Wearing Jesus & Mo Shirts Doesn’t Mean You’re Discriminating Against Christians and Muslims

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:

Abhishek Phadnis (left) and Chris Moos (center) wearing their ‘censored’ shirts

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.

Will the same thing happen when a group of students complain about Christian crosses and what they represent?

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:

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.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • sailor

    political correctness so high on steroids it has been launched into the twilight zone.

  • Baby_Raptor

    This isn’t political correctness. It’s just their constant martyrbation. *Everything* fundamentalists don’t like is “discrimination” or “oppression.”

  • Amor DeCosmos

    I want to know what Deputy Chief Executive Jarlath O’Hara has to say for himself. And I want to ask him who named him Jarlath.

  • Castilliano

    This is about the best thing that could’ve happened. Really.
    Free publicity for “Jesus & Mo” (and its awesome, poignant critiques), free publicity for the ASHS, and a distinct way to show your support for atheism: wear a Jesus & Mo shirt on campus.
    Each shirt worn will have a larger ripple effect now than it would’ve before.
    Thanks, LSE, your unreasonableness helps out reason. :)

  • Randy Meyer

    Martyrbation is a great way of putting this. I like that.

  • Anna

    Honestly, the situation in England seems pretty bad. I get that Muslims didn’t exactly have a good start there, but the climate seems to have swung rather dangerously in the opposite direction. Even the mildest criticisms of Islam are decried as racism and persecution. What do our UK commenters think? Is my impression accurate?

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

    Inanna is here to help. show them in a 3-way with her and everything will be OK.

    oh, wait…

  • 7Footpiper

    That apology from LSESU should exclude justification for their actions and attempts at damage control.

  • Lori

    I’m offended by ‘pants on the ground’. shouldn’t they be outlawed?
    Seriously, It’s a T-Shirt!

  • Paula M Smolik

    Of course Jesus and Mo makes fun of Christianity and Islam. Any idiot can see that. It’s just freedom of speech.

  • Stephen Miller

    The only way to justify the actions of the LSE is to argue that the speech of these students was an “incitement to religious hatred”, an exception to freedom of expression in Europe under the anti-terrorism laws. In this case, it’s clear the LSE grossly overreached in limiting the student’s rights, which is indeed very disappointing for an institution should be a safe-haven for the exchange of all ideas, including (if not especially) those that some may find offensive.

    The European Commission on Human Rights makes clear that free expression is protected: “Freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society and one of the basic conditions for its progress and for the development of every individual. It is applicable not only to ‘information’ or ‘ideas’ that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population. Such are the demands of pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no ‘democratic society’.”

    In this case, the reaction against the students was neither necessary nor proportionate, even under the unfortunately vague anti-incitement laws. Shame on the LSE.

  • Bruce Martin

    By the LSE’s logic, they should also ban anyone promoting Islam. After all, the central idea of Islam is that Jesus was NOT divine, and that a greater prophet came after him. This is a direct insult to Christianity. In the name of the government of Her Majesty, the Defender of the (Christian) Faith, the unwritten constitution of the UK requires that all Muslims must not reveal their faith, nor promote it publicly. The only other option would be to allow people to assert beliefs that are not consistent with the beliefs of others, which the LSE has apparently already ruled out. So, in the name of community cohesion in the UK, the LSE is implying that no views on religion may be expressed that disagree with the Church of England, peace be upon it.

  • tsig

    Muslims complain about being called intolerant by being intolerant.

  • McFidget

    This definitely seems to be the case in certain quarters. I think it may be, in part, an overreaction to certain genuinely bigoted anti-Islamic groups like the EDL.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Thanks! It came to me in the middle of an angry rant one day. I’ve been using it where applicable ever since.

  • Latraviata

    It is the same all over Europe. Criticising everybody and everything is ok, muslims on the other hand are victims by definition. They get away with anything. Don’t get me started……Islamisation of Europe is reality.

