We need to normalise blasphemy
Posted: Tue, 28th Feb 2023 by Stephen Evans
Stephen Evans argues that the huge overreaction to a Quran being scuffed in Kettlethorpe is symptomatic of the adoption of a new de facto blasphemy code.
Blasphemy laws may have been officially abolished across Britain, but the repeal of archaic legislation to protect God and the Christian religion has been swiftly replaced with new taboos around perceived insults against Islam and its prophet Muhammad.
The latest iteration of Britain's new de facto blasphemy code came last week when four students were suspended from Kettlethorpe High School in Wakefield after a Quran was allegedly 'desecrated'.
From what's been reported it appears a Quran received minor damage after being brought into school as a forfeit by a pupil who lost while playing a Call of Duty videogame with other students.
The pupil in question, according to his mother, has high-functioning autism. The school's head teacher has said there was no malicious intent by those involved.
Nevertheless, the all too familiar pattern of 'community leaders' whipping up tension and peddling misinformation led to a massive overreaction to what should be an internal school disciplinary issue. Inevitably, the children received death threats.
One local councillor, Usman Ali, took to social media to describe the so-called desecration as "serious provocative action which needs to be dealt with urgently by all the authorities, namely, the police, the school and the local authority."
Meetings were hastily arranged, and local Muslims were summoned to the mosque, where the boy's mother was paraded, pleading for forgiveness. West Yorkshire Police were also in attendance. Chief Superintendent Andy Thornton explained that a hate incident had been recorded, but to his credit, added that to call what happened criminal was wrong and that it should be an educational opportunity.
But what are the lessons to learn from this?
The only message likely to be conveyed is that religion, and particularly Islam, must be respected. Or else.
Schools certainly need to teach respect for others (and books) and the importance of civic values such as tolerance, kindness, and peaceful coexistence.
But we also need to communicate the corollary – that free expression and freedom of religion are both necessary to counter intolerance. Freedom to question, criticise, mock and even insult religion is every bit essential as the freedom to practise it.
A series of flashpoint incidents with weak responses (for example, Batley, the demonisation of Louis Smith and The Lady of Heaven cancellations) has created the impression that protecting religious sensibilities is sacrosanct. Pandering to religious outrage has created a new de facto blasphemy code.
This needs to be addressed.
A recent review of the UK's Prevent counter-terrorism programme highlighted the "violence associated with accusations of blasphemy and apostasy" as an area of particular importance in countering extremism.
An improved understanding of blasphemy and its role in the wider threat posed by Islamism was amongst the review's recommendations, accepted by the government. This is encouraging.
We need to make clear that blasphemy codes apply only to those who voluntarily submit themselves to them – and that in a liberal democracy there can be no legal right not to be offended.
The idea that Islam requires special protection gives succour to the Islamists keen to enforce their blasphemy codes with intimidation and violence. It also infantilises Muslims by tacitly acknowledging that blasphemy codes are necessary to protect their sensibilities – and assumes an inability to live in a society that upholds liberal principles.
Human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali once said: "We've had Life of Brian, now we need Life of Muhammad". Her point was about the need to normalise blasphemy and break taboos around Islam, such as depictions of Muhammad. A failure to do so since the Rushdie affair and Charlie Hebdo shootings has led to routine self-censorship, undermining the very principle and purpose of free speech.
Too often the job of standing up to Islamist bullies has been ducked by liberals and delegated to the far-right. This polarises debate and gives free speech the air of an 'issue of the right' – and in doing so weakens support for the right to free expression.
Let's hope that, unlike in Batley, those accused of blasphemy can safely return to school. Any further involvement from the police should be directed solely towards investigating the death threats they've received.
But more broadly we need to inculcate an understanding in all British citizens that life in tolerant, plural societies entails debate, disagreements and having your sensibilities offended from time to time. What a tolerant society can't tolerate is the use of intimidation and violence to shut down whatever offends you.