Batley Grammar School protests

Support for the progressive side of the debate in Muslim communities

You may have heard of the controversy over the teacher suspended at Batley Grammar School in West Yorkshire. There are conflicting reports, but we are told that a teacher showed an image of Muhammad as part of a religious education lesson. Some claim it was a cartoon, some claim it was specifically a Charlie Hebdo cartoon, others that it was the Danish cartoon of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. Children at the school have started a petition to reinstate the teacher, stating that the image was shown in the context of a lesson about racism and blasphemy, and that the intent was to counter discrimination and intolerance.

The liberal impulse has been to worry about offence given to “the Muslim community”. But there is not one, homogenous “Muslim community”, there are many communities and there are debates within those communities.

Maryam Namazie, British-Iranian human rights campaigner, calls those at the school gates “The Islamist rent-a-mob that converge on schools to feign insult when the real insult is mob rule at school gates and threatening teachers”. She and others identify the ringleaders as traveling reactionary troublemakers.

Meanwhile, Muslim cleric, Muhammad Manwar Ali, CEO of JIMAS, a Muslim educational charity, and Chaplain of Ipswich & Colchester Hospital says, “I declare myself free of all statements made on behalf of Muslims by any imam or Muslim politician about the disgraceful protests outside the Batley Grammar School and mob demand for dismissal of the suspended teacher. None of them represent me or speak for me on this issue”.

This displays a range of views within British Muslim civil society. Why, then, do liberals insist that the “authentic” voice is the reactionary one? There is a debate, but liberals seem intent on backing only the far right Islamist side of it instead of the progressive side of it. Progressive Muslims like Muhammad Manwar Ali says the voices of reaction do not speak for him. Who are liberals to insist he is wrong?

Referring to the charge of blasphemy brought by the protestors, British Ex-Muslim human rights activist, Ali Malik, points out that “Many around the Islamic world are given death sentences, lynched, and attacked for this non-crime regularly”. Surely, in our struggle against oppression, anarchist communists should be siding with the oppressed, with gay voices, feminist voices, secularist voices, apostate voices?

In a piece entitled “Islamic Homophobia is Empowered by Leftist Silence”, published by the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, Gay Ex-Muslim, Jimmy Bangash writes: “In Muslim communities, homosexuality is intrinsically linked to anxiety, intimidation, violence, and, in some cases, death.”

We need to amplify those voices, not the ones Maryam Namazie calls the “fascists (who) gather at school gates to intimidate schools and educators”. Pointing out that in France, the teacher Samuel Paty was executed as a result of a false accusation made by a pupil who has now admitted she wasn’t even in the class at the time, Namazie goes on: “here they threaten a teacher. But the teacher is suspended? When the school carries out their threats for them, where does that leave civil society?”

To answer Namazie’s rhetorical question, it leaves civil society as an enforcer of reactionary values. Swiss-Yemeni academic, Elham Manea, has been following the Batley story. For her, “Safeguarding Freedom of Expression is not a luxury. It has a crucial function for any functioning democracy. The problem does not lie in the exercise of freedom of expression but rather with those who are curtailing it in the name of religion and culture.” And among those curtailing it are now numbered liberals and civil society. This is a dangerous position to be in.

We must of course oppose anti-Muslim racism and discrimination, but somehow liberal society has begun to think that an offence to reactionary sensibilities trumps the voices of gay people, feminists, secularists, apostates within Muslim communities. Reactionary people are offended by equal marriage, by homosexuality, by apostasy, and as anarchist communists we should be saying, that’s hard luck. They must then be offended. The voices we want to amplify are those who are oppressed, not those who oppress. Our solidarity is with those who are at real threat of hardship, up to and including death, and insisting on only hearing the reactionary side of the debate condemns those people to suffer in silence. And in exchange for what? Academic and commentator, Kenan Malik, points out that the prohibition on depicting Muhammad is neither universal in Muslim thought now, nor was it historically a majority opinion. Once more liberal opinion has reinforced and shored up only the reactionary side of the debate. This trend must stop, and as anarchist communists, we must ensure that we do not assist in closing down debate within Muslim communities by siding with the voices of reaction by declaring it the only authentic voice to be heard. We are with feminists, gays, secularists, apostates. We encourage the debate and we back the progressive side in it.

