Muhammad cartoon row school launches independent probe into RSE lessons

File image of protests outside Batley Grammar School over a teacher's use of caricatures of Prophet Muhammad.

The trust in charge of Batley Grammar School has announced an independent investigation of its curriculum after its teacher’s use of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in class sparked a fierce backlash.

The West Yorkshire trust said the probe would help it “learn the lessons” by examining the “context” in which the cartoons were used,  and making recommendations about its religious studies curriculum.

It comes as a petition demanding the teacher’s reinstatement secured more than 66,000 signatures, after he was suspended and the school and teacher apologised over the incident.

He is reported to have shown students controversial images from the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in class, prompting protests outside the school gates.

The Batley Multi Academy Trust said in a statement on its website: “We believe the right way forward is for an independent investigation to review the context in which the materials [which caused offence] were used, and to make recommendations in relation to the Religious Studies curriculum so that the appropriate lessons can be learned and action taken, where necessary.”

An independent investigation panel will be appointed over the next fortnight, with the probe set to begin on April 12 and report “towards the end of May.”

“We will continue to support the whole school community as the investigation progresses, including all school staff and students,” it added.

Headteacher Gary Kibble had previously said the school “unequivocally apologises,” calling the images a “totally inappropriate resource” that had been immediately withdrawn.

Gavin Williamson

But ministers including education secretary Gavin Williamson have criticised the protests. It was reported the teacher has been forced into hiding and “fears for his life”.

A Department for Education spokesperson said the protests had been “completely unacceptable,” warning it was “never acceptable to threaten or intimidate teachers.”

The DfE has also defended schools’ right to include “controversial” ideas in the curriculum, balancing it alongside the need to promote respect and tolerance between people of different beliefs.

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  1. Dr KV Crawford

    It goes without saying that the classroom should be a place in which all pupils feel respected, and are confident that they are valued as individual members of the school community. Teachers should facilitate an atmosphere of trust & collaboration in the classroom.

    This is not the same thing as failing to address relevant ideas from fear either of hurting someone’s feelings, or of suffering the fate of Monsieur Paty.

    We do a disservice to Muslim students if we allow them to imagine that Shari’a rules govern secular democracies, or demonstrate that the principles thereof easily collapse under any hint of intimidation.

    All children are to some extent surprised when they realise that others share neither their own parents’ priorities, nor their household’s assumptions about what constitutes proper behaviour. The point of the No Outsiders programme, withdrawn from Birmingham primary schools after similar protests, was to introduce pupils, gently & in an age-appropriate way, to the idea of such variety from the very beginning.

    The rage of a particularly dogmatic segment of the Muslim community is not something that should be appeased by capitulation to its demands. It should be explained that adults are expected to manage their emotions in a constructive way, & that if your feelings are injured by the knowledge that what is precious to you is not so regarded by others, you have to develop resilience. Tolerance has to be mutual.

    But of course this is not about genuinely hurt feelings. It is a gambit by the Wahhabi/Deobandi versions of Sunni Islam to seize the power of veto over the national curriculum. It is simply untrue that all Muslims deplore images of Mohammed, as we see from the beautiful Mughal paintings.

    It is certainly the case that Muslims naturally dislike expressions of ridicule or other forms of disrespect directed at their belief system, as do other religious believers. But Christians proved able to cope with Damian Hirst’s “Piss Christ” without hysteria, & they hear their history and dogmas being scorned on a daily basis. They rightly take the view that their religion is not injured by that, because the relationship between human and divine is individual and direct: it does not need any mediation by the state, & other people’s road to salvation or otherwise is not their business.

    Our secular democracy is a new & fragile thing in human history. For the first time, people were allowed to think beyond the precepts forced upon them by monarchy and Church. Science emerged as soon as ecclesiastical authorities were no longer allowed to punish sceptics or disbelievers. A humanist morality, which places responsibility for ethical conduct squarely on us, began to flourish, re-framing some Christian teachings about compassion and resting on freedom of conscience.

    Democracy is not only an ethical matter but a political one. An important tool in winning free of the dogmas imposed by the traditionally powerful was, and remains, satire. Satire is non-violent. Reading it, or looking at cartoons, is optional. That satire upsets those people who choose to encounter it is, in part, its aim. Swift intended to unsettle people when he suggested that the starving Irish should eat their many babies, because he wished to draw attention to the English lack of responsibility in the matter of the Irish famine. Similarly, a cartoon representing Mohammed with a bomb in his turban draws attention to a current social phenomenon occurring in Europe.

    The cartoon does not reproduce his features. The turban in fact is not worn in Arabia. So the rage is not about the visual identity of the cartoon and the man it signifies: it is about the suggested connection between Islam and violence. That is certainly an issue which should be discussed. It has relevance to social ethics. It entails some exploration of the early years & founding principles of Islam, and also of the colonial history of the Middle East, which has been a constant provocation. Sunni Muslims from the north of England have participated in atrocities such as 7/7, the attempted bombing at Glasgow airport, the Manchester Arena bombing, & the murder of Mr. Shah, the “heretical” Scottish Ahmadi shopkeeper.

    Pupils from the 5th form onwards should have the capacity to consider these things, to debate them, & to recognise their implications. Mutual tolerance has to be the matrix for such arguments, & the distinction between respecting persons and respecting the contents of their belief system has to be firmly established.

    I cannot therefore support the response of the Batley headmaster. I consider it not merely a shameful personal capitulation to bullies, & the betrayal of a staff member, but a profound undoing of an intellectual process 500 years in the making – the very process which has enabled the extension of equal democratic rights to minority communities.