  • Mike Hitchcock

    Sadly, opposition to radical Islam is being left in the hands of the EDL and other genuinely racist organisations.

    Pat Condell has plenty to say on this.


  • TychaBrahe

    The UK’s restrictions on freedom of speech are harsher than Europe’s.

  • Amador González

    I don’t condone it, but European speech laws are effectively more restrictive than in the US. Is it possible that the law is on the LSESU’s side in this case? I recall some science journalist who debunked a homeopath’s claims on a website and then was hounded for years by a libel lawsuit.

    Some insight from a British person would be great.

  • Artor

    It’s an old Irish name. I notice he’s the only member of the LSESU gestapo that doesn’t have an Arabic name.

  • TnkAgn

    Richard Dawkins is…basically awesome!

  • TnkAgn

    In the public high school in which I taught, a “Got Jesus” t-shirt would get a pass, but “Jesus and Mo” would get extra scrutiny. And we had no Muslims except for the occasional foreign exchange student.

  • Kimpatsu

    The clue is in what the LSE representative said: “…against any form of racism…”
    He thinks that it’s an attack on people with brown skin by endemically racist white people, because he conflates religion with race. He is clearly validating his anti-racist credentials.

  • guest

    How would you feel if someone was wearing a shirt that said ‘the fool says in his heart there is no god’ or ‘all unbelievers deserve hell’?
    There is such a thing as not being a dick. The atheist’s union should be able to pass out materials and recruit people, but there’s no need to piss people off without any good reason.

  • C.L. Honeycutt

    Lovely job of missing the point entirely in your zeal to find something to be offended over.

  • allein

    I’d say they have every right to wear their shirt. And then I would find another club to join.

  • Sweetredtele

    I would laugh at the appeal to authority at the first shirt (and their lack of biblical knowledge, for to call someone fool is a fast track to hell). For the second shirt, I would laugh because its an idle threat with a presupposition that they could not provide me evidence for.

    If the shirts are done in a way that steals design from existing pop culture, I would laugh even more at their lack of originality that they think is clever.

    In other words, I don’t care. I’ve heard that nonsense so long that it has no effect on me. I go out of my way to grab religious tracts, look at the “arguments” I see- during the local county fair I get some great material.

    I wear funny atheist shirts all the time, I don’t care if someone gets in a huff. Not like I’ve got something obscene or pornographic or offensive on them. Heck, Christians smile big when I wear my shirt that says “Infidel” in English and Arabic.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

    Or “persecution”.

  • Doug

    To be honest, I feel a bit ambivalent about this. On the one hand, viewing it as an issue of free speech, I agree that people should be able to express their opinions. On the other hand, in any sort of institution, public or private, there are is an expectation that people will treat one another with civility.
    Would you defend people from fundamentalist denominations wearing t-shirts insulting to the LGBT community in a public institution? Personally, I respect people’s right to believe that homosexuality is immoral (even though I don’t), but if I was managing an institution (or a business), I would not permit people to wear t-shirts calculated to insult gays. How about religiously motivated anti-abortion t-shirts using imagery of a graphic nature? I don’t think any public institution would tolerate that, especially at an event having the purpose of welcoming students and promoting inclusivity. I would see that as a matter of demanding civility rather than curtailing free speech.
    The fact is that public institutions limit the display of certain religious beliefs for the sake of civility. I’m not sure that taking issue with the Jesus and Mo t-shirts is all that different. The Atheist Society was granted the freedom to advertise itself. The organizers of the event merely asked them to advertise themselves in a positive way without engaging in a provocative act that could be seen as rude and juvenile. Presumably student religious groups would be granted the same freedom and held to the same standard of civility.

  • KC

    I’d get over it…

  • Doug

    It is NOT necessarily a free speech issue. The question is, does a public institution have the right to set standards of civility and decorum for its activities? I would bet that religious groups are held to similar standards of civility as the atheist group was. To be honest, I believe that trying to turn an issue of public decorum into a big free speech issue could make the secular community look petty and juvenile. I say that as a secular humanist.

