In March 2021, the market town of Batley in West Yorkshire found itself splashed across UK national news headlines. A teacher at the secondary grammar school had, as part of a lesson on free speech, allegedly shown his class a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad. The image was taken from the controversial French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and depicted the Prophet wearing a turban that was hiding a bomb. A Muslim parent complained and the teacher was immediately suspended pending an inquiry. What should have been a matter for the school to investigate and resolve sensitively, became a stage upon which actors of the so-called culture wars of our times played out their drama. Proponents of freedom of expression were in uproar, while hysterical media reporting led to burgeoning anti-blasphemy protests outside the school gate seemingly led by those with no direct connection to the incident. The teacher, warmly described by right-wing tabloids as a ‘rugby-loving, burly, Yorkshire lad’ was said to fear for his life after receiving death threats. With a chill, thoughts turned to the horrific murder of teacher Samuel Paty in France, beheaded after a similar accusation of having shown Charlie Hebdo images to his school pupils. The number of protestors, mostly young Muslim men from outside the area, began to swell. Commentators of all stripes and persuasions derided the group and swiftly conflated them with anyone expressing concern at the teacher’s actions. This ‘mob’ and its tacit cheerleaders were dismissed as ignorant, reactionary, an affront to British values of free speech and tolerance. Hand-wringing at what must be done to counter the likes of such fanatics and their ilk rebounded. After all, weren’t they letting the side down and feeding anti-Muslim sentiment with their emotive and irrational response?
Elsewhere, former chairwoman of the Conservative Party, Baroness Warsi, was tweeting her own response to the blasphemy furore. Having spoken to those involved, she indicated that objection to the use of the cartoons arose because it created ‘a hostile atmosphere and led to Islamophobic discourse and language’. Pupils had been left upset. ‘Islamic bullying in the playground is well-documented and taunts such as “terrorist” are regularly used, leading to issues around mental health and poor educational outcomes’. This resonated. I remember, as a youngster at my predominantly white, grammar school in leafy, middle-class Surrey, sitting through a lesson on immigration. The ugly and unmediated views that were unexpectedly unleashed by classmates I hitherto considered to be my friends left myself and the only other non-white girl in the class in tears. The teacher was unwilling or unable to challenge the racist rhetoric and bigoted attitudes being bandied around, having given little thought to how, after introducing the topic, it should evolve into a constructive discussion.
Warsi’s attempt to contextualise the incident was an exception amidst the barrage of sensationalised column inches and hot takes. The saga was caricatured as yet another battle in the culture wars seemingly sinking holes in today’s world order, as Warsi herself recognised: ‘unfortunately this matter has been hijacked by extremists on both sides, to, kind of, create this culture war.’ That she should evoke this trend whereby incidents are framed as symbolic of a deep cultural schism irrevocably dividing society, is telling. Certainly the media and various political stakeholders have decided that culture wars are an unquestionable plague ravaging the premised cohesion of our communities. Just as extremists are said to have jumped on the respective bandwagons in Batley’s blasphemy quagmire, radicals are blamed for playing a dangerous and intractable game of cultural tug of war with issues and debates, which leave the apparently sensible middle ground floundering. But is it really all that it is made out to be?