Australian University Bans Satirical Piece on Islam from Student Paper, Citing Likelihood of Religious Violence

For a while now, the editors of Woroni, a student newspaper at Australian National University (ANU), have run a satirical series called “Advice from Religion.” The articles have so far made light of Catholicism, Scientology, Mormonism, Judaism, and Islam.

The final Woroni piece, presented as an infographic, asked “How should I value women?” It answered with references to Aisha, the nine-year-old wife of the prophet Muhammad (PBJLOL) and to the 72 big-bosomed virgins who, according to the Koran, will be awaiting the male faithful in paradise. The Woroni editors observed that the Koranic passages read like “a rape fantasy.”

(***Update*** The image in question seems to be this one, courtesy of a commenter)

The Islam article was the only one in the series that caused immediate paroxysms of fear and cowardice, resulting in the university chancellor’s successful demands for a retraction and an apology.

I was hoping it didn’t need to be said, but the normal give and take in an advanced democratic country (let’s say, Australia, rather than Saudi Arabia) calls for anyone who doesn’t like an editorial piece to respond in ways that contribute to the discussion, rather than ways that shut the author up. If something sufficiently offends you, you may start a Facebook page or protest website, send requests for a rebuttal piece, fire off letters to the editor, stage a demonstration, and so on. Welcome to the marketplace of ideas.

But such normalcy was swiftly suspended at ANU. Following the publication of the jokey piece,

…the Woroni board was twice summoned to the Chancelry, individually threatened with disciplinary action along with the authors of the piece, and informed that Woroni’s funding allocation could be compromised… The consequences of academic misconduct under the disciplinary proceedings range between a warning letter to academic exclusion from the university. No legal representation is permitted at disciplinary hearings.

The editors call the ANU response “unprecedented.” Threatened with possible expulsion, their backs against the wall, they pulled the piece.

The chancelry, citing “complaints,” left no doubt about the motives for its heavy-handed approach. After calling the Woroni piece “offensive and discriminatory” (it sure is odd that the previous four satirical riffs on other religions were fine), the university gets to the point:

“In a world of social media, (there is) potential for material such as the article in question to gain attention and traction in the broader world and potentially harm the interests of the university and the university community. This was most clearly demonstrated by the Jyllands-Posten cartoon controversy … and violent protests in Sydney on September 15 last year.”

It’s almost refreshing. Rather than hide solely behind pronouncements of multi-culti “respect,” the university admits that it felt so cowed by even the possibility of Islamic violence on campus that it issued what can only be called a preëmptive capitulation.

By doing so, funnily enough, ANU singles out Islam as a uniquely violent and backwards faith, whose followers are unable to restrain themselves when a few people crack a joke about it.

The chancelry’s reflexive kowtowing is a foul and yellow-bellied indignity. All citizens in a grown-up democracy ought to be guaranteed freedom of speech, and nowhere should this ur-principle of Enlightenment be taught with more vigor and pride than in the halls of academia.


P.S. I’ve so far been unable to track down the Woroni infographic/article in question. If you know where we can all take a look, please share in the comments. Thanks. (***Update***: The image in question is now included in the post.)


P.P.S. For any student editor struggling with these issues (especially in the U.S.), there is a wonderful resource: the website of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Higher Education (FIRE). FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus is here.

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder of Moral Compass, a now dormant site that poked fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards. He joined Friendly Atheist in 2013.