  • Doug

    No, I think you have missed the point. The point being that atheists were not persecuted here. They were held to a standard of civility that would certainly apply to any religious group, as the guest above rightly pointed out.

  • Sweetredtele


  • TheG

    I would like to have the bible banned, then. I’m offended that it calls me a fool for my sincerely held beliefs (what I have said in my heart).

  • Erik Jensen

    I would defend the right of fundamentalist students to wear just about any t-shirt. The only exception I can think of is if it included a threat of violence. People can deal with graphic anti-abortion stuff.

    Students are not employees of the university, so the university doesn’t have the right to restrict them as it does its employees. Of course no employee should wear something reasonably perceived as offensive, discriminatory, or unwelcoming.

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

    decorum. civility. these words are… well let us say that different groups define them differently. that is sort of the point here. the law needs to be a firm, equal standard in which all people must conform in the same way.

    xtians are not only free to, but actively encouraged by elected officials, to call for my death, discrimination against me, to have any children i might have forcibly removed from my home, to make me endure pseudo-scientific “reparative” therapy… simply because i am a homosexual.

    part of me (which i suppress and do not allow to overwhelm me) would like that for the religious.

    you see how i am an atheist stalinist horrible murdering criminal person, but the religious who do the same are somehow just expressing “the other side?” who need tax breaks and extensive protections that benefit the dissemination of their views?

  • Steven Carr

    How would I feel?

    I would call security and have the T-shirts forcibly removed.

    That’s how much I value myself and how little I value the opinions of other people.

    Once I had called security guards to eject dissenters , I could bask in the knowledge that people would know I was a good guy and throng to join my society.

  • C.L. Honeycutt

    They were being held to a standard higher than that of any religious group. We always are. Theists are allowed to make up anything they want about other people and get away with it. The very basis of the Abrahamic religions is cursing and condemning people who are not part of their tribes. It’s just magically assumed to be “civil” because you’re used to it.

  • joey_in_NC

    Good response. THIS is the type of response I would expect from a “friendly” blog.

  • DavidMHart

    Really? The Jesus and Mo strips are satirizing theology. They are not having a go at individuals, by and large. The whole point of them is to point out to people how silly religion is, rather than to specificaly to offend people. If we lived in a world where religion posed no threat to anyone, then the t-shirts could be seen as, at worst, mildly taking the mickey out of people. But given that we live in a world where religions are keen to claim a heckler’s veto over any criticism, then the ‘offence’ caused by things like a Jesus and Mo t-shirt is a price that will have to be incurred in order to preserve our secular freedoms.

    TL;DR: the ‘incivility’ of the Jesus and Mo shirts is negligible compared with the incivility of those who would throw the wearers out of the event for wearing one.

  • Doug

    I find you are excessively tolerant. I support people’s right to oppose abortion in the appropriate forums. A university event with the purpose of bringing people together and making them all feel welcome would not be an appropriate place to piss people off with graphic anti-abortion images. If I were an administrator, I would not tolerate that. Nor would I tolerate gay bashing. Nor would I tolerate fundamentalist Protestants wearing “the Pope is the Antichrist” t-shirts, nor expressions of Catholic triumphalism. A university should promote free-thinking, yes, but it should also promote the values of civil society that have enabled us to attain a large degree of social harmony in the western world.

  • Doug

    The idea that atheists’ rights to criticize religion has been in any way compromised is silly. Atheism has been a perfectly respectable and accepted point of view in Britain since the time of Bertrand Russell. In fact, philosophers have been free to criticize religion and question the existence of God since the time of David Hume. The “freedom” many current atheists claim is not the freedom to criticize religion, including Islam. That freedom has never been in question. Rather certain cry-babies complain that they can’t use intolerant sounding rhetoric without being criticized for sounding intolerant.

