Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 30 March 2024


 Muhammad cartoon row teacher ‘abandoned’ and still in hiding

Three years after mass protests, wounds are yet to heal, write Charlotte Wace, Mario Ledwith and Ian Leonard
Scenes at Batley Grammar School in West Yorkshire were highlighted in a report warning about the dangers of harassment

For three years little has been known about the life and wellbeing of a religious studies teacher who has been in hiding since showing pupils at a West Yorkshire school a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad — even after he was cleared of wrongdoing by an external investigation.

But this week the devastating impact of the events at Batley Grammar School in March 2021 was laid bare in a report by a government adviser.

Over several meetings with Dame Sara Khan, the independent social cohesion adviser, the teacher described how he had felt abandoned by the school, which is part of the Batley Multi Academy Trust, and by other local authorities.

In his assessment, the teacher said he had felt “thrown under the bus” after an apology was issued by school leaders before any investigation.

The trust maintained that it had delivered on its responsibilities, and alleged there were inaccuracies in the report.

Khan has now responded to the trust’s rebuttal, expressing her “disappointment” at its reaction.

“By not recognising how it could have handled the situation better, I don’t know whose interests it thinks it is serving,” she told The Times this week. “As an independent person examining this case, I stand by what I have written. People can read for themselves in painstaking detail what happened.”

Khan said the trust had not outlined what the “inaccuracies” were. “I’m disappointed that the trust does not think any lessons could be learnt from what happened nor appreciate that at the heart of this case it is about the victim, the RS [religious studies] teacher and how social cohesion was failed.”

A former governor has also claimed his concerns about the school’s handling of the situation were ignored.

Further claims have emerged about interference in other schools across Batley by self-appointed faith leaders who are not even parents of the pupils attending them.

‘Hung out to dry’

As rumours and speculation spread across Batley on social media and WhatsApp groups in the days after the image was shown, protesters answered calls to gather outside the school and demand the teacher’s sacking. Many of the residents who gathered did so despite not having a child at the school. Others had even less obvious reason for attendance, having travelled from as far afield as Birmingham.

Some of the posts on social media called for vigilante attacks and encouraged sightings of the religious studies teacher to be shared. “He should be scared for his life,” read one. Another said: “If u see him u know what to do.”

The teacher was suspended by the school after his use of the image in a Year 9 class came to light. At a press conference Gary Kibble, the former head teacher, offered an “unequivocal apology” for the use of the image, which he said was “completely inappropriate”.

The RS teacher told Khan that the school’s primary concern “appeared to be appeasing the protesters rather than standing by and supporting the school’s own teaching staff”.

An independent investigation commissioned by the school had later cleared him of causing deliberate offence and highlighted that he believed the image could be of genuine educational value.

Khan, a British Muslim who had been brought up in Bradford, said the decision to suspend the teacher may have inflamed the situation. She said in her review that the impact on the teacher’s mental health had been profound. The teacher, who remains cut off from friends and family, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

A former governor at the school has now claimed that the teacher was “hung out to dry” as he reflected on the “frightening” aftermath of the incident. “It was really bad for the school and I hope there will be change,” he said this week. “I was quite outspoken at the time but none of my concerns were heard.”

Recruitment had also been affected, according to the former governor, who asked not to be named. “You can understand why teachers don’t want to come to the school,” he said — but he voiced hopes that the new head teacher “could rebuild” the school’s reputation.

In her excoriating report, titled Threats to social cohesion and democratic resilience: a new strategic approach, Khan also criticised West Yorkshire police for determining the security risk to the teacher to be low, and Kirklees council for showing a “lack of any empathy” to the teacher and his family.

Similar cases alleged

Khan’s most robust criticism was reserved for what she described as self-appointed “community leaders”. She said some of the figures consulted by the school were not neutral and did not have children there, adding that their involvement was not helpful to calm the situation. She said that by relying on these figures the views of the wider Muslim community, who wanted a peaceful resolution and had expressed support for the teacher, were overshadowed.

