De facto blasphemy laws in Great Britain

February 27, 2023 • 9:15 am

According to Wikipedia, at least, blasphemy laws were enforced at a very low level in the UK until they were recently repealed in England, Wales, and Scotland—though they remain in force in Northern Ireland. I’ve left the links in the excerpt below in case readers want to check.

England and Wales abolished their blasphemy law in 2008. On 24 April 2020, the Scottish Government published a new bill that sought to reform hate crime legislation to provide better protection against race, sex, age and religious discrimination, and also decriminalised blasphemy. This bill was approved by Holyrood on 11 March 2021 and the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021[149] received royal assent on 23 April 2021.[150] The abolition of the common law of blasphemy will take effect when section 16 of the Act is brought into force by commencement order[151] Humanists UK, that had been campaigning for repealing Scotland’s blasphemy law since 2015, welcomed the bill.[152]

Yet prohibitions against blasphemy are apparently still being enforced in England—but only in defense of a single religion, and in schools, not the courts (though the coppers get involved). Guess which religion?

Yes, you’re right. Here’s a BBC article about it, sent in by a British reader. Click to read:

An excerpt:

Four pupils have been suspended from a West Yorkshire secondary school after a copy of the Quran was damaged by students.

Wednesday’s incident at Wakefield’s Kettlethorpe High School happened when a copy of the Islamic text was brought in by a Year 10 pupil.

Head teacher Tudor Griffiths said the book remained intact and there was “no malicious intent” from those involved.

He held a meeting with concerned community leaders on Friday.

He said reports the Quran had been burnt or destroyed were untrue, and he had inspected the book himself during the meeting.

Independent councillor for Wakefield East, Akef Akbar, called the meeting after being contacted by people calling for more information.

Mr Akbar said he had been told the book had been taken to school as a dare by a pupil who lost while playing a Call of Duty videogame with other students.

While at the school it sustained a slight tear to the cover and smears of dirt on some of the pages.

Mr Akbar said he understood it had been kicked around on the school premises – a claim denied by the school.

Head teacher Mr Griffiths said in a statement: “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.

According to The Critic piece by Ben Sixsmith, here’s how the damage to the Qur’an occurred:

Apparently, one of the pupils [JAC: later described as “highly autistic”] brought the Quran into school after losing a bet. (This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me but kids make odd decisions.) According to the school’s investigation, it appears that one of the students dropped the book after being collided with. It also picked up a smudge of dirt — which will surprise no one who is familiar with the hygiene of teenage boys.

Somehow, rumours spread. Activists came to believe that the Quran had been kicked or spat on, which inflamed a “huge uproar” in the Muslim community. Some even suggested that the Quran had been torn up in front of Muslim students.

Had that taken place it would have been deplorable. (Just as if a Bible had been torn up in front of Christian students, or a Torah in front of Jewish students.) As far as I can tell, though, there is no evidence that it did.

But activists were unsatisfied — elected officials among them. Usman Ali, for example, a local Labour councillor, announced that the Quran had been “desecrated” and that the school, the police and local authorities should be taking “swift and appropriate action to deal with this grave situation”. “We all need to work together to make sure that this terrible provocation does not set back community relations,” Ali wrote — blissfully unaware that the people endangering community relations were those, like him, who were treating an incident of teenage rambunctiousness like a school shooting.

Here’s the damage that the kerfuffle caused: a slight smudge (from the BBC article):

More from The Critic (yes, they editorialize), which adds two more things. First, the police were involved—twice (in bold below).  Second, the autistic boy has received death threats.

The school, after liaising with the police — because of course the police have nothing better to do than investigating slight cosmetic damage to a book — and “community leaders” — whoever the hell they are — suspended the boys.

Independent councillor Akef Akbar is playing the peacemaker in this situation. He has emphasised that “absolutely nobody should engage in any violence”, and that the kids who have been suspended should be “protected and safeguarded”. Well, that’s good.

But while I think Mr Akbar is sincere in his desire to stabilise community relations, the premises he works from need interrogating. He is asking local Muslims to be magnanimous enough to tolerate an outrageous provocation — when in reality it was a non-event that should not have caused a scandal to begin with.