  • Doug

    I understand your anger at religious fundamentalists who have stupid and intolerant ideas about people in the LGBT community. However, I would point out two things.
    1. Not all religious people are your enemy. I am no longer Christian, but the church in which I was raised now has gay ministers and performs gay marriages.
    2. I don’t think the LSE would permit fundamentalist religious groups to wear gay-bashing t-shirts at any of their events. Had anyone tried that, I bet the intervention would have been even more heavy-handed.
    As a member of a minority group that has been the victim of intolerance, you should be sensitive to expressions of intolerance towards all minority groups.
    You are free to argue against religion. But I hope you would agree that a public institution has a duty to promote tolerance and civility on its premises.

  • Carmelita Spats

    Forget friendly blogs. Howzabout friendly, non-racist, inclusive, theism in this our Southern Baptist Screwyouland for a change? Christian students wear those terrifying, Jesus-themed t-shirts, at my local public high school in Texas. You know…the t-shirts with tetanus-inducing nails, bloody crowns of thorns and a creepy-ass zombie-esque Dead-Guy-On-A-Stick. Walmartians buy the grotesque tees at Walmart during Easter season. On the other hand, students who have ANY depiction of a skull on their clothing are asked to remove the item as skulls are considered a dress code violation because Jesus. We have many Mexican-American students with ties to the “Santa Muerte” cult. They should be allowed to wear their skulls in the name of religious freedom and FRIENDLY theism, yes? I’m getting LULAC to investigate this.

  • DavidMHart

    philosophers have been free to criticize religion and question the existence of God since the time of David Hume.

    People who have been fortunate enough to be professional philosophers in the first place have tended to have a lot more freedom to challenge conventional ideas than those in more precarious situations. But I’ll take your point that at this point in time, atheism is legally protected in the public sphere, and in practice most people in the country can express criticism of religious ideas without repercussions.

    However, note that this is only true because we have managed to de-fang religion enough that its intitutions no longer have the power to imprison or kill those who disagree. Only the continued criticism and mockery of these absurd (but to some people weirdly compelling) ideas guarantees our continued liberty to do so. Everywhere religions become entangled with political power, they have a very strong tendency to criminalize dissent and criticism. Just look at what is currently happening in Russia, with the who Pussy Riot fiasco, where what was a mildly impolite protest has been effectively charged as a ‘blasphemy’ offence, and its perpetrators sentenced to an absurdly harsh sentence for what amounts to an irreverent statement of disapproval of the country’s leadership, and of the Orthodox Church’s endorsement of that leadership. Or just look at countries like Afghanistan or Pakistan where there is overwhelming public support for killing those who ‘disrespect’ Islam.

    Also notice that the freedom to criticise religion in the LSU very much has been called into question here. Why should atheists have less freedom to point out the absurdity of god-beliefs in a university than they should anywhere else?

    Religions need to be subjected to ridicule – that is, people need to be reminded how silly they are – if their practitioners are to be prevented from forming the impression that they have the right to have their ideas taken seriously (which is a very short step from thinking that not taking those ideas seriously is somehow morally suspect). Religious people cannot rationally defend their beliefs – if they could (i.e. if they could demonstrate that their gods actually existed), they’d be part of science and the rational worldview generally. And unfortunately, if you don’t have the best tool for defending your worldview, another tool, the violent suppression of dissent, is going to be a lot more tempting to use than it is for those who are confident of being able to demonstrate the truth of their claims.

    Of course, satire and ridicule are very far from the only tools in the never-ending struggle between superstitious authoritarianism and freedom, but they are a very valuable tool.

  • Doug

    You continue to miss the point. Theists are allowed to believe bigoted things. Some do. Unless ideology has blinded to you empirical reality, you also have to acknowledge that many theists don’t. But that’s neither here nor there. The point is that bigoted theists who insisted on trumpeting their bigotry at a university function designed to make all feel welcome would certainly have had that “freedom” curtailed. Atheists who claim the “right” to piss on the rug whenever they feel like it because they know the truth (that religion is stupid) do a disservice to the cause of secularism.

