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25 March 2023

Once upon a time in Wakefield

The truth about one white 14-year-old schoolboy and a Koran is less straightforward than the culture war narrative suggests.

By Harry Lambert

On Wednesday 22 February, a Koran was scuffed, marked and kicked around by a group of schoolboys at Kettlethorpe High School in the west Yorkshire cathedral city of Wakefield. Two days later, on the Friday afternoon, an open meeting was held at a local mosque, Jamia Masjid Swafia, to discuss the incident. Footage of that meeting, which lasted for an hour, was broadcast live on the mosque’s public Facebook page. Clips from that meeting soon spread across social media. 

The video clips disturbed many viewers. The footage appeared to show a woman – the mother of one of the boys – being forced, out of terror, to plead for her son’s safety. Her son was autistic, and had brought the Koran into the school after being pressured by other boys to buy it online. Yet he had, she said, “received death threats” for his role in the incident, even though he had not damaged the book himself. 

The mother had addressed the audience at the mosque alongside a local councillor, a police chief inspector, the headmaster of the school, and the imam of the mosque, Hafiz Muhammad Mateen Anwar. Power, however, appeared to emanate not from the police but from Mateen, who was clipped saying that Muslims “will never tolerate disrespect of the holy Koran… we will sacrifice our lives for it”. 

Journalists were appalled. Why were the authorities nodding in agreement as Mateen spoke so fiercely and as the mother suffered? The scene was “reminiscent of Maoist show trials” wrote one newspaper columnist, with another describing the mother as “compelled to grovel” before “a quasi-judicial hearing”. This narrative hardened as news of what had happened travelled. This was “a woman begging for her child’s life”, wrote Graeme Wood, a staff writer at the Atlantic, who saw the chief inspector as complicit in an attempt to “bully the mother”. Rumours were repeated as facts in national newspapers. The boy had been forced to flee his home, it was reported. He was living under police protection. 

Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, seized on the story, writing in the Times of the “disturbing video” which “looked more like a sharia law trial, inappropriately held at a mosque… in front of an all-male crowd”. There is no law against apostasy in Britain, Braverman wrote, and “accusing someone of apostasy or blasphemy is effectively inciting violence upon that person”. The Free Speech Union, run by the Spectator columnist Toby Young, wrote to the Charity Commission, demanding the mosque be investigated for being in breach of its charitable status. 

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Many in the media were fired by a moral outrage of the kind they deplore in other activists. But that outrage was misplaced. The clips were not what they seemed. The narrative they had absorbed was a lie.

[See also: Joan Bakewell’s Diary: living with cancer, and the age of the grandparent]

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The media reaction came in the context of another incident that took place last year, ten miles from Kettlethorpe at Batley Grammar School. A teacher at Batley was forced into hiding (where he remains) after showing pupils a depiction of Muhammad. That event has made observers wary of militant Islam – it has also made schools hypersensitive to the protests that minor actions can cause. In the case of Kettlethorpe, that hypersensitivity stoked the furore.

Turn up at the Swafia mosque in Wakefield on a Thursday night and you will not find it hard to meet the imam, Mateen. When I arrived unannounced to attend his weekly lecture on 16 March, I was welcomed in. No distinction was made between me, a non-believer, and any of the mosque’s members or Muslims in attendance. (Wakefield has a smaller Muslim population – 3 per cent – than in neighbouring areas.)

I attended the last gathering at the mosque, or masjid, before the month of Ramadan, and the mood was one of calm excitement among the boys and men present. Mateen, who is 30, and who had greeted me on his way in, was explaining the meaning and demands of the month of fasting ahead of them all. Ramadan, he explained, is a blessed month. The fast is not a burden but an opportunity. 

Fasting, Mateen said, “should make your heart softer”. To fast is to purify yourself, physically and spiritually. After Ramadan, all who fast – going without food or water between dawn and dusk – can hope to emerge “more peaceful, more merciful”, so long as they follow the fast in spirit as well as practice. Fasting, Mateen said, “will make no difference if you [continue to] slander and swear and backbite. What, then, is the purpose of your fast? It is just a diet, it is not an increase in your God-consciousness.” 

