Overview:

Four pupils have been suspended for slightly damaging a Qu'ran at a secondary school in the UK, reigniting the blasphemy debate.

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Four pupils have been suspended from a school in West Yorkshire, UK, for damaging a Muslim holy book.

The incident took place last week at Kettlethorpe High School in Wakefield in the north of England, although the Headteacher has claimed that there was “no malicious intent” concerning the students involved.

A non-Muslim Year 10 (14- to 15-year-old age group) pupil brought in a Qu’ran as a dare after losing a videogame of Call of Duty (after having earlier in the week bringing in a Bible). The boy, who also is “highly autistic,” dropped the Qu’ran, causing damage and scuffing to the pages (one page had a slight tear).

Image: Akef Akbar

All four boys who were involved in the incident have been suspended.

The headteacher, Tudor Griffiths, said of the incident:

“We would like to reassure all our community that the holy book remains fully intact and that our initial enquiries indicate there was no malicious intent by those involved.

“However, we have made it very clear that their actions did not treat the Quran with the respect it should have, so those involved have been suspended and we will be working with them to ensure they understand why their actions were unacceptable.

“This morning, we met with our local Muslim community leaders, local councillors and police to share all the information we currently know, the action taken and the immediate steps we have taken to reinforce the values and behaviour we expect from every member of this school community to ensure that all religions are respected.”

Image: Akef Akbar

Although rumors spread of the book being burnt and destroyed, this was not the case. Independent councilor for the local council, Akef Akbar arranged for a meeting after being contacted by concerned people. He had believed the book to have been kicked about the school, which has been denied by the school.

The boy who brought the book in has now received death threats with his mother saying he is “petrified” because he would be “beaten up if he goes back to school.”

This has led the Minister for Schools, Nick Gibb, to state: “There is no blasphemy law in this country and schools should be promoting the fundamental British values of the respect for rule of law, individual liberty and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.”

Of course, such a reaction doesn’t make things look too far from blasphemy, which is a very worrying scenario. Humanists UK were very forthright in their response, with a spokesperson stating:

“This story is horrendous: the school has seemingly acted in rash haste. There is no blasphemy law in Great Britain, and schools should not allow themselves to be pressured – whether directly or indirectly – into excessive disciplinary action in deference to religious groups. Kettlethorpe High School’s safeguarding policy clearly states that it will “give special consideration” to those with special needs: immediate suspension for a harmless, if perhaps misguided, prank where no violence took place, and leaving the children open to threats of physical violence as a result, would seem to run contrary to that policy. We offer our support and advice on freedom of religion or belief to any of the parents involved.

“But schools are, regrettably, increasingly coming under pressure from religious zealots, whether it’s disciplinary issues like this, or with the content of their curriculum. So the UK Government must make a firm statement of support for the children, and also offer the school its full support when standing up to vocal religious groups outside of the school community – and we will be writing to them to this effect. Guidance for schools on how to handle such incidents would be merited.

“Meanwhile the police should be taking any death threats against children very seriously indeed. It beggars belief that it should be necessary to clarify that public pillory and death threats are never an appropriate reaction to childish tomfoolery.”

The fact that the spokesperson has had to remain anonymous speaks volumes.

The question is whether any particular books should be afforded intrinsic value over and above any other for the mere content they entail. Should a Qu’ran to any non-Muslim automatically require non-Muslims to treat it any differently to any other book, or indeed the Mahabharata?

On the other hand, there should be general levels of respect that we should expect of our fellow citizens. I recently unearthed a Bible I had at school and was surprised by the sheer volume of graffiti contained within, but wonder what I would have been suspended for far more holy book abuse than was apparent here.

Those in Yorkshire are reminded of another recent story involving blasphemy and schools, where a teacher in Batley was suspended, and then went into hiding, for showing a depiction of the prophet Muhammed in a lesson on free speech in an open society.

Though respect should be part of a civil society, it is a dangerous precedent to set in affording such a special place for articles within a religion or any worldview. Without knowing the full details of what took place, one can be forgiven for thinking there has been something of an overreaction.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...