At the chalkface: Certainties are toxic

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:
Former teacher, Ian Whitwham

At first I took them on. Have you even read it? Why should we do what God says? When is obedience a good idea? Certainties are toxic. Complexities aren’t. We need doubt, we need humour. You burn books and you will end up burning people.

In March 1989 I had a sixth form, a GCSE Mature group. They were a re-sit group of about 30 pupils and one of my favourite classes.

Most had failed their English GCSE because they weren’t English. Many were seeking asylum and refuge from war. Some had witnessed appalling horrors and atrocities. Some had seen their family killed.

They were deracinated, disorientated, traumatised and, yes, radicalised. They’d probably be off-rolled these days. The rest were English or first generation English. We had most religions, many Muslims.

The class buzzed. We got on. Discussion was passionate, sometimes intemperate, always interesting and as serious as your life. We weren’t dealing with first world problems. This was visceral and urgent. Severe Middle Eastern perspectives clashed with louche West London ones, but it was nothing we couldn’t handle. I learned a lot.

Then something happened. Ayatollah Khomeini, supreme leader of Iran, issued a “fatwa” – whatever that was. It seemed to involve the killing of the novelist Salman Rushdie for having written Satanic Verses; £1 million on his head. Wasn’t this Medieval?

A post-modern novel, a piece of magic realism collided full on with literal fundamentalism. A murderous culture clash. There was infinite space for incomprehension and wrath. The novel mocked and insulted Islam. It was burned in Bradford and other towns. It was burned in my school by some of my favourite class. The “fatwa” ruined my classroom. Where once we had tentative discussions and listened, we now had shouting and threat. I was a dithering liberal – a raving atheist, a believer in free speech and the enlightenment – in the middle of this maelstrom.

At first I took them on. Have you even read it? Why should we do what God says? When is obedience a good idea? Certainties are toxic. Complexities aren’t. We need doubt, we need humour. You burn books and you will end up burning people.

Two Muslim boys got up, beside themselves with fury, shook the Koran in my face, and promised me hell. I thought that I was perhaps going there that afternoon: “You are blaspheming!”

I was. I was being insensitive. Martin Amis and Hanif Kureishi defended Rushdie to the hilt. They should have been in my classroom.

After that I became circumspect and censored myself. Those boys knew where I lived.

That it should come to this. Fundamentalism makes fools of us all. Shades of opinion, nuance, are extinguished. The class were much better than this. Everything became polarised. Then came 9-11 and the world became polarised, a Babel. The world became my classroom.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


Comments
Name
 
Email
 
Comments
 

Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
 
Sign up SecEd Bulletin