Response unit needed to tackle blasphemy flashpoints, report says

A new report has recommended creating a special unit tasked with responding to “flashpoint incidents” such as blasphemy protests.

The report by Sara Khan, the Independent Adviser for Social Cohesion and Resilience, calls for a “new approach” to social policy, including the creation of a cross-government “Cohesion Response Unit”.

The unit would be tasked with responding to incidents like that of Batley Grammar School, where a religious studies teacher was forced into hiding in March 2021 following accusations of ‘blasphemy’ for showing a picture of Muhammad to a class (pictured).

The report’s recommendations echo previous calls from the National Secular Society to do more to support schools facing intimidation and pressure from religious fundamentalists.

“Weak response” from political leaders serving interest of extremists

The report said there was a “clear need” for institutions to “defend and support teaching staff who experience freedom-restricting harassment”, and that local authorities and communities require better support in tackling “complex threats which endanger cohesion”.

Highlighting the case of Batley Grammar School, the report criticised the “poor” response of the school, West Yorkshire Police, and Kirklees Council. It said they demonstrated a “lack of leadership” and “failed to understand the significance of the potential threat to life” involved in accusations of ‘blasphemy’.

The report said this “weak response from political leaders” served the interests of Islamist and far right actors who hijacked the tensions, with “the attempt to appease aggressive actors” galvanising “intimidatory tactics”.

Noting the “frightening and intimidating” nature of blasphemy related protests, the report criticised the “inadequate” provision of national guidance and support for schools on how to respond to such incidents.

Report calls for schools to teach critical thinking and how to live in diverse society

The report recommended the Cohesion Response Unit work together with a new Office for Social Cohesion and Democratic Resilience, tasked with examining the scale, impact and trends of freedom-restricting harassment on censoring democratic rights and freedoms.

A separate “Cohesion and Conflict Unit” should also be established by the Department for Education, the report said. This unit should “provide better support and care” for schools and teachers who find themselves being threatened and harassed.

The unit would also issue guidance to schools on teaching what it “means to live in a diverse democracy, how to manage opposing and different opinions, how to debate well and the importance of critical thinking”.

The NSS has called for similar topics to be the focus of a reformed subject replacing Religious Education.

NSS: ‘Appeasement of fundamentalists undermines democracy”

NSS chief executive Stephen Evans said: “Polarisation and rising religious fundamentalism demand that we take social cohesion seriously – and actively explore how to better protect and promote liberal values.

“Sara Khan’s report makes a timely and valuable contribution to this important debate.

“The recommendation of a cross-Whitehall Cohesion Unit to respond to flashpoint incidents such as Batley echoes our own calls. A tendency to appease outraged mobs has undermined democracy and chipped away at the right to free expression.”

“We hope all political parties will engage positively with the report’s recommendations with a view to building a more inclusive and resilient secular democracy.”

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