England’s Archbishop Defends Free Speech After Mohammed Cartoons Protests

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 18: The Most Reverend Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury talks at a debate on social inequality at the annual CBI conference on November 18, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Leon Neal/Getty Images

The most senior Primate in England’s established church has backed free speech following protests and threats after a teacher in West Yorkshire showed a class a caricature of the Islamic prophet Mohammed.

Last week, administrators at Batley Grammar School suspended a teacher and apologised that the cartoons — reportedly taken from Charlie Hebdo — had been used in a lesson on blasphemy. Members of the Muslim community have been protesting outside of the school in Batley in open defiance of lockdown restrictions, while the 29-year-old teacher had reportedly gone into hiding and is allegedly under police protection.

Geography and history teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded in France by an Islamist teen refugee in October 2020 for using the Hebdo drawings during a lesson on freedom of expression. The Batley teacher’s father told the Daily Mail on Monday that his son fears he and his young family will face the same fate as Mr Paty and be murdered.

Commenting on the issue, the usually left-progressive Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, took a stance in defence of free speech, telling Italian daily La Repubblica on Tuesday that “in this country… we have to hold on to freedom of speech”.

He continued that many Muslim leaders across the United Kingdom were “very upset by the cartoons that were shown but also many of them have said no violence, no threats, make it clear that you disagree strongly, but no violence, no threats. In other words, exercise your freedom of speech, but don’t prevent other people exercising their freedom of speech.”

Describing blasphemy laws as “morally a bad choice”, Archbishop Welby said that he was “much more towards the U.S. end of the spectrum on freedom of speech than I am elsewhere towards the other end”.

“I think we have to be open to hearing things we really dislike,” he continued, adding: “There was someone the other day who was saying ‘the Archbishop of Canterbury who believes in fairies at the bottom of the garden’. Well, obviously, I entirely disagree with his assessment of the Christian faith, or the person of Jesus Christ. But I’m very glad that he feels able to say that, and I don’t want to threaten them for saying it. I don’t think he should be threatened.”

This stand for Western values contrasts with the actions of the head cleric at the height of the iconoclasm inspired by the Marxist Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests last year, when he said that while he was not in favour of “bringing down and breaking statues”, he would nevertheless be looking at the monuments at Canterbury cathedral, the seat of the worldwide Anglican communion, “very carefully”, to see if they all “should be there”.

“I mean, the church, goodness me, you know, you just go around Canterbury Cathedral, there’s monuments everywhere, or Westminster Abbey, and we’re looking at all that, and some will have to come down,” Welby had said in June.

Canterbury cathedral sources speaking to the local Gazette last month claimed it was actually “highly unlikely” that any statues in the medieval cathedral would be removed.

The archbishop also claimed last year that he had “white advantage. Educational advantage. Straight advantage. Male advantage” before alleging that the Church of England was “still deeply institutionally racist”.

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