3 thoughts on “Batley Grammar School protests

  1. I’ve thought twice or thrice or more about writing this response to the above piece, as it’s very easy to be misconstrued in this area of debate. Wilfully by the right of course, by liberals, by the left and, yes, even among the anarchist movement! However, I feel it’s important to take the plunge and risk sharing some thoughts. Please note that I do this as a virtual lifetime anarchist communist (from way back in ORA days!), also, coincidentally, having spent over 30 years working as a community worker in Muslim and other working class communities in the East End of London.
    Reading the posted article left me with nagging worries. If I’m honest, this is because I had some concerns about the piece itself while also struggling to clarify my own position. There is basically nothing in the piece that I actually disagreed with – my issue is with what may have been missing.
    The article reflects a strong and principled anarchist ‘No Gods or Masters’ tradition of non-religion, anti-clericalism etc – stretching from Spanish anarchist peasants, Bakunin’s marvellous statement, ‘If God existed it would be necessary to abolish him’, to modern struggles against theocratic regimes. And it’s completely right in reflecting an anarchist position that people who are experiencing oppression should only rely on themselves, their own self-organisation, to achieve change – not political parties, not vanguards, and not religious leaders nor imagined ‘gods’.
    The writer(s) is spot on in asserting that we should be unflinching in our solidarity with those within Muslim communities who are on the receiving end of oppression from within – whether it’s homophobia, apostasy issues, or any other form of bigotry or authoritarianism. This can take many forms, from standing in solidarity with ostracised individuals abused online, taking a clear line on teaching on LGBT education (e.g. Birmingham), to supporting incredibly brave atheists living under the threat of death in Iran.
    There is a big ‘AND’ to this… and please note that this is NOT a ‘but’. Alongside the very clear position espoused above, us anarchist communists should also make ourselves equally clear in our solidarity with working class muslim communities who are under racist attack by the right, the government, and in fact by fair-weather liberals. It’s not enough for us just to say ‘we must of course oppose anti-muslim racism and discrimination’. We have to make that opposition as equally clear as our clear and uncompromising support for gay, feminist and atheist voices within muslim communities. This is not the same as ‘closing down debate within muslim communities’ – it’s the opposite. Also, believe it or not, muslim gays, feminists, and apostates are more likely to see anarchist communists as true friends and be won over to our politics if we do this. Many a muslim gay person experiences and perceives oppression both in terms of sexual identity and as a muslim. And, such an approach is actually more likely in the long run to be supportive of their positions within currently reactionary families and communities. At the same time as opposing all oppressions (homophobia, misogyny and others) we differentiate ourselves from the racist Islamophobes of the right in our anarchist communist anti-racist approach.
    One of the strong points of anarchists and anarchism is the ability to analyse power structures (unlike authoritarian leftist strains such as Leninists), identify where the power lies… Something that lends itself naturally to opposing ALL oppressions – whether it is the underlying theme of class, sexism and misogyny, or racism. I think it is this approach that we should use when engaging with muslim communities and issues such as Batley. It is this power analysis of situations, rather than any identity politics line, that I’m trying to advocate.
    If there is an issue with the ACG Batley article it’s not what it says, it’s what it doesn’t say, or say enough or clearly enough, to show that anarchist communists are in solidarity with working class muslims who are under attack from the racist right and government. Speak to many working class muslim women especially who receive daily verbal abuse and worse (for examples and stats you just have to look at the TellMama website, among others). Cards on the table, my partner is a muslim woman, so this is something that I’ve seen first (or almost first) hand, the more so since Brexit, along with Tory ‘anti-woke’ and hostile environment agenda – an increasingly toxic atmosphere dividing working class and other struggles.
    I’m absolutely sure that ACG comrades are in solidarity with working class muslims as mentioned above. But this needs to made more clear, in the article and elsewhere – to avoid being identified by those same muslims as being in the racist Islamophobe bandwagon. Incidentally, a few days later a spot on piece about the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparity whitewashing report appeared on the ACG website.
    Yes, we should audibly, visibly and actively support what the article describes as progessive voices in Muslim communities. We should also be aware that the cartoons of Muhammed have been deliberately and widely weaponised by the racist right. It’s not possible to just treat them in isolation as an anti-blasphemy issue, and is not a Jewish anarchists eating and brandishing ham sandwiches in front of Brick Lane synagogue moment (a great moment in East End anarchist history, but one would have been very different if it had been done by non-Jews). The author is dead right in saying that in our struggle against oppression, we should side with [all who are] the oppressed. In pursuing this approach it’s important to note that tor some years the cartoons have been appropriated by the racist right to attack all muslims – they don’t care if those muslims are ‘devout’, reactionary, ‘progressive’, secular, feminist or whatever! From the racist ‘socialist’ Hollande government with its prime minister Valls baiting muslim women wearing the hijab and attacks on working class young muslims in the banlieues etc, to Johnson’s racist railing against ‘letterbox’ women, there is a clear trajectory. And us anarchists do not belong in that camp. It’s worth noting that Charlie Hebdo was relaunched in 1992 by a downright anti-Arab racist Philippe Val, pursuing an agenda reflecting this, not a genuine interest in ‘freedom’. Recognising this and the use of the cartoons by the extreme right in no way makes one an apologist for ISIS type politics, reactionary Islam or the killing of Samuel Paty – and does NOT stop us from actively supporting ‘apostates’ or progressive anti-blasphemy voices within muslim communities.
    It’s also important to note that we don’t know exactly what happened in the Batley school – at least I don’t – what was shown, why or how, the lesson context, or the approach or views of the teacher. There is a difference between a teacher exploring the issues of discrimination and bigotry towards and within Muslim communities, and a rightwing teacher Islamaphobe (a small minority, but they do exist – and I’m NOT saying this teacher was such a person).
    The author of the ACG piece is completely right to say that there is no such thing as a homogenous muslim community. Likewise, it’s possible that the people protesting outside the Batley school were not homogenous in outlook. It’s very possible (most likely) that there were religious reactionaries among them, if not to the fore (I’ve certainly come across them during years of working with muslim community in Tower Hamlets), but it’s also possible that there were people who feel (and are) under attack due to the very fact of being muslims (and I’ve come cross more of them!).
    This may or may not be controversial, but there is an analogy in this debate with the FGM ‘debate’. FGM is an unforgivable weapon of male power and oppression against girls and women, and for years was ignored by the educational and social work establishment in the UK, liberals and left alike. It’s also been used by the far right to show how ‘barbaric’ muslims (for which read people of a different colour) are. The former UKIP leader, Paul Nuttall, made a big ‘human rights’ thing of it, pretending to be on the side of oppressed muslim women against reactionary Islam, when he was a proto fascist and complete racist. Somali families now find themselves stigmatised, for example under suspicion just for taking families on holiday. So, just as it’s vitally important to be actively against FGM while also denouncing the racist stigmatising of Somali and other muslim communities, the same goes for the Batley and similar situations. Assuming the teacher had an educational agenda, to be in solidarity with him while also being clear and audible solidarity with the muslim communities under attack by racists and the government – including the community from which the protestors came.
    I hope this doesn’t come across as an ‘attack’ on ACG comrades or the author (it’s most certainly NOT!), but there is a potential danger that, if we don’t make clear our solidarity against all who are under attack – in this case it could be both the teacher and working class muslims protesting against what he did – we run the risk of, at worst, accidentally sounding a bit like with a Tommy Robinson-type message. In his case, pretending to be a champion of working class freedom and against oppressive muslim practice, while being completely the opposite and racist to boot. It’s worth adding that the fault lines of the attack on muslim communities most often run in parallel with class divides and class struggle – think Parisian banlieues in France.
    It’s true that some on the left too conveniently ignore nastiness and reaction in the communities or causes that they support (e.g. ‘poor old’ Corbyn coming a cropper for having been too cosy with reactionary and anti-semitic individuals in the pro-Palestinian movement). But in avoiding that position, we must make sure that we are able to be solidarity against ALL oppression – as rightly stated by the author.
    Solidarity can be complicated. We are often in solidarity with people we don’t agree with – examples abound from LGBT movements to some labour struggles. Anarchism can be complicated! But I think that revolutionary clarity is sometimes achieved by showing that things can be complex.
    I hope this is taken in the positive and comradely spirit intended – as a contribution to discussion and practice from an anarchist communist stance – and that it helps stimulate further conversations.

