LAST Friday marked a sorry anniversary on Britain’s road to the eradication of free speech.
On March 25, 2021, a teacher at Batley Grammar School was suspended, and shortly after fled with his wife and young children into hiding, after an angry mob descended upon the school demanding his immediate removal. His offence was to show a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad as part of a discussion on blasphemy in a religious studies class.
This cartoon had been shown before. But this time the reaction was incendiary. The protests broke up only after the teacher’s suspension was announced.
The teacher fled after his picture was posted online by a charity called Purpose of Life. A ‘charity’ which states that ‘We are all one family, irrespective of race, religion, colour, etc. Purpose of Life believes no one has superiority over another, except through piety and good actions’ but which labelled the teacher a terrorist.
The death threats that prompted the teacher to flee came just six months after Samuel Paty was beheaded in the suburbs of Paris showing the same cartoon to his pupils.
The teacher at Batley Grammar remains in hiding today. I was fortunate enough to speak with him personally and listen to him describe what this enormous upheaval had had on his life. It was a harrowing conversation.
One month after the teacher fled, Purpose of Life received a £1,000 donation from the Jo Cox Foundation. The ambassador for the Jo Cox Foundation at that time was none other than the current Labour MP for Batley and Spen, Kim Leadbeater, Ms Cox’s sister.
It is worth noting that Miss Leadbeater has said publicly that she has been in regular contact with the teacher, which she recently reaffirmed, and has stated that it was ‘completely unacceptable’ that the teacher is still in hiding. She also claims that he has said to her that he does not want his personal circumstances to be a matter for public debate.
Paul Halloran (Independent candidate for Batley and Spen) and close friend of the teacher, however, disputes this fact, saying that no such contact has been made. Furthermore Paul says that the teacher has urged him to keep raising the teacher’s case in the public eye.
These two accounts seem to be completely at odds.
Where were the police and where were the politicians when the teacher needed defending?
Last summer, the Reclaim Party went to Batley to hold a free speech rally in the square. Hundreds attended. Notable absentees were both the Labour MP and the Conservative candidate. George Galloway spoke passionately about free speech and I did the same.
The Conservative went on to lose to the Labour candidate by fewer votes than the good people of Batley who attended our rally. Despite that, it seems neither party has the courage to defend free speech, or are too intimidated to do so.
This is not how things should be in our secular liberal democracy, where individuals are free to practise any religion or none. Where the separation between church and state used to be distinct. Where the rule of law is applied equally to all. Where we celebrate individuality through the hard fought-for crucial right to freedom of speech. The right to challenge ideas and each other as equals.
We do not live in a theocracy. The actions of the mob that day and the death threats that ensued essentially have put Batley Grammar school, and God knows how many others, under a new blasphemy law.
I grew up in a Christian family. I was often mocked by mates at school for coming from a family of ‘bible bashing weirdos’ and other less printable things.
To this day if one of my boys shouts ‘Jesus Christ!’ after missing a goal in the park, or stubbing their toe in the house, if my Dad is around he will say not to take the Lord’s name in vain, so I understand how deeply some traditional religious values are held by different generations.
I can see how more traditional Muslims find the cartoon of their prophet deeply disrespectful. I respect their views, but the issue here is the law. We do not have a blasphemy law in this country, and should one be considered (which I sincerely hope it won’t), it should be debated and legislated for in parliament, not enforced by a baying mob on the street.
The protection of free speech has become even more important as public debate moves online and the arbiters of what is and isn’t acceptable to say become more and more remote.
A year ago it was a cartoon that could cost you your career or your life. Today it is affirming the existence of women and upholding bodily autonomy.
If we don’t push back against those who try to censor us, the world our children will inherit will not be one any of us would recognise or want to live in.