I had not yet sat down with Mateen or understood the truth behind the viral video as I listened to him talk. I also did not yet know that Akef Akbar – the independent councillor for Wakefield East, whose brief speech in the video had also sparked alarm, and whom I had been trying to reach for days – was in the room too. 

Mateen was preaching peace, giving practical advice on exactly what would and would not amount to the breaking of one’s fast. Where was the imam who spoke of sacrificing his life for the Koran? Where was the man who said Muslims would “never tolerate disrespect”, and insisted this schoolboy incident not be “brushed under the carpet”? “We don’t let this go,” he had said in the video. “The Koran is more important to us than our own lives.” 

I looked around, at the boy who had ushered me into the main room, at the man who had offered me water, at the imam moving between Arabic and English. Where was the intolerant religious mob of Wakefield described by the Home Secretary, the mob that had hounded an autistic boy into hiding and de facto imposed a new set of blasphemy laws on Britain? 

[See also: The making of the Muslim world]

The story that was told to explain what happened at Kettlethorpe, a school of 1,600 pupils, was established within 72 hours of the incident. Four pupils, including an autistic boy, were suspended by teachers at the school, declared one writer, because they were “trying to appease a mob of activists”. It was assumed, including by Braverman, that Muslim uproar forced the school to act, and then forced the mother of the autistic child to plead for forgiveness at the mosque in the video dissected online. 

This is what really happened. On Wednesday 22 February, the Koran was brought into school by the mother’s son – a white British boy – as a dare set by other boys after he lost a video game. The Koran was passed around at school and ended up being damaged by others. That was disrespectful, but it was a school matter that did not need to take on any wider meaning. It should never have left the school gates. It did so not because of the actions of the mosque, but because the incident was mishandled by the school.

The next morning, on Thursday 23 February, the school, eager to show that it was taking what  happened seriously, held an assembly during which the boys were named. “Awful things” had been done to the Koran, it was said. This comment proved inflammatory. This vague claim spread online, setting fire to unfounded rumours. By midnight, users on Facebook were calling for a lunchtime protest at Kettlethorpe the next day. “Time to stand up!” wrote one Muslim man based in Bradford (15 miles away). “Some pupils tore up the Noble Koran in front of Muslim students… Don’t listen to the defeatists and sell outs who will tell you it’s ‘more educated and responsible’ to stay at home and to beg the same dirty politicians who promote and defend this behaviour.”

“The rumours must have spread from the kids,” said Akbar, the councillor, when we spoke. “I don’t know how it extended so far out. Before I found out, people all over the country knew.” 

This mood was fuelled by a local Labour councillor, Usman Ali, who precipitously tweeted and later deleted a message shortly after midnight on 23 February claiming that the Koran had been “desecrated” in a “terrible provocation”. (When I reached Ali by phone on 16 March, he could not hang up quickly enough. “I’m afraid I’m in meetings all day my friend,” he told me at 4.04pm. “Bye, bye, bye.”)

On the morning of Friday 24 February, Kettlethorpe’s headmaster, Tudor Griffiths – in a bid to correct the falsehoods being shared – met local councillors at the school (including Ali and Akbar) as well as representatives from three local mosques. That is when Imam Mateen of the Swafia mosque first heard about the incident, by which time the four schoolboys had already been suspended. They were not suspended at the mosque’s demand. It was the school who enlisted the mosque in order to calm the tensions spreading online. The school wanted to hold a public meeting that afternoon with the police and the Muslim community. They could not do so at the school for safeguarding reasons, so the imam offered them use of the masjid. 

[See also: Muslim women know Andrew Tate has no place in Islam]

At lunchtime that day, the boy’s mother contacted Akbar for the first time. The four boys, she said in a text message to him, had been “outed” by the school. “The way the school has since dealt with it [the incident] has caused much upset,” she wrote to Akbar, who spoke to me in a small room after evening prayers. By naming her son, and claiming that “awful things” had been done to the Koran, the school had inadvertently made him a target on social media; he had started to receive threats online from Muslim boys at the school, and his photo was being shared. The school advised her son not to come in. He was effectively suspended for his own safety.

“He didn’t burn or tear a Koran” as was being rumoured, the mother said in her message to Akbar, adding that she did not want the other boys to be prosecuted because of her son’s “silly” behaviour. She wanted to meet Akbar to tell the true story, inviting him to her home. 

