By Khaled Diab
Using offensive images of Muhammad in the context of a lesson on blasphemy is entirely justifiable pedagogically, intellectually and morally. Conservative Muslims protesting against it are attempting to shut down free inquiry and undermining pluralism.
Wednesday 21 April 2021
A crowd numbering some 50 or so protesters demonstrated repeatedly outside Batley grammar school in West Yorkshire after a teacher, in late March, used images of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in a religious studies class reportedly on blasphemy.
The anger and protests continued despite the immediate and unequivocal apology offered by the school's headteacher and the teacher in question, the temporary suspension of the teacher and the launching of an independent inquiry into the incident.
But was this action and reaction justified?
In my view, using offensive images of Muhammad in the context of a lesson on blasphemy is entirely justifiable pedagogically, intellectually and morally. It falls under a school's remit to encourage and awaken free inquiry and freedom of thought in young minds.
Had the teacher been using the images to mock or belittle his Muslim students or to incite hatred against them, that would be an entirely different matter. But I have seen no evidence that that was the case, and the burden of proof here falls on the accusers.
All the outrage being expressed by some parents and outspoken members of the local Muslim community revolves not around how the teacher used the depiction(s) of Muhammad but that he used them at all.
However, in a pluralistic society founded on the principle, if not always the practice, of free speech and free thought, conservative Muslims have every right to feel and express offence when their most intimate beliefs are lampooned. However, they have no right to censor how the rest of society relates to their prophet. What is sacred for Muslims is not (necessarily) sacred for non-Muslims… or other Muslims, for that matter.
Even the Quran recognises this principle when it clearly states in al-Kafirun (The Disbelievers):
Say, “O disbelievers,
I do not worship what you worship.
Nor are you worshippers of what I worship.
Nor will I be a worshipper of what you worship.
Nor will you be worshippers of what I worship.
For you is your religion, and for me is my religion.”
What outraged Muslim conservatives in Europe conveniently ignore and don't tell us when equating mockery of Muhammad with automatic Islamophobia is that the Islamic prophet has been satirised, mocked and even rejected by rationalists in Muslim societies ever since the dawn of Islam.
This gob-smacking level of hypocrisy was on full display during the Salman Rushdie affair in the late 1980s, when, in the words of novelist Hanif Kureishi, “people were reading aubergines and burning books”.
In hindsight, the blazing fury against the Satanic Verses, which drove Rushdie into hiding, seems almost inevitable. In reality, it took months of concerted incitement by a handful of British Muslim extremists to dislodge Rushdie from his pedestal as a hero to Britain's Muslim minority and to post-colonial Muslims across the word and transform him into a villain.
Similarly, the Danish Jyllands-Posten affair, the ground zero of the Muhammad cartoons controversies, sparked very little controversy when the cartoons were first published – though interestingly the newspaper had earlier refused to publish cartoons lampooning Jesus. It took months of dedicated lobbying and incitement by some Danish imams before any semblance of outrage erupted in Muslim-majority countries.
The self-appointed defenders of Muhammad's honour here, and in the case of the later Charlie Hebdo cartoons, may not have committed any crimes themselves but they created an atmosphere of intolerance that has been exploited by violent Islamists to radicalise the impressionable and vulnerable to commit terrorist atrocities.
The dozens of demonstrators who repeatedly protested outside Batley school cannot be ignorant of this context. This is especially so in light of the beheading just last year of French schoolteacher Samuel Paty, who was also teaching his class about blasphemy and had used Muhammad cartoons in his civics class the year before without incident. Paty's murder followed a campaign of online incitement and falsehood about the teacher.
Given this explosive context which could easily incite violent extremists in search of blood and retribution, one wonders what the protesters hoped to achieve by pitching themselves outside the school, especially since the school apologised immediately and even suspended the poor teacher.
This is not to deny them their right to protest but to question the wisdom of these protests. There are plenty of mechanisms for parents and the community to raise their concerns without this high-publicity grandstanding. Or was extramural intimidation the whole point?
If that is the chilling intent, it is working. The teacher, who is reportedly a nervous wreck, has gone into hiding, out of fear for his life and that of his family.
Of course, it is not only conservative Muslims and Islamist extremists who are guilty of intolerance, incitement, hypocrisy and double-standards. The same applies to conservative Christians and far-right extremists.
The long years of irrational and inaccurate right-wing demonisation of Muslims and Islam has led to growing marginalisation in many parts of Europe and has radicalised an increasingly violent strain of far-right extremism and terrorism, including such terrorists as Anders Breivik and Brenton Tarrant.
Worryingly, this bigoted discourse has been going increasingly mainstream as centrist politicians attempt to steal the far-right's thunder by borrowing their Islamophobia, such as has been occurring in Denmark and France. This latest incident is bound to be capitalised on by white supremacists. After all, Batley already has a major problem with far-right extremism, as demonstrated by the brutal murder of MP Jo Cox.
It is imperative upon all of us to resist these attempts to radicalise society and pull it to the extremes. And school strikes me as a powerful starting point both for promoting multiculturalism but also for embarking on the difficult conversations about the meaning of pluralism, tolerance, freedom of belief, free thought and free inquiry. That includes the right of teachers to teach blasphemy and the right of pupils to blaspheme, if they so wish.
This article was first published by The New Arab on 6 April 2021.