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26 March 2021

How a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad has fractured a Yorkshire school

After a teacher was suspended, protesters are now demanding a criminal investigation, while pupils are divided. 

By Freddie Hayward

“This is much bigger than a school,” one of the protesters at Batley Grammar School told me today. “I love my prophet more than I love my mother and father.”  

Around 50 people in Batley, West Yorkshire, continued their protests this morning (26 March) against a religious studies teacher who showed a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad in a class on Monday. Despite the teacher’s suspension by the school pending an investigation, the protesters are now calling for a criminal investigation and some said they want the member of staff arrested. A few of the protesters, many of whom did not have children in the school, said they would continue their protest until the teacher at least lost their job. 

Comparisons with Samuel Paty, the French teacher who was beheaded in October last year after showing his students cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, inevitably come to mind. Paty showed the cartoons in a lesson about freedom of expression, which angered many parents. Following widespread reaction on social media, Paty was allegedly identified by some students before being killed.  

Batley is a deprived area with a white working-class population, some middle-class enclaves and a large Muslim community. The area has a history with extremist ideologies. Dewsbury, a few miles south of Batley, was where the leader of the 7 July 2005 London bombers, Mohammad Sidique Khan, lived. Birstall, a similar distance to the north, was where a far-right extremist, Thomas Mair, murdered the Labour MP Jo Cox.  

In a statement, the Batley protesters said the use of the cartoon was done in a “deliberate, threatening and provocative manner” and that senior members of the Muslim community must be involved in the investigation. They also called on the “entire British Muslim community” to review whether their children were being taught “offensive content or inappropriate relationship and sex education”. 

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“This [showing cartoons of the prophet] has caused casualties and trouble many times around the world before,” another protester, who didn’t want to be named, said. “They knew exactly what they were doing. They knew how offensive it was, and what was going to happen. And basically, this is a lightning flame, and pouring oil on the stove.” 

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“Attacking the prophet is one thing that we cannot stay quiet for. End of story. It is not open for discussion,” one protester said. “There is gonna be a reaction that’s not pleasant. But that’s what happens. You’re not upsetting one person here, you’re upsetting two billion people and two billion people are different. I’m having a civilised conversation with you, somebody else might not.” 

One Year 10 student at the school told me they had taken the same class last year, where the cartoon was also shown. They said that the teacher warned students before presenting the cartoon and then led a debate about freedom of speech and engaging with views one may find offensive. Some of their friends were at the protests, while others supported the teacher.  

The protesters believe that showing the cartoon was not necessary for a debate over freedom of expression. But this reflects a deeper belief that certain religious topics are off-limits.  

One community figure said: “What we say is nobody, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, under the false pretence of freedom of speech, has any right to insult religious personalities [such as the Prophet Muhammad or Jesus] of any religion.” 

When I asked one local outside a supermarket what he thought, he replied, “I hope it doesn’t end up like France.”