In one video released on his Facebook page [see below], he addresses Wakefield residents alongside a woman who he introduces as the mother of the boy who brought the Quran into school. The boy, it turns out, was “highly autistic” — yet more reason to sympathise with him! But while Akbar is preaching peace — certainly better than the alternative — he is still behaving as if the boy committed some sort of monstrous crime. He was “rightfully expelled”, he says. His mother has “of course shown her remorse”. “Of course”! What do you mean “of course”!? Why should she feel remorse because her son brought a book into school?

Akbar tells us that the autistic boy has been receiving death threats and threats to beat him up. You might think this would be cause for fierce condemnation. “Passions do flare,” says Akbar, “And sometimes we let them out in the wrong manner.” Passions do flare? We’re talking about death threats — not someone using the f-word. Imagine the uproar if a Muslim child received death threats and a white politician shrugged “passions do flare”.

The mother has had to inform the police,” Akbar says, but “to her credit” she doesn’t want the children to be prosecuted. Why shouldn’t she?

The video with the lucubrations of councillor Akbar is embedded in one of the tweets below. As the British reader noted:

 There was a farcical “hearing” at a local mosque about it that tried hard to make itself look like a court, even though it’s no such thing and has no formal power [JAC: the FB page, which has sound, is here and in the tweet below.]
Notice that the mother of the autistic student has donned a hijab for the mock hearing!

I’m told that the mainstream British media haven’t covered this much, apart from The Critic and The Spectator, both of which, I’m told again, “lean to the political right”. That, of course, would probably be considered “centrist” in the U.S., but I am not a regular reader. I think they’re more like Quillette than The Daily Wire.
It’s ridiculous that the students were suspended, it’s ridiculous, given the circumstances, that the Muslim community is incensed (many of them are the Professionally Offended), it’s ridiculous that the “mock court” was convened, and it’s ridiculous that the police were involved. What’s most ridiculous—but there’s nothing to be done about it—is the reverence conferred on a bundle of paper containing fictitious words.  I think Britain would be better off if it adopted America’s construal of the First Amendment, for the ludicrous way they treat these “hate crimes” wouldn’t occur. The kids may have been warned by the school not to cause a commotion, but they certainly would not have been suspended; and if they had been, there would have been a First-Amendment lawsuit. The British police have better things to do than soothe the feelings of the offended or threaten people by interviewing them after “hate speech” reports.
The reader rendered his/her own opinion, which I quote with permission:
Personally I think this is crazy – my country doesn’t have blasphemy laws, I’m glad it doesn’t have them, I don’t want them introduced by the back door, and I’m amazed at how quiescent politicians are on this sort of thing. It’s cowardly, and the four kids clearly don’t deserve any kind of punishment at all. And of course some of the people who ARE willing to talk about the story are the skinhead brigade. Vacating the field like this seems both morally wrong and highly irresponsible. 

30 thoughts on “De facto blasphemy laws in Great Britain

  1. ‘The Spectator’ is quite right-wing, for sure. It’s only similar to Quillette, in that the quality of the writing is generally good.

    1. Let me add that even if it is right wing, it is sensible rather than misguided. The writing is, indeed, excellent. I was a magazine subscriber for years before the internet was around, both in the UK and in Canada. It made a, umm, counterpoint to my subscription to CounterPunch (which itself managed to kill off my last remaining romantic sympathies for revolutionary politics).
      I’m currently trying to decide whether to spend £50/year on Spiked! or on the Speccie. Once I’d have done both, but now I’m in diminished circumstances and have to count the pennies.
      And as for the Koran (I’ll stick to British English spelling, thanks), the UK is in terrified defensive mode as the potential civil unrest from an incident like this is potentially huge. It is wrong, but it is realpolitik.

  2. This is one of the most insane things I’ve ever seen from an ostensible “liberal democracy.” Children being suspended for accidental (or even intentional!), extremely slight (or even grave!) damage to a “holy book” (the words of the “head teacher”). A literal kangaroo court convened by a religious community in their house of worship, in which a boy’s mother is forced to attend in religious garb, likely in an attempt to ensure that her child doesn’t end up beaten or dead, or even to prevent the local Muslim community from outright rioting. Police and the school investigating the damage to the book, rather than the death threats the young boy is receiving. Community leaders using verbiage implying that this incident is something to which a violent response would be entirely understandable.