    1. Comrade Williams, thank you for the comprehensive and thoughtful reply. As the author of the piece, there is nothing I disagree with in what you’ve said. I take full responsibility for the article, and that includes omissions.

      In responding to the liberal reaction to the controversy I focussed on the fact that that reaction abandons progressive voices in Muslim communities. It had been my hope that our reputation – previous actions, statements, articles, and indeed our Aims and Principles – made it unnecessary to spell out the points you have so carefully and eloquently put. It is my view that a blog piece should ideally be no longer than 800 words or risk not being read at all. However, it is correct to consider that readers may be taking the article in isolation.

      The argument that Muslim communities are not homogenous is intended to convey that the ACG does not take the racist view that a criticism of the ideas of some within a community is excuse for an antipathy for all.

      We have no tolerance for those who would use a pretence of progressiveness as a smokescreen for bigotry and racism. Our criticism is of the voices and systems of reaction and is targeted at those. As class struggle revolutionaries we do not blame the oppressed for the actions and ideas of their oppressors.

      We do indeed stand in solidarity with the working class of Muslim communities and traditions. We reject all racism, and the article is intended to be read with that in mind.

      On a personal note, I would be very interested in an article for our website on the experience of yourself or your partner from a working-class Muslim perspective.

      In solidarity,

      1. Thanks Dany, that’s really helpful and good to read! You are absolutely right that reaction abandons progressive voices in Muslim communities – both reaction from without and within the communities themselves.

        I take your point about not wanting a blog to be too long (I totally failed – my piece was about 5 times longer than your recommended length!)… but I think you were right in referring to the risk of readers potentially taking the piece in isolation, especially people browsing internet sites. Someone not familiar with the ACG could get hold of the wrong end of (or only part of!) the stick. It’s great that you’ve made it really clear that ACG stands in solidarity with the working class of Muslim communities and traditions. I was sure this was the case, and it’s clear that we are in agreement! As already said, if we do this while clearly supporting progressive and revolutionary voices within Muslim communities, then, not only is that the principled thing to do, but I think our support will be all the more effective.
        Thanks again for responding in such a comradely and constructive way. I’ll see what I can do about a further piece as suggested. In solidarity, R

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