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.

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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.)

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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 and Main Mischief Maker of Moral Compass, a site that pokes fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards.

  • Little Magpie

    Totally agreed on your ‘PS’ – I totally want to see all those article – because they sound hilarious.

    • Michael W Busch

      The previous articles in the series are available in the Woroni online archives: http://www.woroni.com.au/category/archives/ . Click on the entry for each month, and flip through to the end using the online viewing option.

      Some of them are fairly clever – the Scientology one is styled like an e-meter audit.

      Following their meetings with the ANU administration, the Woroni staff pulled the PDF of 2013 Edition 5 from their website, as described in the statement at http://www.woroni.com.au/comment/from-back-page-to-front-page-advice-from-the-anu/

      • Jono H

        I made a gallery of some of the other issue columns. http://imgur.com/a/ea6Ln

        I think the Catholic one is funniest. But the flow chart format is necessarily clear cut, while the jokes rely on ambiguity and juxtaposition. This makes the jokes as hard to understand as the previous sentence.

  • Greg_Clark

    So “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” remains relevant after all.

    · Clark, G.A. ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed Day’ –
    Time for intimidation, or freedom? Standard-Examiner,
    May 10, 2013.

    Which will you choose: Religious intimidation? Or Freedom? (And kudos to the editor for being bold enough to publish it—with the associated picture on line, no less. Whereas the University of Utah, like Australian National University…)

    http://www.standard.net/stories/2013/05/09/everybody-draw-mohammed-day-time-intimidation-or-freedom

  • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

    Despicable. If they aren’t going to allow religious satire, then all religions are fair game. It would be understandable to not allow such satire at all, but they did. We acknowledge that all people have a right to practice their religion. We also agree that the paper has the right to freedom of the press. Threats and intimidation, on the other hand, are not rights. They are criminal activities. If there is an actual danger of physical harm as the result of publishing a piece of writing, the solution is not to censor the piece, but to prosecute the people advocating violence. That is not “culturally insensitive”. If you can’t live together with people who have different views without resorting to violence and threats of violence, then you have to find someplace else to live because a free society cannot tolerate violence and threats.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Fear is a cheap substitute for respect, but in some cultures, people don’t appreciate the difference. In the long run, fostering fear instead of respect is self-defeating. An abusive husband may have his wife cowed in terror, but sooner or later he’ll get a bad case of the flu and be unable to get out of bed…

    Some Muslims have worked hard at building a wide reputation about their religion that they’ll all behave like lunatics and animals if their beliefs and customs are challenged in even the slightest way. Many more Muslims have worked just as hard at not doing anything about that. I listen for their denouncements of the reactionaries and their violence, and all I hear is an occasional sheepish complaint of embarrassment, and yet another denial that this is not what Islam is really about.

    A person is what he actually does, not what he says he is. What he is in the world are his actions, not his credo or his self-image. The same goes for institutions. A religion is not what its lofty, vague, or incomprehensible scriptures say it is. A religion is what its practitioners consistently do in the world. If more and more practitioners of Islam practice violence and intimidation, and more and more other practitioners of Islam passively do nothing to counteract that, then Islam will continue to really be a religion of violence and intimidation, despite the milquetoast apologies from the less insane Muslims.

    • Miss_Beara

      “another denial that this is not what Islam is really about”

      This and blaming others for their violence.

  • A3Kr0n

    I have a misconception about Australia. When something like this happens I would think the school would tell the students not to forget to bring their guns to class. Not cower, and whimper. I blame Crocodile Dundee for my misconception.

    • Leon

      Remember pretty much no one has guns here

    • Artor

      “That’s not a robust protection of free speech. THIS is a robust protection of free speech!” *Whips out a copy of the US 1st Amendment*

      • Charles Honeycutt

        *flips it over, throws it in an overhand arc, knocks out opponent*

    • Charles Honeycutt

      Actually the only people who ever use guns in those movies are criminals, IIRC. They’re practically superhero flicks, which is why they’re so cheesily awesome (apart from the multiple sexual assaults justified by transphobia…)

  • http://www.facebook.com/chriswarr78 Chris Warren

    “I’m tired of responses dictated by fear and censorship. We need to take a stand against those that would repress free speech in favour of fleeting alliances.” EDIT: original comment called for moderation and referred to yellow bellied references as being a cheap shot. I do in fact believe that there are genuine threats of potential physical violence to innocent bystanders from mere satire. I was down-voted instantly without the benefit of explanation, and in a moment of exasperation I replaced my original comment with the mealy mouthed populist crap being espoused by everyone else (sans edit). I apologize for the lack of ethics and decorum. It’s been a long day.