    I’m wish I could say that I’m bemused and shocked by this entire situation, but I’m not, considering the book in question, and I can’t help but see the situation it as ominous.

  3. The UK is, sadly indeed, dead and gone on the issue of freedom of expression, with Scotland being even more egregiously misguided than England and Wales. Meanwhile, on our side of the pond, St Martin’s Press has just published The Case for Cancel Culture: How This Democratic Tool Works to Liberate Us All (by Ernest Owens).

  4. I think Britain would be better off if it adopted America’s construal of the First Amendment …

    That would require the UK to put the kibosh on its established religions, too — another way in which it would be better off.

    1. Yet this sorry episode is all about the peculiar barbarity of Islamism, and the state’s cowardice to stand up to it. Islam is not the UK’s established religion and the story has nothing to do with the fact that the UK has one. How would removing the King’s role as head ot the Church of England (from which the symbolic authority of the Crown derives) protect this boy from being persecuted by emotional Islamic fundamentalists?
      Official atheism is not the solution to every social ill, even ones occasioned by bizarre religious cults. England should be expecting its police to protect vigorously this boy’s rights, even if the coppers swear their oath to the Crown in the name of God.

      This is a freedom of speech case, aggravated by hate-speech codes under which the cults can extract concessions and obeisance from non-believers. The established Church of England doesn’t own this.

      1. I was simply noting a serendipitous side effect to what Jerry had proposed, Leslie. I saw no need in this instance to add my voice to the me-too chorus of what you term the “barbarity of Islam.”

        I think my opposition to blasphemy laws in all forms is pretty well established on this site.

        1. Islamism, not Islam.

          Edit: I think you are overplaying the impact of a state religion, at least as it applies in countries with the King as head of state. Nobody in the UK or anywhere in the Commonwealth is compelled to worship in the Church of England, not any more. It’s a social construct to imagine that the power of the Crown to tax, draft, and arrest you flows from God, just as it is a social construct to imagine that that power flows from “the people” in a republic. That’s all an established state religion means in the UK nowadays. Since the Commonwealth countries have no role in how the new monarch is crowned or deposed we can play along without having to have a state religion ourselves.

          I would challenge you to show that public religiosity exists in the UK is a civil burden to an atheist.

          This case is not about blasphemy as a legal question at all. It’s about fear that speech will be interpreted as hate speech by a cult that easily resorts to violence over what they regard as blasphemy.

          1. I never suggested that “public religiosity … is a civil burden to an atheist” — only that the UK would be better off without an established religion. I don’t think a religion ever ought to be financially supported or otherwise officially endorsed by the state in democracy, particularly in a pluralistic democracy. Do you disagree?

          2. That’s up to the British, Ken. It’s their country, not yours or mine. The Church of England is inextricably tied to the English Monarchy since Henry VIII split with Rome and made himself the spiritual leader for all his subjects, who, on being excommunicated by the Pope would have had their baptisms as Christians undone. Yes of course this sounds silly today but it was necessary for Henry‘s legitimacy to be secured against agents of Catholicism, who were anything but silly. Dangerous in fact.

            The legitimacy of the Crown is symbolically granted when the Archbishop of Canterbury crowns the new King. I don’t know how much the Church’s purely religious mission costs the taxpayer as compared to its own tithers. This would be a fair question and likely has a publicly available answer.

            If the British decide to get rid of their monarchy, the official religion that legitimizes it will become just like Episcopalians in America. Until they decide to declare themselves a republic, though, I think they are stuck with their established religion.

            British republicans no doubt have this all figured out and we should let them take over here.

          3. Understood, Leslie. That’s why I consider the “wall of separation” between church and state — created by the Establishment and Free-Exercise clauses of the primus inter pares in our Bill of Rights — to be one of the great innovations of US democracy.

      1. I don’t think you can make a one-to-one comparison there, dom. Imagine how less tolerant and worse off the US would be with an established religion.

  5. This is Honor Culture morality, in which slights or insults to one’s “honor” merit swift and immediate reprisal. As Steven Pinker has pointed out, the Enlightenment gradually replaced this with a Culture of Dignity and the value of self-restraint. We learn to ignore such insults, they don’t affect our basic human dignity. A god who gives those who reject His authority what they deserve is of course in the first one.

