Further update: in under 24 hours, the above petition has gained over 1000 signatories from around the world. This blog post was reproduced on richarddawkins.net, prompting Richard to add his name as well as numerous other significant figures, and RDFRS UK gave us their support via the incomparable Paula Kirby. The National Secular Society stood behind us, as did the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies and numerous other atheist student groups in Britain. New Humanist reported on the day’s events; PZ Myers blogged about them at Pharyngula, and society members from UCL were contacted by the BBC and by radio broadcasters all the way from Australia.
Thank you to everyone who’s joined with us to stand up for free expression.
The society have asked me to add here that tomorrow, they plan to meet with UCL Union and bring these events to a close. In line with the petition’s wording, I can only hope this translates into a full, public withdrawal of its attempt at censorship and a meaningful apology to UCL’s atheists.
I’ll keep you all posted, but it looks as if we’ve made our point pretty well. A huge thank you again if you came to our aid.
Update: the atheist society mentioned here has now set up this petition to defend free expression at UCL. Please add your signature to it, and share it online.
If you want to be of further help, consider writing to the UCLU reps mentioned on the petition site or using the cartoon below as an avatar on social networks - or, if you’re in London, attend the pub social tonight!
Today, they were sent a message by a student union offical. The message, I’m told, is confidential and so can’t be reproduced here, but stated that ‘a number of complaints’ had been made about the use of the image – partly because contrary to Islamic teachings it depicts the Prophet Mohammad, and partly because it depicts him around alcohol. The union then told the atheist society to remove the image immediately and inform them once this had been done.
Having heard about this from the society’s president, I’d be interested to know precisely how many complaints UCL Union have received; despite the unusually high number of Muslims in the society’s Facebook group, only one has contacted them with a serious request of the image’s withdrawal, who then threatened to involve the student union and presumably has done so. (Their entire correspondence with the society appears unedited beneath this blog post, save for the removal of personal details.) Who are the ‘many Muslim students’ offended by this? Why, if they feel so strongly, have they not spoken up as strongly?
Well, perhaps the one person who complained at length was speaking for all of them. But wait! Their final message to the society began as follows:
I don’t represent anyone. I speak on my own behalf.
[…] I am asking you not to misrepresent my faith as one which in any way condones the act of drinking, since it is an immoral act in Islam.
That’s right: what atheists have obviously missed about Jesus and Mo is that, far from an absurdly extreme removal of two religious figures from their appopriate contexts for comic effect, its clear aim is actually to provide historical commentary on the Prophet Mohammad’s beliefs.
Of course this image suggests he condoned the consumption of alcohol! And how could we have overlooked so easily its explicit historical assertion that he and Jesus of Nazareth were casually acquainted, despite the several centuries between their lifetimes?
Not only, in fact, does the author of J&M believe these heresies about the Prophet. The same cartoon shows him either to have been capable of time travel, or to have been a drinker so innovative that his watering holes resembled those of the 21st century!
Should you want for more proof of this comic strip’s venomous heresy, look only to the other panels in the series.
These atheists are spreading the word that Mohammad used Apple computers!
That he backed Jesus up on guitar at open mic nights!
That they slept in the same bed! (Fully clothed, mind. No risky business here.)
Muslims, try not to be too hard on us silly atheists. When that lot at UCL used Jesus and Mo to promote their socials, they weren’t to know that a web series depicting the two as flatmates in 2012 would be read as an apocryphal account of Islamic morality. (The simpletons.)
I must ask, though: what makes you think – and what makes you think, UCL Union – that individuals’ negative reaction to this image is a good reason for its forced removal? There are, after all, plenty of images I find offensive which are used at universities by religious societies. To give some examples from the UCL Islamic Society’s website, for example…
…I’m offended as an anarchist and as a humanist when I see children dressed for prayer, who rarely have a chance to question their religions’ claims and who lack the life experience to understand what kneeling in front of a dictator really means.
I’m equally offended as a feminist when I see women dress according to men’s instructions from centuries past.
And by the way, these images aren’t part of a satirical and obviously absurdist web comic. These images are real.
But if, supposing I were studying at UCL, I e-mailed the student union and asked for these photographs’ removal from the website, what kind of reply should I expect?
A refusal, fairly obviously. Because being offended by something doesn’t mean you get to ban it.
I don’t care if Muslims are offended, or if they have cause to be. Hell, I wouldn’t care if the society had posted an enormous ‘FUCK G*D’ sign on its page. The right to free expression includes the right to mock religion. Yes, including offensively.
So, UCL Union: if you are able to force your university’s atheists to censor their web presence – I’m not sure you will be able to, by the way – what will you do in future, when complaints are lodged about these pictures, and comparable ones from other societies? Because if you do nothing, we’ll be forced to conclude not only that you don’t understand the above, but that you see offence taken by Muslims as a somehow more severe problem than the moral concern of non-Islamic students.
