Brendan O’Neill

Batley Grammar’s shameful capitulation

Batley Grammar’s shameful capitulation
A crowd gathers outside Batley Grammar (Getty images)
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The capitulation of Batley Grammar School has been a truly dispiriting sight. In response to protests by angry Muslims it has suspended a teacher for the supposed offence of showing a caricature of Muhammad to his pupils. This is an extraordinary act of moral cowardice. Batley Grammar has buckled to religious extremists, cravenly begging for forgiveness for something that ought to be perfectly acceptable in an institution of learning — encouraging young people to engage with and discuss controversial issues.

Everything about the Batley Grammar controversy stinks. It began when a teacher at the prestigious West Yorkshire school, as part of a religious education class, showed his pupils an image of Muhammad. Some Muslim groups that caught wind of this fact started stomping their feet. Mohammad Sajad Hussain of the Islamic charity Purpose Of Life said Muslims will feel ‘deeply hurt’ by the teacher’s behaviour and demanded that he be ‘permanently removed’. At 7.30am yesterday morning a group of mostly young men gathered at the school demanding that the teacher be sacked for the allegedly awful sin of displaying an image of the Prophet.

What happened next was staggering, even by the standards of today’s yellow-bellied culture of self-censorship. Batley Grammar’s headmaster, Gary Kibble, suspended the teacher — pending an investigation — and issued a ‘sincere’ and ‘unequivocal’ apology for the ‘totally inappropriate’ display of the Muhammad image. The school also put on hold the part of the religious-studies course in which the Muhammad incident occurred. And it is being reported this morning that the school has switched to remote learning, telling teachers and kids to stay home.

Forget the religious-studies teacher, who was only doing his job by encouraging his kids to confront all sorts of issues head-on. The true scandal here is the behaviour of the school. It has surrendered to religious intolerance. What next — Mr Kibble standing outside the school gates and flagellating himself for the blasphemous transgression of allowing an image of Muhammad to appear in one of his classrooms?

Bizarrely — but also predictably — the school has been cheered on by so-called progressives. Tracey Brabin, the Labour MP for Batley, says she is glad the school has recognised ‘the upset and offence’ it has caused and has now ‘apologised for the offence caused’. Well done for repenting — that’s effectively what Brabin is saying.

So is it Labour policy to support the suspension of teachers who hold open, frank discussions about Islam? Does Labour support the punishment of public servants who are accused of engaging in blasphemy? We should be told. Many Labour voters in Yorkshire and elsewhere will be keen to know if Labour now backs the public shaming of people who are accused of holding blasphemous thoughts against Islam.

That’s surely the central point in all of this: Britain is not an Islamic country. We do not live under Sharia law. It might be a punishable offence in Islamic nations to make or display an image of Muhammad, but it isn’t here. So what is going on? Why has a teacher been suspended and a school reportedly closed over something that is perfectly legal and perfectly acceptable in an educational context: encouraging discussion of religious icons and controversies?

Batley Grammar’s capitulation will inflame religious intolerance. It will embolden those who believe they have the right to bully and silence anyone who ‘disrespects’ Islam. Moral cowardice is the fuel of contemporary censorship. It is the negative energy on which the zealous crusaders for speech-control feast and get fat. Every time a cultural institution, a publisher or a school yields to the demands of the easily offended, the arrogance of modern censorship intensifies and faith in liberty dims further.

The idea of ‘Islamophobia’ plays a central role in contemporary censorship in Britain. Batley Grammar is being accused by some of inflaming Islamophobic sentiments. This is a slippery way of conflating discussion of Islam with racism; of treating critical discussion about a world religion as a species of racial hatred. But of course, as everyone ought to know, it is perfectly possible to criticise Islamic ideas and even to ‘diss’ Muhammad without harbouring a single hateful thought against the Muslim community.

This controversy is more than dispiriting — it is chilling. The teacher has reportedly been given police protection. That isn’t surprising given that, just a few months ago, a schoolteacher in France was beheaded by a radical Islamist for also initiating a classroom discussion about images of Muhammad. In such a climate anyone who is whipping up opposition to the Batley teacher, or engaging in spineless apologetics for those who are, should be utterly ashamed of themselves.

This teacher needs our support. The school has failed to give him its support, so perhaps the Prime Minister will? Boris Johnson, teachers in 21st-century Britain should be free to engage mature pupils in discussions about Islam and Muhammad — correct?