At the recent Freshers Fair at the London School of Economics the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society manned their stall wearing t-shirts featuring Jesus and Mo cartoons. Officers of the Student Union, backed up by university security, decided that the t-shirts created an “offensive environment” and constituted “harassment” that threatened to “disrupt the event”.
Let’s talk plainly about this. They objected because the t-shirts displayed a depiction of Mohammed. Islam adopts a rule of not depicting Mohammed, and the LSE SU have decided that everyone else at their university must obey this rule. Not to adopt this Islamic rule for yourself is “offensive” to Muslims and thus “harasses” them. It constitutes “Islamophobia”, a form of “racism”, in the Union’s overly broad interpretation of that word.
Admittedly, the t-shirts also contained a depiction of Jesus, but everyone knows that that was not the issue. Further, the mere display of satirical cartoons is not the problem. You can bet that, were the LSESU’s Labour or Conservative society to display satirical cartoons of political leaders — of the sort that appear every day in newspapers — then no-one would bat an eyelid.
Notice that, in reporting the affair, the Independent showed one panel of the offending cartoon. Which panel? You won’t be surprised that it was the only one of the four panels that depicted Jesus but not Mo.
The LSE SU can’t argue that this was only about making everyone feel welcome at a Fresher’s Fair, because they have previous form. Last year they tried to stop the same Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society from putting Jesus and Mo cartoons on their Facebook page. The same happened at University College London.
A spokesman for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association, Adam Walker, complained about the cartoons saying: “The principle is more important than who is being attacked – this time it is Muslims and Christians but in the future it could be atheists themselves”. Well, you know what, Mr Walker, we atheists are entirely ok with being “attacked” by having satirical cartoons drawn about us. Please go ahead! That competition of ideas is what intellectual life is about.
One might think that going to university involves encountering other people’s views, views one might find different or even intellectually threatening. And one might think that satirical cartoons aimed at establishment and authority figures have a long history in the UK, and that the right to poke fun at important people and at influential ideas is at the core of our freedoms and of our progress as a society. If you’re upset or offended by someone else’s ideas, or someone’s criticisms of your ideas, then grow up and deal with it; that’s what a free society is like.
But that cuts no ice with Student Unions. They claim to respect a “commitment to free speech”, but to them free speech has clear limits, and that limit is when it conflicts with Islamic requirements.
Not yet convinced that this is about imposing Islamic rules? Well, consider that previously the ASH had — at the request of ex-Muslim groups — asked to expand their name to become the “Atheist, Secularist, Humanist and Ex-Muslim Society”. Boy oh boy did the SU not like that. They twisted and turned, explaining that it would only be allowed if the Society first showed “clear cooperation with the Muslim society”. Then they decided to disallow it because it “might endanger ex-Muslims”.
Now, why did the SU not like it? It is because Islam doesn’t allow apostasy and regards the act of leaving the Islamic faith as a crime meriting death. And thus the SU couldn’t acknowledge even the concept of an “ex-Muslim”, because to do so would be “offensive” to Muslims.
The LSE SU are not the only ones who think like this. The Reading University SU expelled the Reading Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society because — in an effort to highlight the issue of blasphemy — they put a label saying “Mohammed” on to a pineapple. Obviously this is against Islamic rules and so obviously it could not be allowed.
At the London Metropolitan University the Vice Chancellor pondered a ban on selling alcohol over large parts of the campus. Prof Gillies said that it was a matter of “cultural sensitivity” towards the students who regarded alcohol as “immoral”. As he explained:
There are students who do come from a tradition that says alcohol is evil and they need to feel that they have a place at London Metropolitan University.
In other words, if it is against Islamic rules, then other people must also abide by the rule, out of “respect” and “cultural sensitivity”. Predictably, a National Union of Students vice-president called it “a sensible move by a university vice chancellor to make a large proportion of his students more comfortable on campus”.
Some Muslims students, though, disagreed. In a letter to Prof Gillies they stated: “We find your argument to ban alcohol on religious grounds baseless”, and called it an “unreasonable proposal” that would be “no benefit to the Muslim students” but instead “demonise” them.
Which raises the question, are moderate Muslims pushing for such things, or is it merely the militant Islamists, aided by well-meaning but perhaps naive enthusiasts of the sort who run student unions? How many Muslims actually complained about the Jesus and Mo t-shirts at the LSE Fresher’s Fair before the Student Union ideologues took it on themselves to ban them? How much “disruption” and “harassment” actually was there, before the Student Union decided to do some harassment and disruption of their own, in the cause of “respecting” Islamic decrees?
Who decided that if one group wants to impose its rules on society at large, then all that need happen is for the militants among them to claim that they will be “offended” if it doesn’t happen, and then everyone else, led by youthful idealists, will jump to comply?
If an observant Jew wishes to avoid switching a light switch on the Sabbath then that is up to them, but everyone would regard it as absurd if others were expected to also abstain from using light switches, otherwise the Jews might get all “offended”. Everyone accepts that religious freedom means that one does not have to obey the rules of someone else’s religion. Except when it comes to Islam.
Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic militants are winning this battle, but they are doing it through our willingness to self-censor. When Khomeini pronounced his fatwa that the “apostate author of the Satanic Verses is condemned to death” the Western world was outraged. Later, when Jyllands-Posten’s cartoons depicting Mohammed met a violent response, the Western world was less outraged, with many blaming the cartoonists for provoking the reaction.
Gradually, the West decided that the easier path was to do as the militants wanted, and to impose Islamic rules on ourselves to avoid upsetting anyone. And now the Student Unions are pushing that further, demanding that everyone comply. The right to conspicuously disregard somebody else’s merely religious rules is at the root of religious freedom, and we need to maintain it. Islamists might not draw Mohammed, but we do. In the West we criticise and satirise and draw cartoons about anything important or influential, and Islam is fair game. We should stop the meek submission of self-censorship.
Update (19th December 2013): The LSE have apologised, issuing a statement beginning:
The London School of Economics and Political Science has today apologised to two students from the LSE Students’ Union Atheist Secularist and Humanist Society (ASH) who wore t-shirts depicting Mohammed and Jesus at the SU Freshers’ Fair on 3 October 2013 and who were asked to cover their t-shirts or face removal from the Fair. The Director of the School, Professor Craig Calhoun, has written to the students acknowledging that, with hindsight, the wearing of the t-shirts on this occasion did not amount to harassment or contravene the law or LSE policies.