From the overt intimidation of schoolteachers to the heckling and egg-pelting of politicians, the recent chaotic by-election campaign in the UK parliamentary constituency of Batley and Spen has laid bare the current fault lines in British society, which is divided byidentity politics and religious intolerance. If politicians fail to address these problems, they are likely to only get worse.
Early in the campaign, government officials—such as Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick—unequivocally condemned threats of violence against teachers—but such words are meaningless if they are not followed up by effective measures to reduce the intensifying tensions.
Furthermore, months ago, the Commission for Countering Extremism issued a report (commissioned by the Home Office),which called the Islamist protests against lessons about LGBT relationships in schools “extremism incidents.” The commission recommended the creation of a hateful extremism task force and other measures to safeguard residents from intimidation and to promote community cohesion.But these recommendations appear to have fallen on deaf ears.
The inability or unwillingness of the British authorities to constrain destructive behaviour when it is motivated by religious extremism is staggering, and seems to have emboldened Islamists in Batley to use coercion, threats and violence to try to impose their beliefs on residents.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the campaign was that, instead of calling for unity and dialogue, or urging measures to increase political stability and economic prosperity, the candidates chose to appease the extremists and inflame voters’ fears. Their tactics included denouncing LGBT education in schools and calling attention to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s past provocative remarks about burkas and niqabs.
In this atmosphere, religious extremists who object to LGBT lessons in the schools, or to cartoons of Prophet Muhammad being shown in the classroom (as part of a lesson on free speech) were able to use intimidation tactics with impunity against people who were only doing their jobs. They stormed school gates and chanted slogans in an effort to terrorize pupils and schoolteachers. As a result, the whole constituency now seems paralysed by fear. And unfortunately Batley is not alone in this. Similar disturbing behaviour has occurred outside the gates of schools in East London and Birmingham.
One case in particular has become a symbol of the British authorities’ impotence to prevent the religiously motivated intimidating or violent behaviour of members of certain Muslim communities. A Batley teacher who showed a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad to pupils during areligious education lesson was suspended—and then hounded out of his job. Although an independent investigation found that the teacher had not caused deliberate offence, and reinstated him, it did so only on condition that he never use such a caricature in the school curriculum again. Furthermore, the teacher—and two other members of staff who were also suspended during the investigation—have decided not to return to their jobs, explaining that they are afraid of being murdered by extremists.
In response, a group of Muslim women in Batley and Spen wrote an anonymous open letter in which they condemn the “shameful” behaviour of certain self-proclaimed Muslim community leaders … “the same faces that have plagued our area … for many years.” They note that these extremists do not speak for their community, do not speak for the many British Muslims who are law abiding and peaceful, and often do not even have children in the constituency’s schools—yet politicians continue to make them the centre of attention.Muslims who condemn these extreme acts of intimidation have been muzzled, and those who want to become a part of the wider British society are either ostracised or intimidated into compliance.
Labour’s victory does not offer hope that the people of Batley and Spen will be free from the current social unrest any time soon. Although the constituency has been a Labour stronghold for a long time, and Labour won a narrow victory in the by-election, they have failed to be supportive of fearful teachers—one Labour politician even suggested that teachers are responsible for the situation because they knowingly assumed a risk, saying “That has to be the decision of the teacher.”
It’s time for politicians to discard divisive identity politics and find effective solutions to the region’s most urgent problems, which affect citizens regardless of their backgrounds: violent extremism, the breakdown of law and order, and the precarious economic position of many citizens. The people of Batley deserve to have less divisiveness, and more economic and political stability. The way forward is to promote a shared and inclusive identity, and this can be achieved through education, constructive debate and the empowerment of currently voiceless people.