Stuart Archer was my favourite teacher at Batley Grammar School. A socialist of the most open-minded kind, he introduced me to EP Thompson, Edmund Burke and debating big ideas. I thought about him a lot when a more recent teacher there had to go into hiding to avoid the wrath of a religious mob. I thought about him even more this week with the massively dispiriting showtrial of the Wakefield Quran scuffer, and the utterly supine, pathetic display by local police, education authority and councillors.
The people who taught me history at university were just as inspiring and they too were mostly of the left. Back then, with Life of Brian in the art cinema and with women and gay people marching for their rights, standing up against reactionary and superstitious forces was very much what being on the left was all about. But where today are our liberal columnists or Labour politicians as four children are receiving death threats for causing slight damage to a copy of the Quran?
To briefly recap, the boys were suspended from Kettlethorpe High School after the book was dropped on the floor during a prank. Police were called and recorded a ‘non-crime hate incident’, while one local councillor claimed the book had been ‘desecrated’. The mother of one of the 14-year-olds, who is autistic, made a tearful apology video which has been shared many times on social media.
These unfortunate people are the latest victims of a particularly judgmental and unforgiving strand of honour-based Islam that’s already wiped out much of what was left of pluralism in its home of Pakistan. Last year the same kind of people who hounded the teacher from my old school managed to intimidate cinema chains trying to show a movie they didn’t like. In France a man lost his head for doing exactly what the Batley Grammar School teacher is accused of.
This is deadly serious and needs a response from government and opposition. Throwing around accusation of ‘blasphemy’, which carries the death sentence in some Islamic cultures, could and I think should be classed as incitement. In the meantime, in a properly functioning and self-confident democracy we’d see Kemi Badenoch, Minister for Equalities, and her Labour shadow Anneliese Dodds, on a train to Wakefield tomorrow. Speaking together they would say that whatever their political differences there are core principles underpinning modern British life that cannot and will not be set aside. And one of them has been breached in this case.
Because if something like this doesn’t happen soon then everyone will simply accept that if you get into trouble of this kind you’ll get no support from the agencies of the state, and you’ll have to either hide away with your family or else grovel in front of the TV cameras while the police look on and nod. Which partly explains another depressing story of the week – the report into why the Manchester Area attackers were not stopped. We’ve already heard from security guards and passers by. We know that it was fear of being seen as ‘intolerant’ and the real risk of getting into serious trouble that prevented them acting on the voices in their heads screaming ‘There is something very badly wrong with this man wandering around outside a pop concert, mumbling prayers and carrying a large backpack!’
And what caused this fear and this paralysis? To a very large degree it is supposed ‘hate incidents’ such as Wakefield and Batley Grammar School and the authorities’ refusal to draw a line.
Akef Akbar, Labour councillor for Wakefield East, whose party grew out of a long struggle against reactionary nonsense, said this of the mother of the student responsible for the Quran ‘hate crime’:
‘She understands the situation and has advised the police that she does not want any of these children [who sent threats to her son] to be prosecuted, and she only asks that her son is not harmed… He’s absolutely petrified’.
He’s not the only one. We all should be.
While individual British Muslims deserve all the protections possible against bigotry, abuse or discrimination, we have to assert that ideas themselves – and especially religious ideas – can have no special status in a free and open society. People have rights. Ideas do not. And the law must punish those who cross that line.
My own road from Batley led me to several long lunches with Christopher Hitchens and it’s worth remembering what he used to say during the Rushdie affair. If the left refuses to defend core liberal principles such as free speech or women’s rights then a) they will begin to atrophy and b) they will become the possession of the right, and perhaps the far-right. And let’s also remember what Rushdie himself said after the Charlie Hedbo attacks:
‘Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion.’ Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.’
The man who taught me about ideas, debate and freedom back in Batley, Mr Archer himself, could not have said it better.
So blaspheme like your life depends upon it. Because I think it might.
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