To attack free speech in the name of religion is to harken back to the Middle Ages. Yet we moved away from stoning blasphemers, burning witches, locking up unmarried mothers. We abolished the blasphemy laws. We are a secular society, forged by people who broadly take the view that material reality should drive all aspects of public life.
The shocking events at Batley Grammar School in March this year should alert us to the constant need to defend this principle. A religious education lesson dealing with “blasphemy” triggered angry demonstrations, causing the early closure of the school before the Easter holidays.
Worse, the head teacher immediately apologised for the “offence” caused, and suspended the teacher involved. This craven submission was not enough for a bunch of bigoted protesters, most not connected with the school, who demanded the teacher be sacked.
One so-called community leader described the teacher as a terrorist. Others said he had insulted the whole muslim community. But tellingly, other local mosques refused to have any part in the demonstrations.
Now Batley Multi Academy Trust (BMAT) has published a summary of its investigation into the events there. The report acknowledges that the teacher “genuinely believed that the image [of Muhammad] had an educational purpose and benefit”. With suitable hand-wringing about never using such images again, the report concludes that “the suspensions put in place will now be lifted”.
It appears other teachers were found to have used similar images. Mercifully only one was publicly named, by a so-called charity named “Purpose of Life”, which works in the school. In publicly naming him, they contributed to a toxic, fascistic atmosphere in which the teacher was forced to seek police protection and flee with his family.
Disgracefully, that organisation has received thousands of pounds from the local National Education Union (NEU) branch, which still supports it. Even more disgracefully, the union has been silent, publicly, about the unjustified suspension of one of its members.
And when a trade unionist in Bury, representing refuse collectors, put a motion to his trades council calling for support for the teacher, an NEU official tried to get him to withdraw it on the grounds that it was “unhelpful” to draw attention to the case. The motion was carried.
Many institutions in this country, government, councils, unions, media, seem to be in thrall to threats from religionists who seek to impose their views. BMAT could not have expressed this attitude any more clearly in its report. “The Trust will not avoid challenging subject matter, but at the same time is committed to ensuring that no offence is caused.”
Extremists with a medieval mindset will welcome such developments; especially they will be encouraged by the bigoted assumption that all muslims are fundamentalists. And the narrative that muslims are everywhere victims implies that they cannot face freedom of speech. That’s also a form of bigotry.
The evidence points the other way. For example, the British crime survey showed that nearly two-thirds of British Bangladeshis are worried about the threat of Islamic extremism.
‘Accusations of “islamophobia” have become a tool to allow an insidious fundamentalist agenda to creep into schools.’
Accusations of “islamophobia” have become a tool to allow an insidious fundamentalist agenda to creep into schools, at the expense of children’s education. And more widely they are attacking free speech – the right of people to exchange and challenge ideas.
Fundamentalists and those who bow to them will try to use this situation to divide the working class and attack others who go against their reactionary ways. They insultingly claim to speak on behalf of all muslims and tell them they are not part of the British working class, promoting the myth that the “west” is at war with Islam.
To speak out without fear or favour is fundamental to our freedom of thought. We cannot stand by when it is reduced to pious words.
• This article is an updated and adapted version of the News Analysis piece Free speech has to be defended published on 28 May.