the Batley headteacher in the past week – not to mention his suspended colleague, whose entire career and wellbeing are now in the balance.

In such circumstances, there is an immense gravitational pull towards banality and appeasement. Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary, managed both yesterday when asked by Sky’s Sophy Ridge whether teachers should be allowed to show cartoons of Muhammad. “Well, look. In this particular case I think we just need to lower tensions,” he said, adding that the school’s speedy apology and suspension of the teacher had been “the right thing to do”.

Shamefully, a spokesman for the National Education Union went no further than to state that “the school is investigating matters using internal formal processes and until this has been concluded it would not be appropriate to make any further comment”.

In contrast, Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said on Thursday that “it was never acceptable to threaten or intimidate teachers”; and credit is due to Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, who told the BBC, without qualification, that “[i]t must be right that a teacher can appropriately show images of the Prophet Muhammad… In a free society, we want religions to be taught to children and for children to be able to question and query them.”

This is absolutely the heart of the matter. There is, for a start, a categorical difference between anti-Muslim bigotry and critical scrutiny of Islam as a system of ideas: the former is quite unacceptable, and the latter is absolutely essential. As I related in a Tortoise article two years ago, I fell out badly with Boris Johnson in September 2018 over a column in which he wrote that a Muslim woman wearing the niqab resembled “a bank robber” and that it was “absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes”.

This language struck me then, as it strikes me now, as demeaning, dehumanising and misogynistic – and partly a reflection of the malign influence upon Johnson of Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon. The future prime minister didn’t like that one bit: I stopped counting his furious phone calls at 15.

Yet this sort of gross mockery of Muslims is quite distinct from the right, in a free society, to question Islam, including the right to explore the ways in which, like any other religion, it is satirised and philosophically subverted. Christians may not like Monty Python’s Life of Brian or Andres Serrano’s notorious 1987 photograph ‘Piss Christ’, but, since the abolition of the blasphemy laws in England and Wales in 2008, they have no legal right to prohibit such material. (For completists: in Scotland, the blasphemy law remains on the books but is considered legally redundant; while the common law offence still technically applies in Northern Ireland, but has never been used in a prosecution.)

In a pluralist society, the urge to compromise is often the right one: to find an acceptable path between what philosophers call “incommensurable values”. But not always.

Liberal democracy is scarcely perfect and has been subject to immense stress and strain in recent years. But, for all its flaws and vulnerabilities, it is still the best form of political and social organisation so far devised by humanity. You get to do pretty much what you like, as long as you pay your taxes, obey the law and respect the liberties of others.

What you don’t get to do is cherry-pick from this (comparatively short) list of obligations, or to set up your own little neighbourhood theocracies. That’s not an option – or shouldn’t be. The risk of the nervous, ambiguous and sometimes craven response to the Batley Grammar School case is precisely that this option appears to be very much available to those who feel sufficiently offended to deserve special treatment.

Most wretched of all is the unspoken hope of so many that the problem will just go away; that they will not be forced to think through the dilemma to a robust conclusion. But if we reduce political and social decision-making to a battle between offended sensibilities, we invite only relativism and anarchy. And in such a battle, let it be noted, it will always be – by definition – minorities that lose out in the end.

The worst kind of liberalism is the lazy variety that seeks the line of least resistance, that tires easily, that submits to boredom or performative guilt. There has been far too much of that in the past week. The lesson of the Batley row is that, however hard we try, it is not always possible, or right, to split the difference.