We’ve been here before – and the fallout wasn’t good. Scene: a classroom in west London in the Spring of 1989. I’m teaching a rather large 6th form. We’re doing an exam called GCSE “Mature” English. “Mature” is a euphemism for “Re-sit”. Few of the pupils are English. Many are fleeing the war zones of the world, especially the present horrors in the Lebanon. The class is a rich mix of religions and races, multiculturalism on legs, and thus a delicious Daily Mail nightmare. This is usually one of my favourite lessons. The pupils are very bright and considered and passionately engaged. But not today. Today we trade in dogma. Why?
He’s just published The Satanic Verses. And the Ayatollah Khomeini has just issued a fatwa against him. Why? “Blasphemy against Islam.” A million pounds is on his head.
I saw him last week down the Portobello. His book must, of course, be burned. It’s already rumoured to have been burned in the 6th form gardens, probably by some of my class. Dear me. This gibberish is ruining the lesson. My classroom’s gone global and becomes ever more strident. It’s becoming a theatre of prejudice.
Aisha, wearing a hijab, politically sussed, rants about the whores and pornography and greed and immorality and immodesty of the West. A fair cop. Emo Alice, wearing Satan tattoos, agrees – the middle class feminist in fierce cahoots with the raving fundamentalist.
Rasta Shaka, wearing Dreads, concurs: “Babylon is full of battymen and ‘ting”. Gloria, wearing cherry lipgloss, yells: “I ain’t no ho!” Gina, sucking her teeth can only agree: “I be wearing what I wants. Like you wearin’ that rag on your head!” Nigel Plum stays shtum and drifts to the right.
I do the pallid liberal smile and blether on about the freedom of speech and the burning of books and the horror of the Nazis. “You callin’ me a Nazi now?” says Salim, who’s just fled from Beirut. He’s recently seen his family murdered and various bodies shot to bits on the streets.
How do I referee this? Shall I ask the class to consider the clash of civilisations or the clash between the literal and the metaphoric? Probably not. Salim is now beside himself – and me, in a rather menacing way.
“He dissin’ us, man. He dissin’ Allah. Praise be to Allah!”
We seem to have descended to Babel. My lovely, bright pupils are so much better than these tedious, silly opinions. Fundamentalism, of any kind, corrupts. It’s the opposite of education.
Pip! Pip! I’m saved by the pips, these non-denominational pips.
Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.