    Not that long ago, this exaggerated and performative sensitivity to slights seemed primarily confined to Islam. Now it looks like they’re eagerly hopping aboard the current zeitgeist.

  6. The Yorkshire school authorities and police are no doubt proceeding on the slippery slope theorem. After all, if an autistic kid is allowed to get a smudge on one page of the Quran, next thing you know art historians will be revealing that medieval Persian artists drew images of the Prophet (PBUH), and even show such pictures in a class. Yorkshire is drawing the line before it reaches the dire state found at Hamline College in the US.

  7. Note that the book is a translation in English. I thought that Real Muslims do not even regard such a book as genuine.

  8. If there is any book to be spat upon it would be the Holy Qur’an. It is more anti-semitic than ‘Mein Kampf’, maybe the Syrah is more deserving to be spat upon?
    I have no sympathy whatsoever with Muslims (fundamentalist or other) that seek to undermine the democratic countries they fled to, in order to render them as bad as the countries they fled.
    As the Hitch stated: “religion poisons everything”.

  9. If this “holy book” is so sacred, why has someone been allowed to publish it as a cheap paperback with flimsy covers? Is this not in itself blasphemous?

  10. Ed West, who writes a superb substack called “Wrong Side of History” writes an excellent essay on Yorkshire matter….

    “So instead Britain ends up with de facto blasphemy laws where, encouraged by the support of hate crime legislation, community leaders are able to enforce blasphemy codes; the country as a whole has a (fairly narrowly-defined) liberal public square alongside patches where rival moral authorities hold sway. A society of dispersion is not the worst, and I don’t dismiss the importance of being able to choose your partner without fear of the law or societal disapproval, or the various other improvements since Orton’s time. Life for most people is pretty good — if you can just avoid living in the wrong area, or saying the wrong thing, or having a child who upsets the country’s new moral guardians.”

  11. Interesting that the first comment on this important story is that The Spectator is “right-wing for sure”, as if that makes the whole event right-wing propaganda, nothing to see here.

    1. Just so, Leslie. Germanely,I came across the “Fox News Fallacy” on Ruy Teixeira’s site the other day:

      The Fox News Fallacy is having a dire effect on many Democrats. This is the idea that if Fox News (substitute here the conservative bête noire of your choice if you prefer) criticizes the Democrats for X then there must be absolutely nothing to X and the job of Democrats is to assert that loudly and often. The problem is that an issue is not necessarily completely invalid just because Fox News mentions it. That depends on the issue. If there is something to the issue and persuadable voters have real concerns, you will not allay those concerns by embracing the Fox News Fallacy. In fact, you’ll probably intensify them by giving such voters the impression that Democrats simply don’t care about their concerns and will do nothing to address them.

    2. Where did that first comment imply that the Spectator being right of centre meant that there was nothing to see? The Spectator is indeed right of centre, it is also worth reading.

      1. It’s an inference that I took. The publication was impugned as too right to be a credible ally when it reported on the The Listener letter by Royal Society of New Zealand members. NZers tell us it got almost no play in any of the regular NZ media, other than to pile on against the members. From comparing its article to what subsequently developed, I had no reason to doubt The Spectator‘s credibility on the issue.

        If the author of the comment says he meant no such implication, then I was wrong to infer it.

  12. “… inflamed a “huge uproar” in the Muslim community.”

    In other news, sun rises in the east as bear shits in the woods.

  13. When the Right mutters about “Islamification” of the liberal West, this is what they are worried about. The retort that only 3%, or 7%, or whatever it is of the population professes to be Muslim is gas-lighting. Certainl critical incidents orchestrated by a few fanatics in Yorkshire—in this case abetted by school officials—can chill speech in the whole country. Everywhere the authorities will say, “If we don’t investigate this incident as a hate speech crime, all 400 Muslims in this county will be on the streets and the perpetrator is likely to get lynched. Therefore put him jail lest he disturb the peace with his attempts to flee or defend himself. God forbid that we’d have to shoot someone brandishing the sword of Allah.”

    Out hearts aren’t in it. Theirs are.

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