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On the 9th of January at a sleepy metropolitan university, known affectionately by its attendees as UCL, someone… took offense! Of course, this triggered an immediate polite-but-angry discourse, followed by calls for whatever is being offensive to be removed as soon as is practically possible. Preferably sooner. Next thing you know, before anyone is even able to employ unnecessarily lofty arguments to defend a very trivial matter, larger institutions have been called in to play, and the offender is faced with ultimatums and punishments if they do not cease offending. It’s a story as old as time.
In this particular situation, it is University College London’s Atheist Secularist and Humanist Society (ASHS) who are the offenders, and a Muslim student, now apparently backed by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Students Association, who is the offended party. The issue stems from the ASHS using an image of Mohammed with a cold beverage to advertise a social. In defence of the ASHS, this image, from the popular online comic Jesus & Mo, was used as the display picture on an event created by the ASHS’s facebook group cleverly named, ‘weekly pub social’ (https://www.facebook.com/events/124836740969089/). They didn’t post it onto the Islamic Society’s wall, nor did they create posters and plaster them all around university buildings. This was the use of an image in what is a relatively private space, and can easily be avoided by simply not searching for it. I can only imagine the majority of Muslim students at UCL aren’t active members of the ASHS and their tireless campaign against religious forces in society, though I could well be mistaken.
The battle at the moment of writing is between Muslim students who want the picture to be taken down, with the Students’ Union as the enforcers, and a rapidly growing irreligious lobby fighting for freedom from censorship. In recent hours this lobby has added Richard Dawkins and P Z Myers to its ranks, and has surpassed the 1000-signature mark on its petition. It’s great to see people supporting freedom of expression in modern society, but attempting to draw nationwide attention to the publication of pictures of Mohammed does seem like a dangerous manoeuvre.
The only question which remains is who do we, the British public, side with on a matter like this? Do we protect religious people from being offended, or do we strive to uphold freedom of expression even if it may upset whole communities? I wish to make it quite clear that I side unequivocally with the irreligious on this matter, and believe freedom of expression should be upheld as far as is reasonably possible. The line should be drawn when this freedom begins to incite violence, or direct hatred toward others in the form of harassment.
Alas, they did not remove the image. Whether you feel it is nice or not, this does not give the Students’ Union the right to censor this student society. As Voltaire famously said: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Let us hope that this debate doesn’t require such action.
The concept of offense itself is a peculiar beast; in our society, too often has blame for offense rested on the shoulders of the offender, rather than the offended. Even the constructions of the words themselves imply that the offended is being acted upon without their involvement. However, I would suggest that, to a degree, the offended choose to be offended, and they must be seen to have an active role in the creation of offense. Offense is entirely subjective, and if we banned everything which may be seen to offend at least some group in society then we would be stripping culture to the bone; banning much art, cinema, satire, and a great deal more. You do not have the right not to be offended. You do, however, have the right to be offended, and the right to engage in discourse over what has caused offense. The events at UCL could have provided subject matter for a debate to be organised between ASHS and one of the Islamic Societies where they could’ve discussed inter-faith relationships in a multicultural age. Or something like that.
The problem comes when religion takes itself so seriously as to think itself immune from bending to permit the freedoms of others. Surely when you hold to such implausible beliefs, you should expect the derision that may come with that, and if you insist that it is a crime to produce cartoon pictures of a man from 1500 years ago, then feel free to adhere to that, but don’t expect the rest of us to follow.