In related news, Maryam Namazie, via One Law for All, is calling for a rally in defence of free expression and the right to criticise religion on 11 February 2012 in central London from 2-4pm. “We are also calling for simultaneous events and acts in defence of free expression on 11 February in countries world-wide.” See more details at HOLD THIS DATE – 11 February 2012: A Day to Defend Free Expression.
If you’re involved in the skeptical and/or atheist community, it’ll have been pretty hard to miss the University College London Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society storm in which they were asked by their union to remove this image from a promotional Facebook page for their weekly pub meet because someone had found it offensive and complained.
In order to show solidarity for their cause, I uploaded the image to Facebook and set it as my profile picture for about a week. I then changed back to another photo and went on my usual life. Until today…
Since that time, Rhys has been harassed and threatened at his school by classmates. I contacted him for more information about what went on, for a forthcoming episode of the Token Skeptic podcast.
Rhys Morgan: Well, basically I saw it as an infringement on their freedom of speech. The European… I can’t remember the exact name of it, but basically under human rights, we have the freedom of expression? We have the right to the freedom of expression, people have the right to freedom of religion. But I don’t think they have the right to force or expect other people to live by their religious beliefs’ rules. Sure, Muslims can’t draw or represent the Prophet Muhammad. But that doesn’t mean they should expect Christians, Hindus, Atheists, people who aren’t Muslim, to follow that rule.
I saw it as an infringement on their freedom of speech and something that I agreed with. I copied the image and set it as my display picture on Facebook for a few days.
Kylie: How has it escalated since then? Why do you think it’s become a concern to people offline rather than just remaining a, “Here’s another online dispute. You say one thing, I say another. We agree to disagree,” or a flame war for a while which people then forget?
Rhys: Well, basically it escalated by somebody in my school finding the image and coming to me and asking me to take it down.
Kylie: Oh, really?
Rhys: Basically I changed my display picture back to one of “Jesus and Mo.” Then a few days later somebody commented on the picture, asking me to remove because they found it offensive. They said, “I’m not going to start a flame war here. But I’m just asking you politely if you would remove it.”
I said, “Well, honestly I don’t think I should remove it just because you might find it offensive, because that’s what freedom of speech is all about, is defending things that people will find offensive.” Freedom of speech is going to be defending things that people find offensive.
Then other people got involved from that comment thread before the initial person said, “Oh, well, look at what our journalist friend, Rhys Morgan, is putting on his Facebook,” and screen-captured the “Jesus and Mo” cartoon and pasted it on his Facebook.
Kylie: Ah. Was this a person you knew personally or was it just someone on the streets, someone from your hometown?
Rhys: No, no, it was someone from my school, Cardiff High.
Rhys: But even so, this is not the sort of thing that you expect to happen, somebody flaming like that. Because then through that thread, I started receiving all sorts of threats. They were saying, “Oh, well you’re clearly being intolerant and you’re clearly being racist.” That’s one thing that really, really irritates me, is when something to do with religion is termed racism? It’s just not. That’s not racism. Racism is about somebody’s genetic background, whereas their religion is their belief system. That’s nothing to do with their genetic background.
In a way, it’s saying that me saying something bad about Muslims or the Islamic belief is racist, that’s kind of insulting to people of their own race? It implies that everyone who is their race is going to be Muslim, whereas that’s clearly not true.
But then I think the main reason that it crossed over into real life, so to speak, is because I started receiving threats of violence. One of the threats threatened to burn my house down. One of them threatened to break my nose, and then there were various other threats of violence but didn’t specify exactly how they’d be carried out.
Kylie: Darn. These have been your biggest worries, that people will actually…?
Rhys: Then the school decided to get involved because of this, because I went to school the next day. People had reported me to the school and that they found this image offensive. I was called in to speak to the head of year. They asked me to remove it. I said I wasn’t willing to do that. After another long discussion with one of the other, I think it was the head of sixth form that time, eventually it was implied that something more would be done for me, or to me.
The school basically said, “Well, this situation can’t continue.” I said, “Well, I completely agree.”
They said, “If you refuse to take the image down, we’ll have to look into this some other way,” or something along those lines. At this point, it sounded to me like they were threatening to suspend me or expel me or something along those lines, just because I have this supposedly offensive image up on Facebook.I did ask them, I said, “Are you threatening to suspend or expel me?” They were like, “Uh, well, um, no one’s threatening anything at the moment. We’re not threatening anything.” They refused to answer my question in a way.
Kylie: That must have been very stressful.
Rhys: It was, yeah. I mean, I’ve been pulled out of my lessons just so this could go ahead.
Kylie: I guess you’ve got worries on several fronts in that regard then. Not only are people threatening you, but it’s affecting your educational life as well, having students do that…
Rhys: Yeah, exactly.
Kylie: What’s been the overall response to the situation? Have you been surprised by people supporting you? I noticed that even the creator of the “Jesus and Mo” cartoon was very upset that this has been happening to you.
Rhys: Yeah. I’m not surprised he would be because, at the end of the day, he’s using his freedom of expression to target religion. That’s perfectly fine. You can go around saying things that people are going to find offensive because you can’t exactly put it politely. “I find your particular religious beliefs to be, in some cases misogynistic, in some cases homophobic.” There’s no really nice way of putting that, is there?
