Five years ago the historic mill town of Batley became the centre of a media circus when its MP Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right extremist. Cox’s tragic death in nearby Birstall at the hands of the white supremacist Thomas Mair looked set to cause ruptures in the community.
In her maiden speech the Labour MP Tracy Brabin, who was elected to replace Cox, said she would “stand tall against those whose only mission is to divide our community”. Brabin added that her constituency of Batley and Spen would “not be defined by the one person who took from us, but by the many who give”.
But the constituency continues to be a battleground for far-right activists. In the 2019 general election, an independent candidate known for anti-Muslim Facebook posts, Paul Halloran, came third ahead of the Liberal Democrat candidate.
On Thursday, protests erupted over claims a teacher had shown a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad to pupils at Batley grammar school and now there are fears the row could be hijacked by extremists on both sides.
But in the town, where Muslims make up 41% of the population, the day after the main protest, Brabins’ sentiment in her maiden speech is echoed by some living in the area with most locals describing the community as friendly and cohesive and saying they do not want trouble.
Outside the gates of the school, Hassan Mahmood said the protest was about educating people and raising awareness with the hope of increased community cohesion. “This is about generating that positive awareness so that there’s no sort of untoward reaction and there’s no disruption or disharmony in the community,” he said.
Mahmood explained that the issue centred on the potential impact on children, especially non-Muslims, and their knowledge of what is deemed offensive.
“The kind of message that’s going out from this school is quite dangerous for all children. You’re giving out the wrong information, you’re setting a wrong mindset, which doesn’t help community cohesion,” he said.
Shehram Farrukh, a fellow protester, said the demonstration had been about opening up a conversation. “So the thing is, if something happens, anywhere in any part of the world about the prophet Muhammad, we Muslims are very sensitive. We are not maligning anybody else, we just want to say, don’t make fun of our prophet. That’s all we want,” he said.
Rukhsana Khaliq and her daughter Maariha, 16, agreed the protest was warranted. Maariha went to the school but is now in sixth form elsewhere.
She said: “There’s nothing bad about the school. It’s just what he did was offensive and he didn’t know that. I feel like now that this has happened he understands.”
“There’s no way of accommodating that,” added her mother.
Qari Asim MBE, an imam at Leeds Makkah Mosque, said he sympathised with parents and pupils and that teachers have a responsibility to exercise better judgment for sensitive classroom content but added that the protests should stop and be replaced with constructive dialogue.
“We do not want to fan the flames of Islamophobia and provoke hatred or division,” he said.