    • Nate Frein

      It’s not a cheap shot when the cowardly response came before a single threat had even been made.

      EDIT: Nice retraction without noting the edit.

      • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

        Exactly. No threats have even been made. I guess that’s how you know the terrorists have won. When you self-censor for fear of a death threat that hasn’t even been made yet. how sad if we let the do this to us. It’s the end of a free society.

        • http://www.facebook.com/chriswarr78 Chris Warren

          The terrorists have won. Hyperbolic nonsense. They’ve won nothing. We WILL find a way to shut these losers up eventually. In the mean time, some of us would like to mitigate preventable collateral damage. Is the benefit of religious satire to a free society on this particular issue worth a few embassy fires or a beheading or two. I honestly don’t know. If an article slips out, then it IS incumbent upon us to protect the rights of the publishers. It is also perhaps prudent to avoid that situation outright if possible.

      • http://www.facebook.com/chriswarr78 Chris Warren

        Agreed. I’ve fixed it.

  • Bdole

    I wonder if a poll of Muslim students’ opinions about whether the piece should be censored/removed would confirm or refute the admin’s cowardice. What if Muslim students showed more democratic spirit and actually said it should be allowed even if it offends? Then what? That’s one way to combat this. NOT that any one group’s opinion should ever serve as the basis for censorship. Not that anything should.

    p.s. Congratulations on use of the word “paroxysm.” I once saw this in a foreign languageEnglish dictionary and wondered who the hell would ever need THAT.

    • Peter Naus

      Yeah, the picture in the dictionary for the word ‘paroxysm’ should portray the awful, shrieking, twitching, teeth-bared arm-waving image of outraged Muslim demonstrators protesting against whatever it was – newspaper cartoon, satirical story, humorous remark, witty one-liner, historical finding – that got them fired up.

  • http://benny-cemoli.myopenid.com/ Benny Cemoli

    The chancelry, citing “complaints,” left no doubt about the motives for its heavy-handed approach.

    The way I read the article located here the ANU administration overreacted on the basis of one complaint from the “International Students Department” and it’s not clear as to whether or not any student(s) actually complained about the article.

    The following is the quote that made me wonder who actually did the complaining:

    The Chancelry wished to discuss the Woroni board’s response to a formal complaint submitted by the International Students Department.

  • Lee Miller

    Islam clearly has a special status in the world . . . which it has gained by irrational behavior and bullying.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rusty.yates.7 Rusty Yates

    Australia is ahead of the US in some ways and behind in others. Maybe we Americans should not look toward other shores with so much envy.

  • David

    Well you have to understand that Islam is probably the most insecure religious belief system in the world today and Muslims get all bent out of shape when you denigrate their imaginary god Allah and his idiot sidekick Mohammad.

    • Peter Naus

      Wait till they see a video of a copy of the Qur’an being drilled through to see what’s inside! Boy, that’d be a popular video.

      And yet there’s a significant subset of the plethora of xtian belief systems that would be willing to do bad things to someone who drilled through the bible.

      So it’s not simply a matter of Islam’s inherent insecurities, I don’t think.

      More a matter of how many knives, axes, bullets, or explosive devices are activated when they get their knickers in a knot about something utterly trivial!

      Although, it only takes one True Believer to do the deed. The rest are still ‘moderate’.

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

      oh, i don’t know. the xtians are pretty “sensitive.” they don’t like science, math, the truth, black people… they get upset about almost anything.

      islam is tough. if you’re going to like a religion, and you look at it honestly, it’s pretty ok. it’s no worse than xtianity. it’s silly mythology but it has the advantage: it’s based on a real live person. it’s also racially inclusive and has some parts about it which are better wrt gender. yes, i think it’s silly mythology. but as far as those go, i rank it pretty high. ymmv.

      • Randay

        It is not at all certain that Muhammad was a real person. If you google “did Muhammad exist”, you will get a long list skeptics from Amazon to Wikipedia.

        “Muhammad Sven Kalisch, a Muslim convert and Germany’s first professor of Islamic theology, fasts during the Muslim holy month, doesn’t like to shake hands with Muslim women and has spent years studying Islamic scripture. Islam, he says, guides his life.

        So it came as something of a surprise when Prof. Kalisch announced the fruit of his theological research. His conclusion: The Prophet Muhammad probably never existed.”…

        “Many scholars of Islam question the accuracy of ancient sources on Muhammad’s life. The earliest biography, of which no copies survive, dated from roughly a century after the generally accepted year of his death, 632, and is known only by references to it in much later texts.”

        http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122669909279629451.html

        Naturally he has gone into virtual hiding because of feared threats by Muslims to him.