That’s what he points out in his comic on an almost daily basis, however often it is. But yeah, I suppose I was a bit surprised by this. I was most surprised by the support in school from some people, just people who haven’t really talked to me before who are chatting to me on Facebook for the first time and saying, “Look, I’ve seen what’s happened. I agree with you. You’ve done nothing wrong.”
I was more surprised by the people in school taking offense on behalf of others. On the day after the Facebook flame threat, the person who threatened to break my nose came up to me and said, “Oh, look, it’s the racist kid,”
I turned around and I said, “No, can you please explain how racism has anything to do with religion?” He was like, “Oh, when did I say that?” I pointed out, “No. No, you’ve called me racist for criticizing Islam.”
Well, I didn’t criticize Islam at the time. I was just basically putting up a picture of Jesus and Muhammad in a bar together, because I was supporting the UCL’s Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society’s right to freedom of speech.
I tried to explain this. Then some girl came over to me and she was like, “Oh, well, look. I’m an atheist and you can’t go around doing that sort of thing. You have the right to freedom of speech, but not to do that sort of thing,” which struck me as completely ironic. Talk about failing to understand the meaning of the words “freedom of speech.”
Kylie: I think maybe you could use a student group there? That might be a good idea.
Rhys: That’s exactly what I’m considering setting up actually, because, yeah. When I joined the school in September of last year, I was involved in a little dispute with a couple of friends and myself. We were joking and talking about our beliefs, or lack of them, in my case. Then someone else in the school got involved and became incredibly offended at the idea that I don’t believe in a god, and said, “Well, this idea is racist,” I was like, “How, exactly?” They just blocked me from Facebook.
Then the next day I went into school and the person who threatened to break my nose this time ran and asked me exactly why I was being so racist. I asked, “Why do you think I’m being racist?” He said, “Oh, well I heard you said something on Facebook that was racist.”
I explained quite simply, “Well, no, I’m not being racist. I just don’t believe in a god.” Then this person started ranting about how they had put up a SpongeBob picture and were called a racist, which I completely didn’t understand.
Rhys: He’s giving no context! Basically they had put up some SpongeBob SquarePants picture and apparently that was racist. Now I don’t know the context. I have not seen the picture, so I can’t judge whether it was or wasn’t racist.
Kylie: I’m starting to think maybe these people need a vocabulary extension course or something like that!
Rhys: Yeah. Yeah, they seem to like the term…
Kylie: They need more words for what’s going on, yes!
Rhys: It was extremely confusing. Yeah, basically then every time they saw me they would harass me by saying, “Oh, look, it’s the racist kid.” That was not the best start to the year.
Kylie: No, no. I can imagine!
Rhys: I had just started a new school and everything, so, yeah. But then from there onwards, it died down for a bit and then started up again. Now it’s gotten worse with the whole Muhammad thing.
Kylie: Well, I’m very glad that there’s been an outpouring of support. What sort of things have people done apart from the “Jesus and Mo” and showing support on Twitter?
Rhys: Well, lots of people have shown solidarity by changing their Facebook profile page to the image of “Jesus and Mo.” I mean, that’s exactly what I was doing. I was just showing solidarity for the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society in UCL. But apparently I don’t have the right to freedom of speech to go and do things like that.
Kylie: Darn. What advice would you have for fellow students or young people who might be facing lashback due to posting online? Have you had lessons that you might have learned in places they might be able to contact?
Rhys: I honestly don’t know because in my case I was basically forced to remove the image, because it was implied that some more serious repercussions would happen for my education. I was later told by the school that they weren’t threatening to expel or suspend me, but they were going to send me home for my own safety. Now that to me sounds exactly like suspension, just with another name. Like, “We won’t suspend you; we’ll send you home,” which, if you get suspended you get sent home anyway. It’s just all a very difficult situation.
I don’t think there’s a right answer for this, because I strongly believe that people should have the right to say whatever they want and express their views wherever they want, in any way.
Kylie: As long as they’re able to rationalize it and certainly not cross the line to be hate speech that does lead to racism or cultural insensitivity and so forth.
Rhys: Yeah, of course. Of course. Long as something is true, then I’ve got no problem with people saying it, because otherwise people could go around libeling each other. I don’t agree with that. But on the other hand, I think that people need to understand that you should be allowed to criticize ideas, criticize religion. One of the things that really got me is that I was being called intolerant and asked why I hate Muslims and that sort of thing. I don’t. That’s not at all how I think.
To rephrase a horrible phrase used by some religious groups when it comes to homophobia, hate the religion, not the religious. That’s sort of my motto. Maybe not hate, but disrespect.
Kylie: Or certainly criticize intellectually what are the basis of some of the claims that are being made.
Rhys: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, that’s basically my position, is that I think that anyone should have the right to criticize any idea and they shouldn’t be censored for it.
Kylie: Well, hopefully we can start seeing if we can get more support for you in regards to this. Certainly there should be more student groups out there that can stand in solidarity and lend support to young people who are in a similar situation, because I’m certain that your story is not a solo effort out there in regards to what’s going on.
Rhys: No, indeed, as well as we’ve seen with the UCL thing.
Kylie: Thanks very much for talking to me, Rhys Morgan.
Rhys: No problem. Thanks for having me.