However, for Khan, the risk of such events recurring still lingers, and she accused activists of “interfering in everyday teaching at schools more widely across Batley”.

She wrote: “From successful attempts at banning legitimate religious books, to interfering in essays, class discussions and debates about religion or other topics, such activists seek to impose their dogmatic religious beliefs in non-faith schools and interfere in the teaching of the national curriculum.”

A local source claimed they heard about a separate matter at another school in Batley. They told The Times: “One class had been set homework about the headscarf, what it means, debates surrounding it. A so-called Muslim male community leader who had nothing to do with the school just said ‘No, how dare you, this is insulting our religion.’ And the school just withdrew as they were scared of what was going to happen to them and the implicit threats made to them.”

On another occasion, also in Batley, pupils were said to have used a book about the Ahmadiyya community as part of their learning about the minority sect, according to the source. “One of these community leaders was going, ‘How dare you talk about this, and try and portray this as mainstream Islam’ — and they weren’t doing that at all,” the source added.

Protesters claimed to be ‘community leaders’

One of the most prominent community leaders involved in the Batley incident was Mohammed Amin Pandor, who was consulted by Batley Grammar School’s leadership. He announced to the gathered protesters that the teacher had been suspended after a meeting with the school’s head.

Meanwhile another key protagonist of the Batley protests has continued to defend such demonstrations. Adil Shahzad, an imam based in Bradford, addressed crowds outside the school after travelling to the town and calling for the teacher to be sacked. He repeatedly referred to the matter on his social media pages, sharing letters that named the teacher.

In May 2021, after an investigation exonerated the teacher, Shahzad wrote on his Facebook page that he was “extremely disappointed” and that the findings were “a complete joke”.

Parents ‘concerned’ by protests

Yunus Lunat, a lawyer who at one point acted as a representative for Muslim parents at the school, has said the teacher should never have been suspended and that children at the school would like him back.

Having seen Khan’s review, he agreed that the teacher “had been“ failed” and questioned why the school had not explained the full facts of the situation immediately. “It was almost like the protesters were protesting on misinformation,” he said.

Lunat, like many others, has been keen to emphasise the differences between the views of most Muslim parents with children at the school, and those of the most vocal protesters.

The lawyer was appointed to assist in the first place, he said, because parents were “concerned” by the protests and how “it seemed like that minority shouting the loudest seemed to get the most attention”.

A source close to Tracy Brabin, the former Labour MP for Batley & Spen, now mayor of West Yorkshire, claimed that the report did not address how the incident was used “to mobilise support and perpetuate hate” by the far right.

Teacher a ‘decent man’

As the local community began to move on from the incident, the teacher remained in hiding with his family. They were placed in temporary accommodation, which he felt was squalid and unsuitable for living, according to the review. His children had to sleep on mattresses on the floor and missed out on receiving an education for many months.

According to Khan, the man is “just a really decent and good-hearted individual who clearly loved what he did”. He was “aware there were divisive actors who were clearly trying to exploit this and to turn this into a full-blown anti-Muslim agenda and he just refused to go down that route”, she said.

Her hope is that the review will have brought the man some comfort.

“This incident will leave a permanent and profound scar on his life but I know he wants to also get on with his life — for his sake and his family’s,” Khan added.

When the report was published on Monday, a spokesman for Batley Multi Academy Trust said: “We are disappointed by today’s report. We do not recognise much of what is in it, its description of the events, nor the characterisation of our school and community.” The trust claimed support was offered to the teacher involved and the rest of the school community. It insisted that all due process was followed.

The spokesman said yesterday: “We have been clear, including in our statement earlier this week, that we have learnt from the events of 2021, such as accepting and implementing the findings from the independent investigation that year, and apologising.”

He said “the report — the broad recommendations of which we support — was checked with us several times”, but “only one of the changes we asked for in relation to the section on our school was made”.

The spokesman added: “We do not think any purpose is served by this playing out in public. Our staff team continues to work hard each and every day to serve the children and young people in our schools, their families and our communities, of whom we are very proud.”

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