        • Michael W Busch

          There are some mentions of Muhammad’s existence in Greek, Syriac, Armenian, and Hebrew documents from only a few years after his death, at least if the references given by Wikipedia are correct (ref. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historicity_of_Muhammad ).

          Certainly many of the details of his life and the chronology of them were not like those reported in the Qur’an. And if the historical Muhammad is sufficiently unlike the character described in the Qur’an and hadith, we could say that the two cannot be equated with each other. But saying “Muhammad never existed” is a much more extreme conclusion than saying “Jesus never existed” (the mythicists and historicists are arguing that one) or “Buddha never existed” (which is likely correct).

          None of which justifies any of the threats made against Professor Kalisch.

  • DougI

    Rather than give into violent fundies they should reprint the piece with every line blocked out and an editor’s note saying that they had to be censored because of religious fanatics and why secularism is superior.

  • Anon Guest

    Here you are..

  • Peter Naus

    Haven’t the moderates lost when even the _perceived_ threat of actual, physical violence is enough to scare the authorities into hypocritical censorship?

    This isn’t bowing to a belief system, or being sensitive to a cultural issue; nor is a religious belief being protected. That would be laughable but still utterly cowardly. No, this is much more like giving the bully their lunch money before he starts beating them up.

    Islamic Thuggery 1 : Rationality Nil

    Perhaps someone who knows more could comment on whether the action taken was in opposition to the university’s stated charter?

  • blackbeltatheist

    So, should the takeaway from this be that violence is the way to handle people who disagree with you? Giving them what they want because of a fear caused by their history of violence is just reinforcing bad behavior.

  • Rain

    This is a picture of Muhammad. Or at least in the general vicinity. Or at least he used to be at one time a while back. Yeah, I ain’t ascared of no scary Muslims.

    http://home.honolulu.hawaii.edu/~pine/bluedot_files/bluedot.jpg

  • Jono H

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

    No, no no. The comment section right here was the source.

    Reddit got the image from friendly atheist. Sorry for the confusion

    >Source: comments of http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      Whoops! Fixed now :)

  • Mick

    Brave students. They really know how to stand up for their rights.

  • Practical Man

    To avoid hypocrisy, I challenge the author of this post to paint that image on the side of his house, then advertise the hell out of it on the Internet, making sure to include an exact postal address.

    If he’s not willing to do that, why should ANU be?

    • thorn

      …because it is a form of press…?

    • Agrajag

      Is that a rhetorical question ? Because they’re a university ? Because in principle they’re supposed to support free inquiry and free speech ? Because it’s the right thing to do ? Because the alternative is to cowardly censor their own students to avoid even the possibility of a future threat ?

    • Charles Honeycutt

      The author of the post is a very public critic of Islam, and finding his personal information is trivial. Crafting a highly contrived demand of him is not an argument against him, but rather a sign that you will set the goalposts for approval of his words out of reach no matter what.

      You may wish to ponder your “challenge” a bit and see how many changes you’d have to make before it ceases being a false equivalency.

      • Terry Firma

        Thanks, Charles. My thoughts exactly.

    • allein

      Well, considering that no one is asking ANU to paint the image on any of their buildings and release the home addresses of the paper’s staff, but simply to publish it in their paper as they did with all the other items in the series, I think Hemant posting it publicly on his blog (which includes his email address if anyone wishes to contact him about it, as I’m sure ANU’s newspaper staff emails are similarly easily available) is pretty much equivalent.

    • baal

      Institutional target vs single normal human – it’s not parallel for that reason. Also, you buy the argument from fear? The solution is to treat Islam the same as every other religion and then remind anyone who suggests violence that they are not being treated any different than anyone else. Otherwise, the other religions will see a tactic that works and we’ll have to deal with other flavors of terrorists as well. You cannot dissuade thugs via appeasement.

      • Practical Man

        That seems like a spurious difference to me. Do human beings not attend/work at/visit ANU? Are you saying that when more people are at risk than just one person/family, then it’s OK to put people at unnecessary risk? At least when it’s one guy’s house, he only paints a target on himself, instead of the whole community.

        I don’t know what “an argument from fear” is supposed to be, but I do know what fear is, and many fears are rational ones. I’d say that this is one of them. That’s what makes it different from making sure ANU students have alien abduction insurance or something.

