Soon after Samuel Paty incident in France, something similar is happening in the UK. A school teacher, in a Religious Education class, decided to show the cartoons of prophet Muhammad. The incident has led to protests from Muslim parents, who mobilized other Muslims, gheraoed the school and are now demanding the dismissal of the teacher. In the wake of these protests, the Batley Grammar School has suspended the teacher, instituted an enquiry and even apologized to Muslim parents. While such Muslim outrage and mobilization led to the murder of Samuel Paty; in this case fortunately it has not come to such a pass. The teacher is currently in hiding and in police protection. But just like in France, Muslims in the UK are accusing schools of deliberate Islamophobia and being insensitive to their religious feelings. The underlying issues therefore, in both France and UK are the same: the Muslim community seems to be arguing from the position of being the victim but at the same time demanding a special and privileged treatment of their religion. In both places, there is a renewed focus about the place of Islam in modern democracies. And there is a wider concern about liberal democracy and how Islamic exceptionalism is in the process of whittling that away.
If the Muslim (or any other) mob gets the power to define what is taught in schools and how teachers should conduct themselves in class, then it is perhaps time to write the epitaph of liberal schooling itself. Muslims have argued against the use of such materials in class. But then, if one is teaching about blasphemy and free speech, one of the most important materials to do so would be the cartoons which have generated so much debate and violence worldwide. And in that sense, the use of such cartoons is legitimate and there is nothing wrong in what the concerned teacher did. Teachers often use challenging materials in lessons to explore ideas and provoke discussion amongst students. The freedom to use certain materials should always be with the teacher and should never be dictated from outside. But then, some Muslims, who might not even know the basics of the craft of teaching, become super charged and think it is within their domain to tell schools and teachers what should be taught and what should be avoided.
If such things cannot be discussed in a classroom, then where else can they be discussed? The boundaries of free speech cannot be circumscribed by the normative demands of a particular religion, in this case the Islamic blasphemy taboo. Moreover, if there is such reverence for one religion, then why should the sensitivities of other religions not be taken into account? And if there is an agreement that religious sensitivities should not be hurt at all, then what happens to the promise of liberal education? Because surely, even teaching evolution and heliocentrism is against the tenets of most religions.
One can certainly argue that the whole issue should have been handled sensitively. Those students who do not want to see such cartoons must be given the option of not being part of such a pedagogical exercise. But it goes without saying that teachers must have the freedom to explore hot button issues and enable students to think critically about them. Not doing so would amount to a religious veto over children’s mind. If this religious veto continues, then centuries of intellectual progress will be negated. There was a time when Christianity had this veto and now it is increasingly looking like Islam is exercising that veto even though it is no where as powerful as the Church once was. Muslims need to think if, in the name of ‘protecting’ their religion, they want their children to become unfit in negotiating the structures of modernity.
Parents can certainly protest about the content of education but then there are appropriate forums to do so. They cannot march on the school and force the school to suspend a teacher, which is what happened in this case. The response of the school in this case has been timid, to say the least. Instead of fronting this as an attack of the freedom of a teacher, it has miserably succumbed to the Islamist mob. Similar incidents have taught us that appeasing the fanatics only emboldens them. The only way to fight such tendencies is to call out this act of religious bullying and confront them. If the primary concern of the school is the feeling of the protestors, then certainly its priorities are misplaced. The real issue should have been the intimidation of the teacher rather than posing super sensitive to fanatical Muslims in order to be politically correct. If the school has withdrawn the lesson altogether, as appears to be the case, then it has already lost the right to be called as a center of learning.
Those who are siding with the protestors in the name of combating Islamophobia and showing sensitiveness towards such Muslims are making a grave error of judgment. Such actions will only fuel a climate of censorship and exceptionalism around Islam which certainly does not do any favour to ordinary Muslims. It is rather patronizing to assume that all Muslims will take offense over the use of cartoons, no matter how insensitive they might be. It is gross to assume that such protestors are the representatives of Muslim community. And playing along any such assumption would only amount to strengthening the unhealthy stereotypes about Muslims. Mollycoddling to such protestors is nothing but trying to appease the most fanatical section within the Muslim community. The incident is perhaps the clearest example of how the school and the left-wing eco-system is privileging orthodox Muslims over the moderate ones.
It is heartening to note that some Muslimshave protested against this caricaturing of their community by the school. They have condemned the protestors who are demanding the sacking of the school teacher and have argued that as Muslims, they have nothing against the particular teacher. The school will do itself and others a favour if it listens to such saner voices within the community.
Arshad Alam is a columnist with NewAgeIslam.com
This article was first published in New Age Islam and may be read here