More on the UCL censorship case

The Jesus and Mo furore at UCL has sparked further debate today, much of it focused on the Ahmadiyya group’s response. So I’ll start with a few points about this.  The author, S. M. Tahir Nasser, acknowledges that ASH has the right to post the cartoons, but he takes strong issue with Richard Dawkins’ claim that: “Jesus and Mo cartoons are wonderfully funny and true. They could offend only those actively seeking to be offended – which says it all” Tahir Nasser asserts that:

It is not for Mr. Dawkins or anyone else to decide what views are and are not to be found offensive to others.

This is surely true.  It is widely known that Muslims object to representations of Mohammed, so pictures of him propping up a bar are obviously going to offend many.  And, more generally, it’s difficult to argue with subjective responses.  (That doesn’t mean either that ASH was trying to be offensive, or that they shouldn’t be allowed to be offensive.) It’s unfair to people who are genuinely offended, even if one thinks they are irrational and/or should be ignored, to accuse them of dishonesty or ulterior motives (as so often happens to those who have sincere concerns about antisemitism).

Once a particular act is deemed to be offensive to another, it is only good manners to refrain from, at the very least, repeating that act.

That I definitely don’t agree with.  To use examples others have invoked, racists and homophobes might object to images of interracial or gay relationships.  Many find it offensive when people conceal their faces – but put up with this because they find the idea of controlling how people dress, without good reason, still more offensive. 

But this rather technical point should perhaps be engaged with:

The post on the blog of an individual, upon which the twelve further cartoon panels have been posted and which has attained prominence both on the UCLU ASH Facebook page and on the Richard Dawkins Foundation website, has as its title “Atheists face Muslim-led censorship from UCL Union”. This is entirely a misrepresentation of the facts. Of the thirty Union Council members, four are Muslims and none of them were among those who complained to the Union. That some Muslims who are not union council members voiced their offense to the Union cannot be said to be a “Muslim-led censorship from UCL Union”. The only purpose such a title could serve is to further aggravate the situation and raise the hackles of those both for and against the stance taken by UCLU ASH.

 as is politely acknowledged by Kieran Kearney in the comments here:

Members of ASH seem keen to emphasise that their quarrel is with the union, not with any individual Muslim who has said they have been offended.

Here a spokesman notes that:

AMSA has never been anything other than reasoned and courteous towards us. They may not agree with the posting of the image in the first place, but numerous individuals of the Ahmadiyya community have made it perfectly clear that they support our inalienable right to freedom of expression.

Alex Gabriel states that:

religious students can say what they want to say just like atheists can, including calling us offensive and asking for us to be censored.

That is not the problem. Student unions, after all, receive and reject all kinds of requests in an average week. The problem’s not that UCLU were asked to ban the cartoon. It’s that they said yes.

Here he speaks eloquently about the issues at stake:

Yes, it was hurtful to repost Jesus and Mo all over Facebook. Yes, it was profane. Everyone who reposted it knew it would offend a lot of Muslims when they did so. Crucially, this doesn’t mean that was the intention – it only means it was considered a price worth paying.

Here are some things which happened during the last few years:

  • Warwick Atheists were named Best Society by their union in 2008 – only to have the award withdrawn when their posters showed religious symbols in a bin.
  • Southampton Atheist Society wanted in 2009 to stage a debat about free speech, but were stopped by their student union after pressure from Muslims on campus. When finally the event was allowed, police were required to be present searching audience members, and the society (which had no budget) was forced to hire private security.
  • Leeds Atheist Society, most worryingly of all, had to call off their screening of Fitna over fears of Muslim violence when committee members received death threats. During their Reason Week the same year, they received more.

Have you heard about any of this? If not, it’s because until now atheist students facing censorship have stayed pretty quiet.

Now – I’m not a fan of Fitna. But it seems bizarre that any Student Union should want to clamp down on Jesus and Mo, given the hateful and inflammatory speakers who have been hosted by UCL societies in the past. (The relevant section begins on page 7.)

It’s important to acknowledge that not all who are offended by the images of Mohammed necessarily support those preachers.  The UCL Ahmadiyya group doesn’t seem extreme, and their latest post is actually from the Secretary for the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies expressing concerns about the rhetoric of Alex Gabriel, whom I quoted earlier.

Perhaps Jesus and Mo should have the last word.

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