This essay, on the meaning of a plural society in the context of the furore surrounding Batley Grammar School, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on the lessons of the Shrewsbury 24.) It was published on 28 March 2021, under the headline “To live in a diverse society means to live with debate. Bring it on”.
No one has a right not to be offended. All of us have a duty to challenge bigotry. These two claims are not just compatible, they are often interconnected. Today, though, many view these as conflicting perspectives. To give offence to other cultures or faiths, they argue, is to foment racism; to challenge racism, one should refrain from giving offence.
It’s a belief at the heart of the controversy engulfing Batley Grammar School. The facts are still unclear. A teacher apparently showed an image of the Prophet Muhammad in a religious education class. Some parents have demanded the teacher be sacked, holding protests outside the school. The school has apologised and suspended the teacher involved. At the heart of the affair, the former Tory cabinet minister Sayeeda Warsi insists, is the issue of “child safeguarding”, of protecting children from racist bullying.
It is inevitable in plural societies that we offend the sensibilities of others. Where different beliefs are deeply held, disagreement is unavoidable. Almost by definition, that’s what it means to live in a plural society. If we cherish diversity, we should establish ways of having such debates and conversations in a civil manner, not try to suppress them. A structured discussion in a classroom, properly done, seems an ideal approach.
It is inevitable, too, that in pursuing social change, we often offend deeply held sensibilities. Many groups struggling for justice and equality – women, gays, non-believers – within religious communities cannot but be blasphemous. In this context, to accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged. Fighting for social justice, in other words, often requires us to offend others. The boundaries of speech are different in a classroom than in the world outside. Here, a teacher is dealing with minors, building a relationship of trust with them, encouraging them to think, and to think about issues that they may not have thought about or may not have wanted to think about.
But here, too, there is nothing wrong in discussing material that may offend or be deemed blasphemous. Some commentators, including Warsi, claim that pupils were shown a Charlie Hebdo cartoon depicting Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. The problem, they say, is not blasphemy but racism.
Whether this claim is true is unclear. Given that, in Paris, Samuel Paty, a teacher, was beheaded after a schoolgirl’s false claim, we should be wary of jumping to conclusions before knowing all the facts. Even if the story is true as reported, however, it does not imply that the teacher was misguided. Nor does it show that the class discussion was a cause of racism or bullying.
One can play a clip of a Bernard Manning joke, show an antisemitic cartoon or discuss a Charlie Hebdo cover in ways that heighten racist prejudices. One can also do each of these things in ways that allow students to think more deeply about the issue at hand and reduce racial or religious tensions. What matters is the manner and context in which the subject is approached. To simply insist that showing offensive material in the classroom is to exacerbate racism is a disingenuous means of manipulating “safeguarding” to limit what can be discussed.
One of the ironies of such controversies is that they serve to silence many Muslim voices and traditions. Virtually every press report on the Batley school controversy has claimed that there is an Islamic prohibition on the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, as, indeed, does the “agreed syllabus for religious education” in West Yorkshire.
This is historically illiterate. There have been many Islamic traditions, particularly in Persia, Turkey and India, open to depicting Muhammad. Only in the 17th century did attitudes shift, particularly among Sunnis. In recent decades, reactionaries, both Sunni and Shia, have seized on prohibition as a means of strengthening their control over Muslim communities. To claim that “Islam prohibits depictions of Muhammad” is to take the most conservative views and present them as representative of Islam.
When we say that we live in a diverse society, we mean that it’s a messy world out there, full of disagreement and debate. That is something we should welcome, not fear, for it is such disagreement and debate that allow us to break out of our culture-bound boxes, to engage in a wider dialogue that can help forge a more universal language of citizenship. The question we should ask ourselves is not how to minimise such debates, but how to create ways of engaging in them more constructively.