Another free speech issue has come up in the press. This time, it is a teacher in a Catholic school, daring to affirm his view that Mohammad was a false prophet. You can read the full story at the Archbishop Cranmer blog here.
The teacher in question did not simply assert Mohammad was a false prophet in the middle of a classroom. He stated his view in his own time. Here is the account he gives for his dismissal.
The Archbishop Cranmer blog is apt to note:
You may find Mr Sutcliffe’s grasp of theology somewhat naive and some of his turns of phrase rather offensive: ‘LGBT mafia’ and ‘Islamic Mafia’ doesn’t suggest an openness to fraternal dialogue. He obviously doesn’t use such terms in the classroom, but he says in the video that the former got him kicked out of one school, and the latter got him kicked out of another. To be sacked once may be regarded as a misfortune; to be sacked twice looks like carelessness.
But here is the specific video in question where he offers his view on Mohammad:
As Cramner noted, we might not think the position is stated with great eloquence. We may find the manner in which some of these things are said to be less than ideal (as we judge these things). You may think him evangelistically unwise in taking this particular line. But free speech is not typically concerned with how well one happens to express one’s opinions. It is concerned merely with the right to express them.
But that aside, the strangest part is that stating Mohammad is a false prophet was the thing that got him sacked from his Catholic school. As Cranmer notes, ‘it is Christian and Jewish orthodoxy. Further, it is atheist and humanist orthodoxy.’ More to the point, it is specifically Catholic orthodoxy. To be sacked from a Catholic school for uttering Catholic orthodoxy, even doing so away from the school in your own time, is absurd.
You may not like how he said it. But the reality is that our commitment to essential freedoms is not tested when people are saying things we like in ways that we think are helpful ways to say them. Our commitment to such things is tested when people say things we either don’t like or in ways we wish they hadn’t said them. Quite what a Catholic school is doing sacking him for expressing their own theology in a setting that has nothing to do with his role as a teacher is, frankly, baffling.
But the fact is, Christians (indeed, as anyone who is not a Muslim clearly also believes), Mohammad was a false prophet. If we don’t think it to be so, we would all be Muslims. To not be a Muslim is to implicitly consider Mohammad to be a false prophet. Otherwise, we would recognise his status as a prophet and follow his teachings. Such is true of those who do not follow Christ, Gautama Buddha, Guru Nanak, Joseph Smith or whomever. To not follow them is to deny their claims to spiritual truth. It is, de facto, to consider them false prophets.
Interestingly, for those who want to argue that Mr Sutcliffe was unwise to express his view on inter-faith dialogue grounds, as somebody meaningfully involved in regular interfaith dialogue, that view is not borne out in reality. I have stood with my Muslim friends, whom I listen to very respectfully and who subsequently listen to me, and stated in exactly those words: I think Mohammad is a false prophet.
It was hardly a shock to my friends because they know I am not a Muslim. They know I already think that. And because they are not idiots, and already knew that to be true, we didn’t fall out about it. I don’t worship Allah because I don’t believe Mohammad, just as neither of us listen to the teachings of Joseph Smith because we don’t believe he was a prophet. To pretend that we somehow don’t think this is to speak entirely against the fact and is to be the very worst kind of patronising. Rather than pretend we think all the same things when we clearly don’t, we prefer to be honest about what we think and trust that our friendship will hold despite our robust disagreement. It is only this sort of line that even makes dialogue possible. Otherwise, we may as well turn up and do nothing more than chat about the weather.
Which brings me back to the Catholic school. Not only do they undermine their own stated orthodoxy in disciplining Mr Sutcliffe for affirming their own beliefs, they simultaneously patronise any Muslims who either attend the school or heard Mr Sutcliffe’s comment by trying to maintain the charade that their own church doesn’t hold to that very teaching. It is both anti-free speech and not a little stupid.
Where does this leave us? It would seem a teacher has been sacked for stating, in his private time outside of his capacity as a teacher, what is the orthodox and stated position of his employer. As Cranmer concludes:
Are schoolteachers no longer permitted in their own time and in their own space to examine the impending crisis of universalism versus multiculturalism? What happened to freedom of religion?