        It’s easy to stand up for abstract principles when you’re not the one on the receiving end of the consequences of your actions: http://news.yahoo.com/youtube-blocks-video-inciting-violence-egypt-184300691–finance.html

        • Karin Karejanrakoi

          So you just give in then? And when do you stop giving in to bullies, Mr Practical Man?

          The ANU administration should tell the bearded-bricks-with-dangly-bits in no uncertain terms that it will *not* bow to intimidation.

        • baal

          Whether or not an action (the schools banning of the satirical piece) is normal or very understandable from an emotional perspective that does not mean it is the best (or even better) decision to make. Because you are afraid is a bad reason to avoid something (like public speaking). Because you have death threats in hand and islamist extremist bombings in your area are. The difference is one of evidence and not one of emotion.

  • Jamie Freestone

    Hey there, I’m one of the authors of the series. Thanks for all those comments in support. Just wanted to clarify that although the editors of the paper approved the image, the views in it are my own and my co-authors. Also, I ended up leaving the paper and made this letter to the editor my final contribution; it sums up my views on The Koran. http://jamiemiltonfreestone.com.au/2013/05/27/my-final-contribution-to-woroni/

  • Anon Guest

    You can verify that this the image is indeed of the one published by looking at the Australian tv news footage from which it was apparently captured.

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-05-27/islam-cartoon-pulled-from-student-newspaper-website/4714952

    As noted elsewhere in the thread, it appeared in the comments section here before it arrived on Redditt – It was shared on twitter before that though.

  • iikagenbob

    A few years ago I worked in a local bookstore (in Cape Town, South Africa). I was in the “holds” cupboard where the books special ordered for customers were kept when I noticed a couple of errant copies of Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses”. As extra stock was sometimes also dumped there, I unthinkingly picked them up and filed the books in the fiction wall with the rest of his works.

    Not too long there after I was instructed in no uncertain terms, that these books are not to be displayed due to the offense they may cause to muslim customers. Funny how the same deference wasn’t shown to any of the Jewish customers (of which a large population exists in nearby Seapoint), as Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”, and other books about nazism where common in the history section (and never once did I hear a complaint about them – and I worked in that store for 6 years.)

    • bill reitzes

      Islam uses the salami system in it’s domination of the Kafir. Slice by slice and one day there is no more salami or Kafir resistance.
      Worse yet, we encourage Islamic domination by playing Muslim Roulette.
      Which is the good Muslim (oxymoron) and which is the bad Muslim (today’s reality)?

  • The Other Weirdo

    Oddly enough, placing a ban for that reason is actually admitting, rather publicly, that what you are banning is exactly right.

  • nude0007

    This is absurd. So the bulies win? Freedom isn’t worth a thing if you are not willing to stand up for it. If the first threat that comes along makes you fold, you might as well strap on a burka now. Shame on the University!

  • DurkaDurka

    They censored that? Why?

  • Infidel_Task_Force

    Thank you for this. It’s one commentary that needs to be around for a quite awhile. The ITF has a dedicated page called Silencing Americans Through Fear, and thats where this one will go.

  • observerfromamajmuscountry

    so here is what the secular turks think. If the dumby uninformed lefties think it is still a joke then when will we all stop laughing? – what when we actually realise that it is NOT okay for a white dude to be a misogynist and be charged for it but we let a muslim guy be as misogynist as he wants? morons. I am pretty protective of my secular human rights. And quite frankly I invite those who aren’t so into them to come to me and I will buy them a ticket back to their favourite shariah joint with pleasure (and no welfare).
    I lived there in Istanbul for seven years – the islamisation of turkey is NOT a joke. On the surface it is becoming more and more modern but they are actually moving slowly and steadily towards the sunni version of Iran. (scary as I do think the shiahs are much less extreme than the sunnis – saying sumfing isn’t it?) Many many people who identify as muslim are as worried about this as some of the more credible amongst us are (ie the ones with real world experience!)

    http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/the-compatibility-of-political-islam-with-democracy.aspx?pageID=449&nID=47711&NewsCatID=413

  • Karin Karejanrakoi

    The story is told that Napoleon, when deciding whether jews should be able to be considered as citizens of the French Republic, asked the rabbis a simple question, “Which have precedence – the laws of France or the laws of the Torah?” Only when the rabbis agreed that where French law was at odds with biblical law, the former was to hold sway, were they accepted as equal citizens.

    I see no reason to have ever deviated from this principle.

  • Karin Karejanrakoi

    http://www.cato.org/blog/does-freedom-speech-conflict-freedom-religion

    Send *that* to the ANU administation – and tell them to grow a backbone!


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