That, at England’s first secular university, would be a backward step of 200 years.
* * *
The full correspondence between the president of UCL’s atheist society and the one Muslim student who complained to them follows. As mentioned above, only names and personal information have been omitted.
I messaged you because I came across your pub social to Athiest Soc. I respect the fact that people have different views on things, and you’re welcome to have a social whenever and wherever you want, but I have to say I was really quite saddened when I saw the picture of the social.
As a Muslim, I find it highly inappropriate for there to be a depiction of Muhammad. As a human, I think it’s really quite insensitive and outright rude to have a picture of Muhammad holding a beer, when alcohol is strictly forbidden in Islam.
I really hope you will a) respond to my message with an acknowledgement of how that picture is not appropriate, b) remove that picture and c) Not use that or other such pictures in future.
I look forward to hearing from you.
I appreciate the kindly worded message. Others who feel the same way as you may have taken a different tone in communicating their feelings to me.
This said however, I will not remove the image.
Nobody has the right not to be offended. If you feel saddened by the image, then you do have the right to ignore it, or refrain from viewing it. However you do not have the right not to be offended.
There is no actual indication that Mohammed is drinking beer. Perhaps he is enjoying a glass of Coke.
Our society are great opponents of censorship, particularly on the grounds of “offence”. I will not indulge in any form of self-censorship because my words/actions/posts may offend an individual or group.
I am sorry that we had to communicate as the result of such a situation. I do hope that we can meet under less confrontational circumstances in the future.
I hope you had an enjoyable holiday.
Yes thank you, I did. It is unfortunate that others have expressed themselves in inappropriate ways, but it is also unfortunate that you will not remove the image.
Just so you know, the picture clearly indicates that he is sitting in a pub (by the big handle in the centre) and that in itself, even if no drink is consumed is forbidden in Islam (since the main purpose of pubs is the sale of alcohol).
It does not matter, therefore, whether the glass he holds depicts coke or not. The picture you have uploaded is not only offensive as a byproduct of what it depicts, it is directly insulting by portraying our Prophet as doing one the most fundamental things he was opposed to.
Moreover, this is an event conducted by a society which is affiliated with the UCL Union. I would not be having this conversation with you if you drew this in your diary in your room, but I do think that in such a public capacity, this directly reflects on the Union. I genuinely do not want to make this a big issue Robbie but it is quite hurtful to a lot of people.
Please understand and remove it. If not, then with genuine regret, we will have to bring this up with the union.
Before we proceed, would you mind clarifying on whose behalf you are speaking and in what capacity?
If you feel it necessary to bring this matter to the Union, then we will discuss it with them. That said I fail to identify the exact arguments you will make in-front of the Union with the belief that they will censor us. As far as I understand, you find it profane of us to use an image which violates the laws of Islam and as such, we should be prevented from using it.
It is your right to be offended when someone violates the commandments of your faith. As an explicitly non-Islamic entity, it is hardly fair to ask us to abide by those rules simply because you do. There are numerous aspects of the Islamic belief that many of our members find offensive, however we cannot force you to behave like secular humanists, nor would we want to.
If our advertisement offends you and the Union is persuaded to censor us, where do you expect a line to be drawn? On the same basis, all other religious and atheistic societies would presumably have to be banned, since they all make claims deemed heretical from an Islamic perspective. Societies which involve food or its preparation will have to adhere to the culinary code of Muslims; copies of the Qur’an handled by union officials will have to be kept on top shelves, and touched only after rituals of self-cleansing.
I cannot see a difference between these unlikely scenarios and us having to use advertisements which don’t offend any Muslims by breaking their religious rules. If the union was in anyway consistent following such a successful complaint, then the scenarios I have just mentioned would logically follow.
The alternative is that your society and the ASHS both acknowledge, in the name of basic freedom of expression, the other’s right to violate their own ethical principles (within the limits of law) even if they find it personally distasteful, since it would be unfair to impose our moral impulses on each other otherwise. This is the argument we can happily make to the union, if you still want to seek their involvement, although we’d still prefer not to be combative.
I don’t represent anyone. I speak on my own behalf. Your logic is very flawed: If I was asking you to abide by Islamic rules, I would be asking YOU not to drink. Instead, I am asking you not to misrepresent my faith as one which in any way condones the act of drinking, since it is an immoral act in Islam.
I have tried to reason with you but I see no hope in you changing your stance. I do think that your actions are actually completely intentioned to cause hurt to a lot of people and as such are utterly devoid of any humanity.
In any case, I have no personal qualms with you. Good luck making your case to the Union.