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Should Teachers Self-Censor to Protect their Lives?

From the gruesome beheading of Samuel Paty in October 2020 in France to the suspension of a Belgian teacher last October and of teachers in Batley Grammar school in West Yorkshire, England last March, it seems that educational staff will now be forced to think twice about their teaching materials and pedagogy. In the above cases, school teachers were accused of using caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed previously published by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo as part of their lessons.

The publication of images of the Prophet Mohammed has long been a controversial issue. In 2006, the publication of 12 satirical cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper sparked a global outcry from Islamic communities reminiscent of the Rushdie affair in the 1980s. The Danish cartoons triggered death threats, attacks on diplomatic missions in Europe, protests, storming of churches and economic boycotts resulting in a death toll of approximately 250 people in countries like Turkey, Nigeria and Afghanistan. History repeated itself in 2015 when the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris were attacked by a gunman. The three days of terror that ensued resulted in 17 people dead including journalists, police officers and civilians. In 2006 the magazine had republished the 12 cartoons resulting in death threats and continued to sporadically publish caricatures of the Prophet in the lead to the 2015 attacks. In November 2011, the magazine’s offices were firebombed following the publication of further cartoons featuring the Prophet Mohammed.

While publication of such material may legitimately offend the Muslim community, they do not fall within the accepted limitations provided by international law. Article 19.2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that: ‘Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.’ While article 19.3 and article 20 of the ICCPR allows for lawful limitations, so called ‘defamation of religion’ does not fall under the permitted limitations despite many attempts by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to push a defamation of religion agenda at the UN level. At the regional level, the above provisions are enshrined in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the Council of Europe has specified that the right to freedom of expression also applies to ideas that offend, shock or disturb the state or any sector of the population. They do not therefore support the criminalisation of defamation of religion.

Satire is not strictly speaking incitement to hatred, but Sunni Muslims believe that depictions of the Prophet is strictly prohibited as they are thought to encourage the worship of idols which is forbidden in Islam. On the other hand, cartoonists see satire as an essential aspect of democracy and free society. The purpose of satire is to convey a message in a humorous fashion in order to expose a truth, trigger reflection and criticise an aspect of society. In the case of the Danish cartoons the publication of the drawings was initially to trigger a debate about self-censorship and in the case of Charlie Hebdo it was to support free speech in the aftermath of the Danish cartoons as well as a reaction to Islamic extremism. While there is a right to blaspheme, and ‘defamation of religion’ is not classified as hate speech there is no denial that portraying the founder of Islam with a bomb on its head or in any other compromising situation in an already tensed climate is likely to further antagonise majority and minority and to further alienate the Muslim community. Banning the publication of such images however is not a suitable option in a free and democratic society but responsibility should lie with those who vehicle those images to assess the potential impact of their publications on the wider society. This is supported by Modood (2006):

‘One relies on the sensitivity and responsibility of individuals and institutions to refrain from what is legal but unacceptable’.

When it comes to teachers however, it is a different matter. Our primary purpose is to inform, to trigger a discussion, to stimulate thinking. When teaching freedom of expression, one has to engage in ongoing debates. It is important to expose truth about the dangers of blasphemy laws and censorship. It cannot be done without mentioning names like Asia Bibi (Pakistan), Raif Badawi (Saudi), Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe (Iran) all wrongly accused under blasphemy laws. The attack on Charlie Hebdo as well as the gruesome killing of Samuel Patty cannot be tolerated in democratic societies and while the published images may well offend some people in their religious sensitivities keeping them underground would be counterproductive. In debating where to draw the line between freedom of expression and hate speech it may become necessary to look at the material that is being debated whether it is a play, a cartoon, a song or a text. Considering the evidence is an important part of doing academic research and reaching conclusions. In weighting whether or not to use the evidence in teaching material we must of course take into account the context, the age of the participants and the demographics of the group. It is important to also consider religious and other sensitivities, but this does not mean self-censoring altogether. The primary concern should never have to be fear. In a democratic society, ideas should be debated in a respectful environment without anyone having to self-censor out of fear. Otherwise, we are condoning the very practice that we are trying to denounce in Islamic theocracies where blasphemy laws are used to shut down dissidents and religious minorities. It would be more productive for those who feel offended by those images to focus their efforts on defending and propagating the core values of Islam as a religion of peace rather than further exacerbate an ‘us against them’ narrative. Teachers should never have to self-censor to protect their life.


Written by Dr. Sylvie Bacquet


Dr. Sylvie Bacquet is Principal Lecturer at the University of Westminster.


Photograph: Jeanne Menjoulet |Flickr.com