Akbar offered to bring some food to her son, who hadn’t eaten in 18 hours. He met the boy, who was scared and apologetic, but Akbar told him he had nothing to apologise for. He assured him that he would talk to the boys who had threatened him that weekend. The mother asked to attend the meeting with him. 

The mosque did not ask the mother to speak. The mother asked the mosque if she could address the room. The mosque did not tell her to cover her head. She asked them if it would be respectful to wear a scarf; one was eventually found at her request. The audience was also not, as Braverman claimed, all male. Babies can be heard in the video, and the imam twice refers to the women present: a divider ran down the room, with men and women segregated, as is customary in Islam (and Orthodox Judaism). 

“What is a trial?” said Akbar, who is also a solicitor, when we met on 16 March. “A trial is where you judge somebody. Who was judging this lady? She was treated with the highest degree of respect. I walked out with her. Everybody was coming up to her, saying how brave she was.” 

But why did the mother need to be brave? Whose anger was she confronting? The fury was not felt in the room. If you listen to the full video, the crowd is calm. The point of the meeting, the imam told me, was to address the “frustration being felt by a number of Muslims” elsewhere, and assure them that the Koran had not been burned or desecrated, and that the police, the school and the mosque were now working as one. He told me he did not regret any part of the video, as it was a way of “extending the truth”.

In the clips shared online, the most emphatic message delivered by the imam was missed. “In any element of the history of Islam,” he says at one point, “you will never see any part where the prophet ordered violence, or asked a companion to go and harm someone. So anyone who thinks that it is appropriate to put threats out on social media… or to cause anyone fear, alarm or distress – that person is not truly following the teachings of Islam. It is as simple as that… If you are wanting to defend the honour of the Koran, then do not go against the holy Koran. You will defend the holy Koran by showing resilience, by showing patience.”

[See also: Ed Husain: “Neglect by left and right makes the challenge of Islamism worse”]

The mother declined to talk to the New Statesman, saying that she wanted to move on from what had happened. It is not she but the school that has questions to answer. 

When I arrived at the school on 16 March, I was met with hostility and was told by the headmaster that I should leave immediately. A press officer from Wakefield council, which runs the school, later contacted me to say that “no further comments or interviews are being given”. When presented with the account in this piece, the chief executive of Wakefield council, responded: “The action taken in the school, which was supported by the Department for Education, West Yorkshire Police and Wakefield Council, helped the school very quickly settle back into being a supportive and inclusive learning environment.”  

The school may have erred in its rush to react to the incident, but Braverman’s decision to weigh in on the matter in the Times eight days later was different. The Home Secretary, with all the power of the state at her disposal, made no attempt to find out what had happened at Kettlethorpe. The prevailing narrative was too good to check. By describing the gathering at the mosque as a “sharia law trial”, and declaring that the mother of the boy had been “made to account” for his behaviour, Braverman emboldened multiculturalism’s most intolerant critics.

Mateen, the imam, wants the Home Secretary to come to his mosque. He extended an invite to her when we spoke. “Please come to the next Thursday gathering. I will have a special seat arranged for her,” he said. “She can come and talk to me and understand the reality of the situation.”

The imam was sanguine about the situation. Akbar was less at ease. Braverman’s words have had consequences. “Mateen is an imam who is also a solicitor,” he told me. “She put him at risk. She put me at risk. She put the mosque at risk. Since she wrote that article, I’ve had threats. Why would you so carelessly write that?” 

Rasmus Paludan, a convicted racist based in Denmark, was inspired by the incident to release a video on 19 March in which he promised to burn a Koran in Wakefield three days later, on the start of Ramadan. He spoke in the video of the “brave innocent 14-year-old boy” who had been “severely threatened by… undemocratic forces”, a false account that echoed Braverman’s narrative. Paludan’s threat was taken up in the House of Commons the next day, with Tom Tugendhat, the security minister in Braverman’s Home Office, informing the chamber that Paludan would not be allowed to enter the UK. 

In her piece, Braverman wrote of the need “to protect people from the mob”. But there are many types of mob, and the uninformed broadsides of home secretaries create their own threats. The Kettlethorpe incident was not, as she and others claimed, a lesson in blasphemy but a lesson in misinformation.

[See also: The battle for the soul of British Islam]

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This article appears in the 29 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special