The UK’s Charlie Hebdo moment

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The decision to lift the suspension of the Batley Grammar School teacher does not necessarily mean he can safely return to work. As the second half term begins, we do not know if he will return. Whatever happens, he will have to live under constant fear. His possible return is not helped by the wording of the decision, which is a victory for mob rule, intolerance and contains a recommendation that the teacher and the school self-censor and the avoid giving offence in class in the future. The independent inquiry convened by the school found that the teacher and his colleagues did not show the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in a lesson on blasphemy with the ‘intention to cause offence’.  But the school felt it had to make an abject apology, recognising that ‘using the image did cause deep offence to a number of students, parents and members of our school community. The Trust deeply regrets the distress this has caused’. (Executive Summary).

This is not the end of what we could call the UK’s Charlie Hebdo moment as some may hope. What happened at Batley Grammar School is a triumph for those who do not merely shout “That’s offensive!” but physically intimidate students and teachers while making demands for disciplinary action or the sacking of those they believe have caused offence. Mob rule by Islamists and others will be encouraged by this decision and by the cowardice of teachers and teacher unions to stand up for the freedom to teach.

The Charlie Hebdo moment began with a mob 

Thursday 25 March 2021 was the day when the UK began to experience its ‘Charlie Hebdo’ moment. A mob gathered outside Batley Grammar School in Yorkshire to demand the sacking of an RS teacher who had apparently shown students the cartoons of Muhammed that had appeared in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. This was during a lesson on blasphemy. It seems perfectly reasonable to illustrate ‘blasphemy’ with reference to these cartoons that incensed Islamists to slaughter 12 of the writers, editors and cartoonists at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris on 7 January 2015. What is happening in the UK is less violent but equally frightening.

A Muslim Charity calling itself ‘Purpose of Life’ had written to the school head teacher demanding that the RE teacher – who they named – be sacked. It appeared to be behind the protests at the school gates. They were offended that the Prophet Muhammed had been depicted and saw it as blasphemy. They did not care that there is no blasphemy law in Yorkshire (or the UK) and that criticism and satire about any religion is allowed. They did not care about freedom of speech!

The weak head teacher, Gary Kibble, caved in immediately and had a statement read out unreservedly apologising for what had happened. He said that the use of the cartoons was ‘completely inappropriate’ and would not happen again. The teacher was suspended pending an investigation.

If Mr Kibble thought that an abject capitulation to a mob would resolve matters, he was incredibly naïve. The next day another mob of mostly Muslim men, unconnected with the school, turned up outside and vowed to stay there until the teacher was sacked. The consistently weak Mr Kibble closed the school.

There were death threats against the teacher, whose name and address were known. He went into hiding with his family in the early morning of Friday 26 March, possibly under the direction and protection of the police.

This tragic situation resembled the persecution of the French teacher of history and geography, Samuel Paty, who was beheaded by Islamists in October 2020 for allegedly showing his class the Charlie Hebdo cartoons to illustrate his country’s commitment to freedom of speech and expression. The letter from parents and Muslim groups that preceded the murder of Paty has a parallel in the early response to the lesson by the RS teacher. In France, a fatwa was issued condemning Paty. There was no need for a fatwa in Batley. The head teacher had internalised the fatwa in his thinking.

The silence of the teacher unions

As happened in the case of Samuel Paty, the teacher unions were silent.  A teacher was driven into hiding in fear of his life and they said nothing. They could not bring themselves to defend a fellow teacher for fear of being called ‘Islamophobic’. They were as cowardly as the head teacher and a disgrace to the profession and failures to what could be a brilliant moment for free thinking and debate.

The heroes of the moment

The real heroes of the UK’s Charlie Hebdo moment were the Batley Grammar School students. They launched a petition on Change.org to demand their teacher be reinstated. Within hours it had over 10,000 signatures and at the time of writing has over 71,400 signatures.

Putting the teacher unions to shame a union branch of bin-men kicked up a stink about the suspended by putting forward a motion from their trade union branch to  Shamefully, the National Education Union, the largest teacher union, tried to get them to withdraw it.

AFAF, the Free Speech Union, and several individuals, wrote to the head teacher and demanded that the RE teacher be reinstated immediately and allowed to return to work.  They received no response.

The fatwa determines future practice

Not only the head teacher and the teacher unions but the barrister leading the ‘independent’ inquiry have internalised the fatwa. The executive summary of the enquiry states:

“The Trust will not avoid addressing challenging subject matter in its classrooms, but it is committed to ensuring that offence is not caused and that this is always done with care and sensitivity, enabling students to build empathy, mutual respect and understanding” [italics added].

No one has the right not to be offended and if a curriculum is designed to avoid offending anyone then it will be no more than a political tract.

If fear of the mob determines what we are free to teach and silences trade unions, then freedom in education will be under threat from future mobs. It is not good enough to hope the UK’s Charlie Hebdo moment will simply go away.  Cowardly capitulation can only encourage more Islamist, and other, offended mobs.

The Batley and Spen parliamentary by-election is a chance for all candidates to speak up for free speech.  The UK’s Charlie Hebdo moment is far from over.  #JesuisBatleyGSteacher.

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