What Four British Students Being Suspended After Damaging a Quran Means for Freedom of Speech

In the United Kingdom, four students have recently been suspended from their school after slightly damaging a Quran, despite there being “no malicious intent by those involved” according to the BBC report.

A boy had taken the Quran to school last week and given it to another pupil who read out passages on the tennis court. The book was then taken inside and fell on the floor before being put in a pupil’s bag. The book was the student’s own property. Yet this was deemed as a suspension-worthy offense by the school.

To escalate the situation more, a local government official, Usman Ali, claimed the book had been “desecrated” and it “needs to be dealt with urgently by all the authorities, namely the police, the school and the local authority”

In a released video on Facebook, another local government official, Akef Akbar addressed Wakefield residents, stating that one of the boys who damaged the Quran was “rightfully expelled,” and that his mother “has of course shown her remorse.”

Akbar went on to state that the fourteen-year-old has received death threats and threats to beat him up, describing nonchalantly that “passions do flare,” and that the mother “to her credit” doesn’t want those sending her son death threats to be prosecuted. As Ben Sixsmith in The Critic pointed out, imagine the outrage if this was a Muslim child receiving death threats and a politician simply said that “passions do flare” and commended their mother for not prosecuting the perpetrators!

Furthermore, the police have recorded the event as a “non-crime hate incident,” which will be on the student’s record. Let that sink in. A child has received death threats and the police are more concerned that he damaged a book.

A Non Crime Hate Incident

For those who are outside of the UK and are unaware of the term, a non crime hate incident simply means anything said or done which is seen as being motivated by prejudice on any protected characteristic. Over the past five years, there have been over 120,000 of these incidents in the UK. After an individual has been reported for a “non crime hate incident,” an enhanced criminal history check could still flag up and put their employment in jeopardy. Isn’t this a bit extreme for a child damaging a book?

The UK’s Recent Trend with Religious Zealotry

Though this isn’t the first time that free speech has been sacrificed for the sake of appeasing to religious fanatics. Only a few miles away from this incident in 2021, a teacher was suspended from a school in Batley, Yorkshire for showing pupils a caricature of Muhammad during a religious studies lesson. After protests from the Muslim community, the teacher went into hiding for more than a year.

However, this stems back to even 1988 when Salman Rushdi wrote his controversial book The Satanic Verses which led to a tsunami of outrage as some Muslims considered its fanciful and satirical depiction of Islam blasphemous. After publication, thousands of Muslims demonstrated in Greater Manchester, and burned a pile of the books. Even Norman Tebbitt, one of Margaret Thatcher’s closest allies, denounced him as “an outstanding villain.”

Why are the British Left Silent?

How are these egregious acts of religious militancy against free expression not a cause for contention for British progressives considering their background of standing up for religious freedom? Traditionally, with prominent figures like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, the British left fought against religious views being forced upon people. It was the left who defended Rushdie after the outrage. Surely they should be at the forefront of the modern day battle to protect those who are victims of religious zealotry, right?

Yet at best, those on the British left were silent about the student being suspended after damaging a Quran. After this event, I went out to Oxford to ask people whether freedom of expression was more important than religious tolerance. The liberals I interviewed were completely fine with causing religious offense when it came to Christianity, agreeing that if an individual wanted to burn a Bible it would be within their right to do so. However, their tone quickly changed when it came to the Quran—saying it was completely right for the student to have been suspended because it was “culturally insensitive and quite racist.”

The British left has adopted the cultural Marxist framework of seeing groups through the dichotomy of either being the oppressed or oppressors. Since Christianity has the strongest cultural and historical roots in the UK, it is seen as oppressive and something that must be torn down. This is why they have been silent on the arrest of women silently praying in proximity to abortion clinics. However, since Islam is seen as an oppressed group, the left have taken it up as a cause to protect.

Due to their perceived cultural sensitivities around Islam and the fear of being perceived as racist, they are more concerned about protecting the feelings of Muslims over the safety and rights of British boys.

What Freedom Means

To protect the freedom of speech of those who say hateful things does not mean that you have to support it.

As Julian Adorney argued: “Bigotry is a real problem in any large society, but hate speech laws aren’t the solution. They drive prejudice underground and let it fester. There’s strong evidence that they may actually foster prejudice rather than reduce it.”

Sunlight is the best disinfectant when it comes to bad ideas. The only way to expose why some ideas are wrong is to debate and debunk them. When the four students damaged the Quran, a better way to deal with the situation would be to explain to the students why that can be seen as disrespectful.

In addition, the same standard should be applied equally with all those who are religious and non-religious. To force an individual to abide by another’s religion is to undermine their right to self ownership and their ability to rationally decide which religion is right for them.

Furthermore, it is through free speech that those with religious views can attempt to convince others in the marketplace of ideas. For example, two prominent British Muslim Youtubers who share their beliefs through free speech are Mohammed Hijab and Ali Dawah. Platforms like Youtube and Twitter have allowed individuals of all faiths to discuss their beliefs with their community, which is much more moral than through the coercion of the state.

Betraying a Legacy

This trend is particularly sad considering Britain’s role in world history as a pioneer of religious tolerance and freedom of belief.

The British people have fought hard for their freedom to practice and preach their individual beliefs. The country has come a long way from the mutual religious persecutions between Catholics and Protestants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—whether that be Queen Mary’s order of hundreds of Protestants to be burnt at the stake or her sister and successor Elizabeth persecuting Catholics by the law. Such interfaith conflict continued with the English Civil War and beyond.

However, Britons discovered that the antidote to religious conflict was freedom of conscience. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century, there were several acts of Parliament which protected the rights of persecuted religious groups. One of the most notable pieces of legislation was the Toleration Act which granted some religious freedom to nonconformists, including Quakers and Baptists. The light of religious liberty was further inflamed through the Catholic Relief Act of 1778 and the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829: pieces of legislation that granted Catholics freedom such as the right to own property and inherit land.

When the Enlightenment philosopher and writer, Voltaire visited England in the 18th century to escape persecution for his writings in France, he noted how civil people were towards those of different faiths:

“I have seen in England more than thirty different religions, which live together peacefully without any trouble… In this great nation, everyone is free to serve God in his own way..”

Conclusion

The punishment of students for damaging a Quran and the broader trend of acquiescing to religious intolerance and persecution is a retrogression and a betrayal of this proud history.

Contrary to what the British left seems to believe, if the state continues to appease religious zealots by persecuting “infidels,” it will not create racial and cultural harmony, but will only foment further discord.

As Britons of the past heroically discovered, the only way to achieve harmony is freedom.

The post What Four British Students Being Suspended After Damaging a Quran Means for Freedom of Speech was first published by the Foundation for Economic Education, and is republished here with permission. Please support their efforts.