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'Culture war' concerns over UK school Prophet Muhammad cartoon row

'Extremists on both sides' have hijacked the debate over the cartoon, says ex-chair of Conservative Party Sayeeda Warsi
The teacher, 29, is said to have shown the image to pupils during a lesson at the school in West Yorkshire on Monday (Twitter)

"Extremists on both sides" have hijacked the row over a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad being shown in a school in the north of England, Sayeeda Warsi, a member of the UK's House of Lords, has said.

People gathered for a second day on Friday outside Batley Grammar School in West Yorkshire to protest against the use of the image in a religious studies class.

Parts of the Quran are taken to mean that neither Allah nor the Prophet Muhammad can be captured in an image by human hand and any attempt to do so is seen in Islam as an insult.

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Baroness Warsi, a former chair of the ruling Conservative Party, told the BBC's Today programme that the debate around the use of the cartoon had been used to fuel a "culture war" at the expense of "kids and their learning".

A 29-year old teacher is said to have shown the image to pupils during a lesson on Monday.

Although uncomfirmed, the images are thought to be Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the prophet, which the magazine published in 2012. 

Three years later, the cartoons led to a gun attack on the magazine's Paris offices, in which 12 people were killed.

Warsi said she had spoken to pupils and parents over the last 24 hours and "that many pupils were left distressed because of what happened".

The Yorkshire Live blog, which covers news in the school's area, said it had been reported that the teacher was in police protection because of the "backlash" from angry parents.

'We are appalled'

Gary Kibble, the headmaster of the school, sent a letter to parents earlier this week offering a "sincere and full apology," and adding that showing the picture was "completely inappropriate".

He said that the image "had the capacity to cause great offence" to members of the school community, adding that the school had launched an investigation following complaints from parents.

"The member of staff has also given their most sincere apologies," he said.

"We have immediately withdrawn teaching on this part of the course, and we are reviewing how we go forward with the support of all the communities represented in our school."

On Thursday, Mufti Mohammed Amin Pandor, a local scholar and director of the Peace Institute, told a crowd outside the school: "What has happened in the school, we are appalled."

Announcing, before the school had, that the teacher had been suspended, Pandor said that "due process" needed to be followed.

"You know you can't just dismiss someone like that, they have due process."

Meanwhile, the Muslim Council of Britain, the UK's largest Muslim organisation, issued a statement on Twitter, saying that "some want to exploit this incident to further division and to marginalise Muslim communities," and that the "primary focus must be on the well-being of young schoolchildren".

The statement described the image of Prophet Muhammad as "an extremely offensive image that plays into the Islamophobic trope of Muslims and/or Islam being synonymous with terrorism and Muslims having a unique penchant for violence".

The MCB, however, welcomed the fact that the school has acknowledged that the material was inappropriate for use in a teaching environment.

'Respectful discussion'

Gavin Williamson, the UK's education minister, condemned on Thursday evening what he called the "threats and intimidation" that the suspended teacher had faced.

Williamson said that the protests outside the school were "completely unacceptable," adding that teachers are allowed to expose pupils to "challenging or controversial" issues.

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The Department for Education's response was criticised by the Manchester-based Ramadhan Foundation.

Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the organisation, told the UK's Telegraph newspaper that the community rejected any violence or threat of violence, and said the incident "will now be hijacked by those who have an interest in perpetuating an image of Muslims".

"It is alarming that the Department for Education chose to amplify those divisions by attacking the parents and pupils rather than looking how we can come together to have a respectful discussion and seek an end to this issue," he said.

According to a 2015 report by Ofsted, a division of the Department for Education that is responsible for inspecting a range of educational institutions, Batley Grammar had 689 pupils, of which almost three-quarters were from a minority ethnic background.

'Very disturbing'

Robert Jenrick, the UK's communities minister, said on Friday that protests outside the school were "not right" and reports the teacher is now in hiding were "very disturbing".

Jenrick told Sky News: "I don't know precisely what a teacher did in the classroom.

"We know that the school is looking into the matter and investigating, and that is absolutely right – the Department for Education is liaising with the school and the council."

When asked if it would be investigating the incident, Ofsted told Middle East Eye: "Ofsted doesn't investigate specific incidents or individual teachers. 

"If we have concerns about a school, we may decide to inspect, but we wouldn't discuss our inspection schedule in advance, as these are usually carried out with little or no notice."

In October, a French schoolteacher was beheaded just over a week after showing students in a class on freedom of expression a cartoon of the prophet.