Home Secretary Suella Braverman is instructing educators and police in the UK to change how they deal with accusations of blasphemy after four boys faced death threats after being suspended from school for dropping and scuffing a Quran.
Braverman made the announcement in an article published in The Times of London on March 4, in which she expressed “deep concern” over the way local authorities had handled the incident.
“We do not have blasphemy laws in Great Britain and must not be complicit in the attempts to impose them on this country,” Braverman wrote. “There is no right not to be offended. There is no legal obligation to be reverent towards any religion. The lodestar of our democracy is freedom of speech. Nobody can demand respect for their belief system, even if it is a religion.”
“The education sector and police have a duty to prioritize the physical safety of children over the hurt feelings of adults,” she added.
Braverman’s remarks indicate that UK’s current government is taking a harder line against Islamism, possibly in response to a recent report about problems with “Prevent,” a long-running program established to counter extremist ideologies, particular in England’s Muslim communities.
The controversy began when a Labour councilor for nearby Wakefield, Usman Ali, had raised the alarm on the evening of February 23, declaring that four boys had “desecrated” a Quran in Kettlethorpe, a town in central England, in a now deleted tweet.
The Quran had been taken into school by a 14-year-old boy for a dare, read out on the tennis courts and later knocked out of another boy’s hand, suffering “a very slight tear on the cover [and a] further small mud mark on page 2.” There were also “indents on the bottom” of the text according to a statement on Facebook posted the next day by Akef Akbar, an independent councilor for Wakefield East.
Labour Councilor Ali’s February 23 tweet had described the incident as “a serious provocative action which needs to be dealt with urgently by all the authorities, namely the police, the school and the local authority.” Groups from outside Wakefield had been organizing protests in response to these false rumors that the Quran had been burned, local Councilor Akef Akbar said in a subsequent tweet on March 1.
A boy who had issued death threats in response to the incident was given “words of advice” by a West Yorkshire police officer for a “malicious communications offence” a week later, the BBC reported on Friday March 3.
Following the death threats to the boy who had taken the Quran in to school, who is autistic, his mother appeared in a local mosque and offered an abject apology to area Muslims. A police officer and the school headmaster present at the February 24 meeting at the Jamia Swafia Masjid in nearby Wakefield remained silent while the local imam, Hafiz Muhammad Mateen Anwar, obliquely drew a moral equivalence between the dropping of the Quran and an act of terror.
“Let’s just say a person from the Islamic faith has carried out an act which is not accepted by Islam — that person will be labelled generally as a terrorist. But when that same act may be carried out by someone outside the faith of this Islam, then they will be classed as someone with mental health issues,” he said.
Anwar, who admitted that the boy who brough the Quran to school was “highly autistic,” added to the tensions by declaring that Muslins inside and outside the UK “will never tolerate the disrespect of the Holy Quran. We will sacrifice our lives for it. We will give anything in the honor of Allah and his messenger. There is no element of brushing this under the carpet. There is no element of ‘Let it pass for a few days and it’ll die down.’”
At the same meeting, Inspector Andy Thornton of West Yorkshire Police said the force had investigated the damage done to the religious text and recorded a “non-crime hate incident,” adding that the pupils had “a lack of appreciation and understanding . . . of their actions and the wider impacts and upset that will cause.”
Headmaster Tudor Griffiths told attendees that, “If more consequences have to be followed, that will be the case.”
Akbar told attendees of the Feb. 24 meeting that the mother of the autistic boy had said she would not pursue prosecution for the death threats with the police.
The spectacle of the Feb. 24 meeting had an impact. On March 3, Schools Minister Nick Gibb condemned threats of death and violent reprisals against the boys involved in the incident as “totally unacceptable. In her piece published in The Times, Braverman expressed concern about the February meeting, saying it “looked more like a sharia law trial, inappropriately held at a mosque instead of a neutral setting, whereby the mother of one boy was made to account for his behaviour in front of an all-male crowd.”
Kettlethorpe High School is 10 miles from Batley Grammar School, where Muslim parents and others protested in 2021 after a teacher was suspended for showing pupils an image of the prophet Muhammad. The teacher is still in hiding with his partner and four children after receiving death threats after displaying a Charlie Hebdo cartoon of Muhammad during a religious studies lesson.
The failure of officials to respond appropriately to the threats against the boys indicates “an ignorance of what the law requires at senior police level and also a level of religious illiteracy,” Adrian Hilton, a Conservative commentator and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, told Focus on Western Islamism (FWI). “These public bodies are essentially debasing themselves before one very narrow school of orthodox Sunni Islam which is not followed by every Muslim in the UK, let alone the world,” said Hilton.
In a March 2 letter, the Free Speech Union (FSU), a UK nonprofit, slammed the decision of West Yorkshire police to record the prank a non-crime hate incident in a letter to Inspector Thornton, pointing out that the “minor damage” to the Quran did not meet the threshold for national guidance on non-crime hate incidents, which require a motivation of prejudice or hate, whereas the school had already noted no “malicious intent” in the boys actions. The FSU called on the police to delete the incident from the boys’ records, which could show up on criminal history checks.
Humanists UK, a charity which promotes secular humanism, declared on Twitter the school’s decision to suspend the boys was “horrendous” and the school had allowed itself to be “pressured into excessive disciplinary action by a religious group.”
Whitehall sources confirmed to The Telegraph on Sunday night that as a result of the row, Braverman will issue new guidance later this month to remind police forces only to record non-crime hate incidents where it is “proportionate and absolutely necessary.”
There may be some pushback on Braverman’s policy. On March 9 an unnamed official from the UK’s Department for Education told Schools Week, a website covering education in the UK that it does “not plan to issue additional guidance on managing blasphemy related incidents.”
Hannah Baldock is a UK-based journalist, researcher on radicalization and terrorism.