It is a curious headline in the Times. ‘Prophet’ is upper case, so the assumption is that all who see it will know to whom it refers. The word isn’t in inverted commas, so this person’s prophethood is asserted without equivocation. And yet it appears to qualify ‘teacher’, and one wonders whether the ‘Prophet teacher’ is not indeed speaking prophetically into the nation at this time. Why didn’t the headline-writer mention Mohammed? Why not refer to the ‘Mohammed cartoon’ teacher, or simply to ‘Batley RE teacher’? And why rather confusingly juxtapose this headline with a picture of Batley Grammar’s headteacher, who is now being mistaken all over social media for the embattled Batley Grammar schoolteacher?
‘A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house,’ Jesus observed. And Batley Grammar’s RE teacher is certainly without honour in his own school and in his own community, if not in his own country judging by the silence of the teaching unions and most politicians (not to mention bishops of the Church of England). Assuming he is a member of the NEU or the NASUWT, it is curious that they have uttered not a word in his defence, preferring instead to hide behind internal disciplinary process. But their member has been suspended, which is not a neutral act: his professionalism and competence have been called into question, and his Headteacher has defamed him. “In what other circumstances would a teacher’s life be threatened by intolerant zealots and the teaching unions remain silent?” asks trade unionist Paul Embury.
It’s a fair question, isn’t it?
The perception now is that even if this teacher has not blasphemed against ‘The Prophet’, he has brought his school into disrepute. And yet, according to the Times, he has done nothing in this school which has not been done before: “The cartoons had been shown in previous lessons and by other teachers, a parent at the school said, as part of the integrative studies course. The parent said that her daughter had seen the cartoon in a lesson last year with a different teacher. She added: ‘He’s one of the best teachers at that school… young and not racist at all.'”
And yet the Headteacher has singled out this RE teacher for special treatment, and so he is being persecuted for his academic freedom, if not his religious freedom to use whatever resources he sees fit to use in his mission to educate children. And now he is being pursued, with baying mobs even at his own front door, where they will not find him because he and his family have been forced into hiding, He now has nowhere safe to lay his head, as his father explains:
‘My son keeps breaking down crying and says that it’s all over for him.
‘He is worried that he and his family are all going to be killed.
‘He knows that he’s not going to be able to return to work or live in Batley. It’s just going to be too dangerous for him and his family.
‘Look what happened to the teacher in France who was killed for doing the same thing. Eventually they will get my son and he knows this. His whole world has been turned upside down. He’s devastated and crushed.
‘When he starts speaking, he just breaks down and cries. He’s become an emotional wreck.
‘He feels that everything is broken and to be honest, it’s hard to console him at the moment because that is the truth.’
It is disgraceful that the Headteacher of Batley Grammar stoked this fire with an “unequivocal apology” and a pledge to make all of his school’s RE resources sharia compliant. It is even more disgraceful that the Agreed Syllabus for RE in West Yorkshire obliges teachers to teach Islam according to Sunni jurisprudence: “Give reasons why visual representation of God and the prophets is forbidden (haram) in Islam”, it says on p48. Except, of course, the prophets of Islam including Mohammed have been depicted in Persia and Turkey and other parts of the world throughout the centuries. There is no universally agreed prohibition on depicting Mohammed within Islam, so quite why schools in England are apparently subject to this rather extreme censorship is unclear. Unless, of course, the Muslim representatives of SACRE who formulate agreed RE syllabi tend to be of a conservative Sunni disposition, and no-one dares argue with them.
Every now and again a prophet arises to forthtell the mind of God, if not to foretell His purposes. Those who share their visions of justice and equity are forthtelling the messianic hope and preaching Christ into the darkness. There is no sacred-secular division in the prophetic space: God is ubiquitous, and will speak through an ass if necessary. Whatever the personal beliefs of Batley Grammar’s suspended RE teacher, he has witnessed faithfully (and continues to witness passively) to the need for liberation from oppression; for democratic transformation; for the truth to be spoken clearly and unequivocally to those reactionary zealots who are doing everything in their power to limit freedom and impede enlightenment. You may believe him to be a false prophet, and should be free to say so. Equally, others may believe Mohammed to be a false prophet, and they, too, should be free to say so. In a liberal democracy, ‘The Prophet’ of Islam is not beyond critique; nor is he above visual depiction, even to the point of satire and caricature.
There are debates and discussions to be had between the absolutist assertion that Muslims must be free from being offended, and the competing assertion that people must be free to offend, but the Christian prophetic tradition – and especially the Anglican prophetic tradition – eschews all political absolutism as idolatrous, not least because it tends to dehumanise and oppress. There is no Utopia in Batley: it is a community of individualist tensions and collectivist contradictions, and these are common to all human society. And the prophet in this context is the one who will arise to help each side to better understand themselves; the one who offers a common cup to drink, and one loaf of bread to eat.