Context is everything – at least in this case. Reports don’t name the teacher in a West Yorkshire school who showed pupils a picture of Mohammed. Nor do they confirm what it showed: parents claim that it was one of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.
What we do know is that Gary Kibble, the head teacher at Batley Grammar School, has suspended the teacher, pending an investigation, and apologised for “using a totally inappropriate resource in a recent lesson.” He added that “the member of staff has also given their most sincere apologies”.
Meanwhile, Purpose of Life, a local charity, identified the teacher on social media – as did a post announcing a protest outside the school, which duly took place. Then Gavin Williamson then pitched in.
“It is never acceptable to threaten or intimidate teachers. We encourage dialogue between parents and schools when issues emerge. However, the nature of protest we have seen, including issuing threats and in violation of coronavirus restrictions, is completely unacceptable and must be brought to an end,” a spokesman for his department said.
Three points emerge. First, it’s impossible to make a judgement about what the teacher did without knowing what it was. There are pictures of Mohammed in Islamic art, showing the whole body and face, especially from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. The trend against showing any portrayal of him at all runs strongly from this period.
It would not be right for a teacher to simply wave a Charlie Hebdo cartoon about in a classroom during a religious studies lesson to demonstrate his right to free speech, any more than it would be for a footballer to do the same during a professional league match. The teacher is there to teach, the footballer to play: that’s their function.
It might be in order for that teacher to show it during a session about citizenship: again, one would need to know the context. He would, though, have to be using it in order to teach rather than simply sound off, any more or less than he should do so about climate change or food banks or what he thinks of Boris Johnson.
Second, Gavin Williamson will be accused of choosing to “amplify divisions” (indeed, he already has been) – not to mention of seeking to strengthen his imperilled position in post by pitching in. Both are ways of distracting attention from the real point: namely, what he actually said.
The Education Secretary was absolutely right to condemn disorder and threats. Naming the teacher was, at best, unknowingly to put him potentially at risk and, at worst, knowingly to do so, which would be a form of incitement. The police should be taking an interest.
Finally, what has really changed in over 30 years – since copies of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses were burned by protesting Muslims in the same part of England, West Yorkshire? After the long list of events that saw politics and culture mix: 9/11, the Danish cartoons, the Iraq war, the Charlie Hebdo murders, 7/7, the killing of Samuel Party?
It could be that protests from organisations claiming to represent British Muslims are more muted, and that politicians are more willing to speak out against intimidation – as Sajid Javid has done in this case, pointing out that “in this country we are free to peacefully follow, preach or query any religion or none”.
It may also be that we are all more inclined to try to sweep controversies tidily away under the carpet. We’re looking at the Guardian‘s front page online as we write this article. As of this moment, we can see no report about the incident up on that page at all.
But after all those years of cohesion projects, integration strategies and anti-extremism initiatives – all consuming a mass of Ministerial time, taxpayers’ money and local work – the evidence suggests that two worldviews run on in Britain and elsewhere like the lines in the Marvell poem which “though infinite, do never meet”.
One is secular and modern, the other religious and pre-modern – in the sense that it exalts matters of faith above free speech and academic enquiry. Between the two is a struggle for the future of Islam of which what happens here is only a small part.
At any rate, one conclusion about the nature of the problem that confronts us is inescapable, a generation on from The Satanic Verses.
Foreign policy can sharpen or dull the clash between these two worldviews. So can the emergence of a person or cause prepared to impose that pre-modern vision through terror – an Osama Bin Laden or an Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Al Qaeda or an ISIS.
But it is not the driver of the problems that confront us. “We can’t use the expression, freedom of speech, to offend people,” Mohammad Sajad Hussain, the founder of Purpose of Life, said yesterday. Here is the heart of the matter. If speech can’t offend, then it isn’t free. And without free speech under the law there is no free people.