Blasphemy laws old and new
Freedom of speech includes the right to criticise, explain and even mock, insists Eddie Ford
Protests are still continuing outside the Batley grammar school in West Yorkshire, three-quarters of whose pupils are from a minority ethnic background. As readers know, things went wild after a teacher showed one of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons to his pupils, whilst doing a religious education lesson on blasphemy.
Outraged, the local mosque mobilised its supporters, forcing the school to adopt remote learning. Mohammed Hussain of the Batley-based ‘Purpose of Life’ group - a registered charity - declared that the teacher “has insulted two billion Muslims on the planet” and “we cannot stand for that”, sharing the teacher’s name on social media with a letter condemning him. Taking it upon himself to speak for the entire ‘Muslim community’, as so often happens, he went on to state: “We do feel that, if this had been something that offended the LGBT community or something that was anti-Semitic, he would’ve been sacked on the spot.” For Hussain, the teacher’s resignation “should be forthcoming immediately.”
Similar sentiments can be heard from the protestors. One of them was quoted in various media outlets as saying the western world “is at a loss in understanding the reaction” from the Muslim community, as they are “required to stand up when prophet Mohammed is insulted, and when all the prophets are insulted, including all the prophets of the Old Testament, including Jesus” - the British “Muslim community” everywhere needs to review the materials being taught in their children’s schools. Showing images of Mohammed, we are told, should be as unacceptable as using the word ‘nigger’. Just beyond the pale.
Monstrously, the teacher has been suspended pending an “independent investigation” and the school’s head teacher, Gary Kibble, issued a grovelling statement that the school “unequivocally apologises for using a totally inappropriate image in a recent religious studies lesson”. Furthermore, he continued, “we have immediately withdrawn teaching on this part of the course” and “are reviewing how we go forward with the support of all the communities represented in our school”.
However, exposing the myth of a unified “Muslim community” - whether coming from conservative religious opinion or the straightforwardly Islamophobic right wing - students at the school launched a petition to reinstate the teacher, which has been signed by many of the parents and has now gathered more than 60,000 signatures. The petition says the teacher “does not deserve such large repercussions” and should be reinstated straightaway, he is “not racist and did not support the Islamophobic cartoons in any manner” - he was merely “trying to educate students about racism and blasphemy”.
The Tories are using the furore as their opportunity to make a big fuss about the wonders of free speech - which is pure hypocrisy coming from them, of course. Amongst many things, they are actively considering the introduction of authoritarian legislation to ensure that social media platforms are not used to “spread hate”. That is, to criminalise postings that express unpopular or minority viewpoints - such as the sort of ideas that regularly appear in this publication, for instance. Not to mention the draconian Crime Bill that will severely limit the right to protest by imposing “maximum noise limits”, and so on.
Anyway, Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, called for the “deeply unsettling” scenes outside the school to “come to an end” - teachers should be able to “appropriately show images of the prophet”. As for that famous defender of free speech and democracy, Baroness Warsi, a former Conservative Party chairperson - who grew up in a family of Pakistani Muslim immigrants living in West Yorkshire - she claimed that the debate has been hijacked by “extremists on both sides” to fuel a “culture war” at the expense of “kids and their learning”. Does that mean the National Secular Society are “extremists” for calling the protests an “attempt to impose an Islamic blasphemy taboo on a school”? After all, apart from being an accurate description, that could be construed as an attempt to start a “culture war” against those who want to deny free speech and open debate.
The very first thing to say is that this is an extremely serious matter. In October last year Samuel Paty, a school teacher in Paris, was horrifically beheaded after he too showed Charlie Hebdo cartoons during a class about free expression. In that sense, very similar to Batley. It is widely reported that the teacher there, who loved his “fantastic job”, is now in fear for his life - as are his family. He was whisked away from his home on “police advice” after receiving constant death threats. He is unlikely to return to Batley, let alone his job.
Secondly, we should support the immediate reinstatement of the suspended teacher - the lesson was precisely designed, presumably, to elicit critical thinking and philosophical inquiry. In which case, why not show the cartoon? Teachers should be free to show cartoons, pictures or quote texts that are relevant to the subject. After all, how can you conduct a lesson on blasphemy otherwise? Thirdly, Kibble was totally wrong to make his wretched apology - it will only encourage a climate of censorship.
Many of those protesting outside Batley grammar school, and beyond, want the UK to resurrect its blasphemy laws. The common-law offences of “blasphemy” and “blasphemous libel” were formally abolished in England and Wales in 2008 after an amendment was passed to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008.1 And in Scotland the blasphemy law was only formally abolished this month after the new Hate Crime Bill passed its final parliamentary vote. There is now a new offence of “stirring up hatred” on religious grounds, meaning that Scots could be subject to prosecution if their behaviour is deemed “threatening or abusive”.2 As a consequence, the threshold for prosecution for “stirring up hatred” on religious grounds remains lower than in England and Wales - inevitably having a chilling effect on freedom of expression north of the border. This only leaves Northern Ireland, where blasphemy continues to be an offence under the common law, despite an attempt in the House of Lords to abolish it in 2009.
