Ex-education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said schools were somewhere where children ought to be “exposed to different, and even potentially offensive, ideas and images”.
His warning came as think-tank research claimed more staff avoided showing images of the Prophet Muhammad since a Batley Grammar teacher was forced into hiding after protests when he did so during a lesson about blasphemy in 2021.
Depictions of Muhammad and other prophets are banned in Islam as they are regarded by believers as infallible. According to the faith, they should not be presented in any manner that may cause disrespect.
Policy Exchange’s surveys found that more than half of teachers would not show such an image in class. While another one in 10 said their decision was down to protests that flared at the West Yorkshire school.
Mr Zahawi, who fled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as a child, said he had learned to think for himself since, unlike schools in Baghdad, “no topic was off-limits” in English classrooms.
He added: “Freedom of speech is not just a Western value – it is our common birthright.
“Teachers in Britain remember the terrible fate of Samuel Paty in France, who was beheaded for showing a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad in a lesson highlighting the importance of freedom of speech.
“They also recall…the teacher from Batley Grammar School who was forced into anonymity. That he is still in hiding over two years later is a national disgrace. Polling for Policy Exchange shows that one in 10 teachers are less likely to show an image of the Prophet Muhammad in lessons as a result of the Batley Grammar School protests.
“Our teachers – and their pupils – deserve better than this. We owe it to them to support them to provide a secure environment where open, honest and free discussion is not only permitted, but actively encouraged.”
The Batley teacher is believed to be living under a new name.
Policy Exchange said the 16% of staff who admit they alter teaching to avoid causing religious offence rises to 19% for English and art tutors.
Half of teachers believe if blasphemy-related protests led by activist and advocacy groups occur at their schools, there is a risk to their safety.
The think tank wants clearer guidance for schools. The Department for Education said: “It is never acceptable to threaten or intimidate teachers.
“All schools are required to promote our shared fundamental British values including individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance.”