The London School of Economics is not a very welcome place for atheists who criticize aspects of Islam.
Last year, when the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society at the school voted to change their name to the Atheist Secularists Humanists & Ex-Muslims Society, the LSE said they couldn’t do it because it would draw attention to ex-Muslims. So instead of punishing groups who might target the apostates, they punished the atheists who were welcoming them with open arms.
Also, last year, when the group posted a Jesus & Mo webcomic on their Facebook page, the LSE Student Union condemned the group and put out a statement explaining their stance “against any form of racism and discrimination on campus”… as if a webcomic that pokes fun at religious belief was an example of discrimination.
And also last year (what the hell), at a different school, an atheist group was kicked out of the organization fair because they named a pineapple “Muhammad” and students got offended. (Forget bananas and atheists; pineapples are the Muslims’ worst nightmare, I guess.)
The latest kerfuffle involve two students, Abhishek Phadnis and Chris Moos. They were manning the ASHS table at an organization fair (“Freshers’ Fair”) until a staffer told them they had to remove their “offensive” shirts featuring the title characters from Jesus & Mo:
When we asked what rules or regulations we were in breach of, they told us that they did not need to give reasons for removing students, and we would be informed at a later point in time. As we refused to take off our t-shirts or leave without appropriate explanation, we were told that LSE security would be called to physically remove us from the building. We came to the Freshers’ Fair to promote our society to new students. Our ability to do that was heavily curtailed by the actions of the LSESU staff. We especially felt that the abrasive behaviour of the LSESU staff was not aimed at protecting other students from harm, but rather an attempt [to] humiliate us in front of dozens of students.
On the second day of the fair, they wore the same shirts with tape over the images of Jesus & Mo reading “This has been censored” and “Nothing to see here.” The staff didn’t appreciate that, either:
Shortly after midday, the LSESU Deputy Chief Executive Jarlath O’Hara approached us, demanding we take the t-shirts off as per his instructions of the previous day. We explained to him that we had covered the “offensive” parts this time, and offered to use our tape to cover any other areas deemed “offensive”. He refused to hear us out, insisting that if we did not take off the whole t-shirt, LSE Security would be called to bodily remove us from the premises. He left, warning us that he was summoning LSE Security to eject us.
So what was the offense? Depicting Muhammad? Anyone who reads the comic knows that its a satire of religion, not a pointed attack on Muslims. And anyone who works with multiple faith (and no-faith) group ought to acknowledge that there is a serious difference between targeting individuals and targeting their bad ideas. Religion is a bad idea and the webcomic and ASHS students focus on that.
Of course religious people are going to get offended when someone tips over their sacred cows. Or even points out that their beliefs aren’t based in evidence. At what point should we stop caving in to people who can’t handle fair criticism of their beliefs? Universities are supposed to be safe spaces for open dialogue, where unpopular opinions can be expressed and argued against. There’s no back-and-forth taking place here. A couple of students criticized religion and the school’s response has been to shut them up.
This is just unacceptable behavior for any institution that wants to be taken seriously.
The Jesus & Mo artist responded to the incident in typical, biting form:
Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association is rightly standing with the students in this case:
The LSESU is acting in a totally disproportionate manner in their dealings with our affiliate society. That a satirical webcomic can be deemed to be so offensive as to constitute harassment is a sad indictment of the state of free speech at Britain’s Universities today. This hysteria on the part of the SU and University is totally unwarranted; intelligent young adults of whatever beliefs are not so sensitive that they need to be protected from this sort of material in an academic institution. Our lawyers are advising our affiliated society at LSE and we will be working with them, the students, and the AHS to resolve this issue.
Rory Fenton of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies added:
The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies strongly condemns the actions of the LSESU. President Rory Fenton said, “Our member societies deserve and rightly demand the same freedom of speech and expression afforded to their religious counterparts on campus. Universities should be open to and tolerant of different beliefs, without exception. That a students’ union would use security guards to follow and intimidate their own members is deeply concerning and displays an inconsistent approach to free speech; if it is for some, it must be for all.
Even Richard Dawkins couldn’t believe what the LSESU did:
I'm "offended" by backwards baseball caps, chewing gum, niqabs, "basically" and "awesome". Quick, LSE Student Union, ban them all.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) October 4, 2013
My favorite response, though, comes from Maryam Namazie, who will be appearing at LSE in just over a week for a debate on burkas. She plans to wear a Jesus & Mo shirt of her own.
There is a petition at Change.org that you can sign demanding that LSESU leaders apologize for their attack on free speech. You don’t have to like the t-shirts, but you should be against this notion that some people can censor others just because they don’t like being criticized for their bad ideas. It’s a slippery slope that always seems to punish the non-religious and rarely the religious.