Given the Batley protests, it is worthwhile remembering that the last successful prosecution for blasphemy was brought by the ghastly Mary Whitehouse in 1977 for James Kirkup’s poem, ‘The love that dares to speak its name’ - which was published in the June 3 1976 issue of Gay News.3 This not particularly good poem (at least according to the author) was written from the viewpoint of a Roman centurion taking down the “well hung” body of Jesus from the cross, which was still “anointed with death’s final ejaculation” - fairly graphically describing how Jesus had sex with numerous disciples, guards, Pontius Pilate, etc. The indictment stated that the poem was “a blasphemous libel concerning the Christian religion: namely an obscene poem and illustration vilifying Christ in his life and in his crucifixion”. The jury found both defendants guilty, with Gay News Ltd being fined £1,000 and its editor Denis Lemon fined £500 and sentenced to nine months suspended imprisonment. It had been “touch and go”, said the judge, whether he would actually send Lemon to jail. The last attempted prosecution under the blasphemy laws was in 2007, when the evangelical group, Christian Voice, sought a private prosecution against the BBC over its broadcasting of the show, Jerry Springer: the opera - which includes a scene depicting Jesus, dressed as a baby, professing to be “a bit gay”.
For communists, it would be an outrage to have any further prosecutions and trials - whether motivated by Christian, Muslim or Jewish fundamentalists who want to protect their god and his prophets from historical analysis, disrespect or humour. When an appeal was mounted against the Gay News/Lemon conviction, Lord Scarman opposed it on the significant basis that blasphemy laws should cover all religions and sought strict liability for those who “cause grave offence to the religious feelings of some of their fellow citizens or are such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely to read them”.
In other words, Scarman wanted to extend the principle, or precedent, set up by R v Gathercole (1838), saying the established religion is in “a different situation from the others because it is the form established by law, and is therefore a part of the constitution of the country” - therefore “any general attack on Christianity is the subject of a criminal prosecution” as it is an attack on the constitution. A good reason why the Church of England should be disestablished and, in addition, laws which give special protection to religion should be abolished.
When the Blair government brought in the Religious Hatred Act 2006 it was shamefully supported by many on the left. It was comedians who took the firmest stand. They protested against the real danger of being prosecuted for making ‘offensive’ jokes about religion. Interestingly, the holy books themselves had to be excluded from the legislation: otherwise a preacher might find themselves in the same situation - if you want to justify homophobia, misogyny, anti-Semitism or genocide for that matter, you will find plenty of material in the Old Testament’s Joshua, Deuteronomy and Leviticus, the New Testament’s Matthew and John or the Koran. That would, however, be clearly unacceptable to the establishment, which wants to install in us respect for the authority of religion.
Shamefully, the Socialist Workers Party supported the 2006 legislation, because they saw it only in terms of religious intolerance and racism - ie, something that Muslims are vulnerable to, never mind the broader democratic issues. Now history is dismally repeating itself. Are our SWP comrades militantly backing the Batley teacher as a worker in struggle against his bosses? You must be joking. Appallingly, though quite predictably, we read in Socialist Worker online that “bigots and Islamophobes” want to defend the right of the Batley teacher to show pupils an “offensive image of the Prophet Muhammad” - but “parents are right to be angry” about the “racist cartoon” (my emphasis, March 294).
According to the SWP, there is “a big difference between ridiculing a religion such as the establishment-backed Church of England and mocking the beliefs of the poor and oppressed” - apparently Islam is above analytical criticism, sceptical questioning, let alone biting humour, and can never be the belief of the rich and powerful. Ignorance in the extreme. Religions are almost always cross-class phenomena. The Church of England unites Elizabeth Windsor and Justin Welby with the worthy poor who huddle in church every Sunday. Roman Catholicism is the religion of Francis I, a bloatedly rich bureaucracy, and huge numbers throughout the Americas, Europe and Africa. The same with Islam. Sunni Islam unites the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, the fabulously rich king of Saudi Arabia, with millions throughout the world. The same goes for Shia Islam, the Mormons and Judaism. Vicars, priests, imams and rabbis form a privileged middle class with a material interest in maintaining their hold over their congregations and fuelling hostility to secularism and anything that smacks of criticism.
Pathetically, the Socialist Worker article quotes a statement from its front organisation, Stand Up To Racism: “In educating students we must be clear - insulting the Prophet Mohammed is not freedom of speech: it is racist abuse” (original spelling). That is pure garbage. Does the SWP want to revive and extend blasphemy laws? Does it want those who show a picture of Muhammad to be imprisoned or stoned to death?
You would almost think that the SWP was still in George Galloway’s unpopular front, Respect - desperate to reach out to its right in the direction of the British branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and various religious and business leaders in the “Muslim community”. Once again, the SWP is totally blind to the question of democracy - all that matters is trying to gain some fleeting sympathy and bolstering its liberal anti-racist credentials. The ultimate vacuity of ‘street politics’.
Unlike the SWP, we in the CPGB want the freedom to criticise all religion. At a constitutional level we want secularism, meaning equality of religion and non-religion - the equal right to preach religion and criticise religion. Communists recognise the necessity to side with those who face religious persecution or discrimination; eg, Catholics in Ulster Unionist-dominated Northern Ireland, Jews resisting Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts and Muslims under attack by the English Defence League.
We do not want to unnecessarily offend religious people like modern-day zealots from the League of Militant Godless.5 Rather, we want to be freely able to use Marxism to investigate the truths and untruths of religion. Religion is profoundly human - bearing all the characteristics and contradictions of class society. In that sense, as Marx argued, religion is an encyclopaedia of humanity’s complex history.