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Paul Vallely: School cartoon dispute is not simple  

01 April 2021

Beware fundamentalists on both sides of the row, says Paul Vallely


Protesters speak to the media outside Batley Grammar School, in West Yorkshire, last Friday

Protesters speak to the media outside Batley Grammar School, in West Yorkshire, last Friday

SOME fairly unhelpful things have been said on both sides in the dispute over an RE teacher’s decision to show Year 9 students a controversial cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. More extreme Muslim protesters have named the teacher — who has had to go into hiding with his young family, fearing a repetition of the events in France, in which a teacher was beheaded by an Islamic terrorist for a similar act. In response, free-speech fundamentalists defended the teacher’s right to offend.

The National Secular Society condemned the protest as an “attempt to impose an Islamic blasphemy taboo on a school”. The BBC broadcaster Nicky Campbell spoke of the “lunacy of blasphemy”. The atheist comedian Ricky Gervais asked (expletives deleted): “What next? People being punished for insulting unicorns?” And Theresa May’s former special adviser, Nick Timothy, wrote of “Islamists” who “use the norms, rules and fashions of liberal democracy to attack liberal, democratic principles”.

It is not so simple as that. Many drew comparisons with the original publication of a series of cartoons in the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which kicked off the whole affair in 2015 and led to a murderous terrorist rampage. Satirists have the right to say wilfully offensive things. Even so, free speech is not an absolute. It must be balanced against other rights, and, in a pluralist society, rights must be balanced with responsibilities. Freedom of speech is best exercised with sensitivity.

But, in a school, things are even more complicated. A power relationship is implicit in the interaction between teacher and pupils. Teachers need to be even more acutely aware of responsibilities as well as rights. A child cannot challenge the authority of a teacher on an equal basis.

Of course, questions of blasphemy and offence should be dealt with in class. But it is no more necessary to show an offending cartoon than to show a film of a rape when discussing sexual ethics. As one parent put it, “Our children should be able to attend school without having their faith — which is protected in law — or their culture ridiculed, insulted, or vilified”.

Other factors only add to the insensitivity. Islamophobia is ingrained in British society, and government statistics show an increasing level of bullying of Muslim pupils. Batley is in the very constituency where the MP Jo Cox was murdered by a white supremacist and where tensions over Brexit raised questions over the Britishness of ethnic minorities. Lockdown has only added to the sense of atomisation in a Muslim community deprived of the social solidarity that comes from attending collective worship as regularly as was the norm pre-pandemic.

What is reassuring is the sensitivity with which the school reacted. The head teacher immediately admitted that the cartoon was “a totally inappropriate resource”, and the teacher, who swiftly offered a sincere apology, was temporarily suspended, pending an investigation by the school governors. Muslim community leaders have called for parent protests to be replaced by “constructive dialogue”. Due process is at work. The teacher, I hope, will be allowed to return to his post, a wiser person than before. But a period of silence from fundamentalists on both sides can only assist that reconciliation.

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