  • hendrik

    Actually the LSE DID have an islamic imam over a few years ago to speak … and guess what: he advocates throwing gays from buildings and/or stoning them to death …

    But LSE is funded by islamic countries – so maybe that’s why they are so biased.

  • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w
  • rufus_t

    Speaking from the perspective of a member of staff from a UK university (not LSE, head out of Mordor past the land of the offensive pineapple, go about as far again and there I am) this looks like a fairly substantial over-reaction by the LSE staff (the LSESU over-reaction is so little of a surprise that it harldy seems worth expending any energy over).
    IANAL but I sincerely doubt that what they’ve done is actually illegal under the law as it stands in England and Wales (or Scotland or Northern Ireland for that matter) however it does little to enhance (and quite a lot to confirm) the reputation that several of the arts/social sciences based colleges of the University of London (it’s a federal university, made up of 18 separate (effectively independantly administered) colleges have for being PC above and beyond the call of sanity.

  • C.L. Honeycutt

    Interesting how in your zeal to be pissy and offended, you neglected to bother to look up the supposedly offensive shirts in question.

    You make a good outraged extremist Muslim.

  • C.L. Honeycutt

    “There are no Constitutional violations in the United States, we have a Constitution to prevent that, and everyone agrees that the Constitution is in effect and respected! Only crybabies complain about Separation issues.”


  • aoscott

    I wonder if this outcome will depend on Europe’s view of free speech, which seems different than ours here in the US. Sort of saw that dynamic with the Innocence of Muslims video – the rest of the world seemed confused that we couldn’t ban it because it was offensive to someone. I was reading that the time that the US idea of free speech is pretty unique in that there is no heckler’s veto.

  • Doug

    You make some good points. They are, however, entirely beside the point. People in Britain are free to believe in religion or not. They are free to argue against it. They are free to ridicule it. There is, however, a proper time and place for those things. There is at least an argument to be made that an institutional social function with the purpose of making all students feel welcome is not the place to make a show of contempt for students in a minority group.
    If you have read Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” you will know he makes a case that simple rules of everyday etiquette have played a major role in the reduction of violence in our civilization. The freedom to challenge accepted dogmas is important, but so is civility. When people let go of the conventions of simple politeness, there is a coarsening of sensibility that may, according to Pinker, make us less empathetic and compassionate. And there is a direct line from the weakening of empathy to social violence.
    Incidentally, I teach introductory courses in both philosophy and the history of religion in a public high school in Canada. Several different faith groups have been represented in my classes. Generally, about a third to a half of the adolescents in those classes identify themselves as atheists or agnostics. The rule in my class is that no line of questioning or critical analysis is out of line, but politeness and mutual respect is non-negotiable. We have good discussions. Sometimes those discussions are life changing for students. But students of different faith backgrounds don’t come out with feelings of hostility for one another. They learn to disagree respectfully, just as most adults do in Canadian society at large.
    By all means defend freedom of thought and freedom of expression. But don’t undervalue the importance of civility in a good society. You are dogmatic in your assertion that religious people are too stupid to be deserving of our respect, or even basic politeness, and that a university should not discourage insulting behaviour towards them. I respectfully disagree.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

    Great, but there’s nothing “uncivil” or offensive about the Jesus and Mo shirts.

  • Doug

    That’s a judgment call. I agree that the intervention was heavy handed and probably unwise, given the fairly mild nature of the satire . But so are the indignant squawks of feigned outrage at the death of free speech in Britain. Even Dawkins had to get involved, so dire is the threat to liberty. Give me a break!

  • Steven Carr

    The LSE has ruled that the T-shirts are perfectly acceptable garments and can be worn at a forthcoming debate to be held there very shortly.

    So if they are not offensive , why were they banned?

  • Lorenzo Benito

    I wouldn’t throw a tantrum and demand that they be expelled, if that’s what you’re asking. Having a hard time understanding that not everyone thinks the same way you do?