Colin DruryFri, 26 March 2021, 10:47 pm
Outside Batley Grammar School on Friday morning, the protesters were unequivocal: they would continue demonstrating until the teacher was sacked.
Four days after reports emerged that an RE teacher had shown his class a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad – in an apparently misguided attempt to educate about blasphemy – anger in the West Yorkshire town showed no signs of abating.
Thirty men and teenagers spent the morning outside the school, which is attended by children as young as four, and demanded that the principal apologise (he already has done) and that the teacher concerned be fired (he has been suspended).
“The person [the Prophet Muhammad] who you are attacking here, we hold more dear to us than the air we breathe,” said a 25-year-old, who gave his name only as Tainy. “This is how deep this is to our community.”
- Batley Grammar row: Why are protesters lining up over Prophet Muhammad cartoon?
- Gavin Williamson condemns protest at school where Muhammad cartoon shown in religious studies class
- Jenrick weighs in on Prophet cartoon row: ‘Issues should not be censored’
- Batley cartoon row: School shuts as situation ‘hijacked by extremists on both sides’
“It’s much bigger than a school issue. The content he used should not be used. If you want to teach about blasphemy, you can reference that in your lesson … You can have a conversation; you don’t need to show the picture. You can talk about it without showing it.”
Tainy himself, like many of those protesting, had no direct link to the school – which amid the chaos had been kept shut for the day.
But he said he had been left reeling at hearing that the caricature – thought to be an image from Charlie Hebdo – had been shown to pupils.
“This is not a precedent we are going to allow,” he said. “In this country, you can’t say anything about people who are LGBT or anything anti-Israel, and that’s fine, but Islam is okay? It has to stop.”
What was the action they were calling for? “He should never teach again,” said Tainy’s friend Hash Hash, 20. “Even if they say this was a mistake, how can it be? How could a teacher possibly not know how much hurt this picture has caused? We’ll keep coming here until he is gone.”
The demonstration – which followed similar protests on Thursday – lasted about three hours before most people started leaving for Friday prayers. It was a peaceful, rather mundane affair. With no pupils or teachers in school, those who gathered mainly milled about and chatted. One read a statement to reporters (who at one point probably outnumbered the protesters). “We do not accept that the school has taken this issue seriously given that it’s taken them four days to merely suspend only one of the teachers involved,” it said.
By Friday afternoon, at the Al Hashim Academy, one of Batley’s best-known mosques, the mood felt much the same.
“We would like to see serious action taken,” said the imam, Khabbaab Ahmad. “This is no ordinary matter. It’s a serious issue here. It has caused a lot of hurt.”
Did he believe that protesting outside a place attended by four-year-olds was an appropriate course of action?
“Well, if there were alternative ways of addressing this, that would be nice, but the alternatives are not there. I don’t know what other options they have,” he said. “The demonstration – we do not tell anyone to go there – but whoever is there, they do have their own points and if those points can be addressed [by the school], they wouldn’t be there.”
Such flare-ups could be avoided in future, he suggested, by allowing parents – “and the community” – to have a greater input in the curriculum in the first place.
Officials at the school – which was founded in 1612 and has about 850 pupils aged between 4 and 16 – will be hoping that the Easter break acts as a cooling-off period.
In a statement, the school’s headteacher, Gary Kibble, promised a full investigation. “The school unequivocally apologises for using a totally inappropriate image in a recent religious studies lesson,” he said. “It should not have been used. A member of staff has also relayed their most sincere apologies.”
His words and actions were supported by the local MP, Tracy Brabin, who said that “no teacher should be facing intimidation or threats” and that the focus should now be on the “welfare and education of the children at this school”.
She added: “Those who seek to fan the flames of this incident will only provoke hate and division in our community.”
Meanwhile, on Friday afternoon a petition appeared on the Change.org website, purporting to have been created by a student and requesting that the teacher remain.
“He had the intent to educate,” the post states. “He does not deserve such large repercussions. He is not racist and did not support the Islamiphobic [sic] cartoons in any manner. This has got out of hand.”
By 9pm on Friday it was approaching 25,000 signatures.
Yet any hopes that such arguments might persuade or placate the protesters appear forlorn.
“This [showing the image] isn’t a mistake,” said Binyamin Abbas, a 37-year-old father-of-three who has two teenage children at the school. “He’s a religious teacher. He knows what’s wrong and right. He should not teach again. We need an inquiry: why what has happened has been allowed to happen. We will keep protesting until that happens.”
As a parent, was he himself not worried by the disruption to education that picketing the place would cause?
“Of course,” he replied. “But we send our children to school to learn and become good citizens. Being taught this extremism is the true disruption here.”