There is a certain type of person, who believes so fervently in their god(s) and their ideologies, that they perceive any criticism, any mocking of their faith, to be an act of extreme provocation. They maintain that their codes of behaviour are quite literally beyond reproach. They exist all across the world, and are not exclusive to any religion, race, or nationality. Fortunately, Britain, with its (relative) separation of church and state, mostly peaceful politics, and cultural scepticism of fundamentalist dogma, is not home to very many of these folk. Our society is better for it.
That said, events at Batley Grammar School in West Yorkshire over recent weeks have highlighted the fact that religious absolutism is not without its British evangelists. After it emerged that a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad taken from the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo had been shown to pupils by a teacher during a religious studies lesson on blasphemy, the school found itself picketed by outraged Muslim parents and local imams. Within the day, an apology had been forced from the headmaster, and the teacher who had shown the cartoon was suspended (though many protestors insisted that only his sacking would suffice). Within 48 hours, the school had decided to return to online learning, and the suspended teacher was under police protection, reportedly fearing for his life.
All of the available evidence suggests that the teacher intended the cartoon to be a starting point for a discussion about why it is that some faiths perceive certain acts to be blasphemous. As far as we know, he did so respectfully, and with no intention of causing offence. His aim was to encourage his pupils to think independently about a controversial topic; a crucial life skill, and a laudable teaching goal.
But the protesting parents gave the distinct impression that they do not want their children to think critically about religion. They do not want their faith to go the way of Christianity in Britain, where regular worshippers are now in a small minority.
For daring to encourage independent thought, and showing a cartoon of the Prophet, the protestors have demanded that the teacher be the subject of a criminal prosecution and lose his job.
The protestors described the teacher variously as ‘sadistic’, a ‘terrorist’ and Islamophobic. The Times even reported that one imam, Adil Shahzad, told the press that if the Muslim community was not given more respect, then ‘we are not responsible for the actions of some individuals’. An oblique threat if ever I heard one.
No wonder the teacher is terrified. He has good reason to be. In October of last year a French school teacher called Samuel Paty dared to show a cartoon of the Prophet in his classroom. He was subsequently beheaded with a meat cleaver outside his Paris school by a Chechen Islamist.
Those Muslims who picketed the school seem to believe that no one has the right to criticise their faith, or even cause offence. Mohammed Sajad Hussein told the press: ‘We can’t use (…) freedom of speech to offend people’.
This is the crucial misapprehension of the protestors. In fact, freedom of speech can only exist if we are able to accept the risk of offence that inevitably accompanies the discussion of controversial subjects. To only permit speech which did not cause offence, would be to silence all serious discussion. And that, of course, is the aim of the protestors. They would like to make certain ideas and figures unchallengeable. No one should have the right to do this for any set of beliefs.
As Keenan Malik eloquently put it in The Guardian: ‘To accept that certain things cannot be said would be to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged’.
If undermining freedom of speech directly fails, then the protestors hope to achieve the same silencing effect by baselessly accusing anyone who opposes them of Islamophobia.
The accusation conflates legitimate criticism of a belief system with racism. We can criticise Islam, as we can Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism or any other faith, and not be racist. The protestors would have you believe that this is impossible: That to critique the faith is to somehow defame people of Middle-Eastern and South Asian heritage. This is a dangerous lie.
Our society is built upon unfettered public discourse. The government observes a policy of secularism, and does not act as the state-enforcer for the national religion. Freedom of religion is, and, should be a sacred right in the UK. You should be able to believe what you want. But that freedom of worship does not bestow a right to dictate what can be said, drawn, or indeed taught in schools.
Of course, the freedom to ridicule granted by free expression should swing both ways. I’ve often wondered if the reaction from the protestors would have been quite as vociferous if the teacher had simultaneously shown some of the Charlie Hebdo magazine covers mocking other faiths. A particularly memorable one shows the father, son and holy-ghost engaged in a three-way sexual encounter.
Our attention though, should be with the plight of the suspended teacher. Thrown under the bus by his boss, he has received no support from the teaching unions. He has committed no crime, but has been shunned by those whose job it is to stand up for him. Those who have been cowed into silence by a group of religious hardliners (whom I doubt very much represent the views of the wider Muslim community) should be ashamed.
A few days after his suspension, the father of the teacher updated the press on his son’s state of mind:
“My son keeps breaking down crying and says that it’s all over for him. He is worried that he and his family are all going to be killed. He knows that he’s not going to be able to return to work or live in Batley. It’s just going to be too dangerous for him and his family. Look what happened to the teacher in France who was killed for doing the same thing. Eventually they will get my son and he knows this. His whole world has been turned upside down. He’s devastated and crushed. When he starts speaking, he just breaks down and cries. He’s become an emotional wreck. He feels that everything is broken and, to be honest, it’s hard to console him at the moment.”
No one deserves to live in fear for doing their job. And no religion deserves freedom from criticism. A secular, tolerant, open society rests on its citizens being able to question, and yes, even ridicule the institutions around them.
When it comes to opposing the kind of self-righteous individuals who believe that a cartoon can be equated to an act of terrorism, ridicule is often the most effective tool available. Never, ever, let yourself be told that any flag, faith or figure is too sacred to be mocked. No such icon exists.