Alex Gabriel

Queer left politics, pop culture and skepticism.

LSE’s student union copy UCL’s

Yesterday I wrote about LSESU telling their atheist society they’d been Islamophobic. It now turns out it was nothing to do with Marshall’s blog. Here’s part of the e-mail I got today from the society, who’ve just met with their union to discuss the issues:

Essentially, a large of group of Muslim students felt offended that there were pictures of Mohammed on the facebook group. As a result, they felt that our facebook group was no longer a ‘safe space’ for Muslims. Thus, they have ‘requested’ that we remove the offending images. Until an official complaint procedure is completed they cannot mandate we take it down. However, they made it pretty clear that would be the next step should we choose to keep the images.

Really, am I the only one who finds this familiar? The only one who thought we might’ve made some progress with student unions? Nope, none at all. And so it begins… again.

I know it’s bad style, but frankly there’s so much here which annoys me that only a numbered list will do.

  1. The hijacking of ‘safe space’ language for religionists. In the women’s movement, safe-space originally meant all-female places or meetings where misogyny (including violence in particular) wasn’t going to occur; in the queer movement, it went on to be used the same way. What LSESU should for goodness’ sake know, and what anyone from those movements will tell you, is that safe spaces have to be removed from all external power structures – including religions. That’s why Southall Black Sisters for example, and groups just like them, have been strictly secular for decades. Appropriating the concept of safe-space to bully atheists is not on.
  2. The suggestion beliefs need protecting. I usually hate to repeat myself, but even if we allow the idea of ‘a “safe space” for Muslims’ – safe from what? No reasonable definition of ‘safety’ includes ‘absence of any challenge to your principles’. Women’s safe-space was engineered to stop them being physically attacked, sexually molested and verbally abused, not to provide an environment where everyone agreed with everyone else on every issue. People deserve protection. Beliefs, religious or otherwise, just don’t.
  3. The total failure to grasp whose real safety is at stake. I’ve already said safe spaces have to be secular – but there’s another point here too. What’s happened since the Jesus and Mo business started? Well: I’ve been told I’ll be beheaded. Rhys Morgan’s been told in more detail that he’ll be killed. Atheists at UCL have worried their parents will be attacked. Atheists at Queen Mary were told they’d be hunted down if they insulted Mohammad, including their president Jen Hardy who’s feared for her life in the last few days. Maryam Namazie made it sound like this wasn’t unusual in her line of work. All this, and LSESU have the cojones to say it’s Muslims they’re concerned about? If anybody currently requires a safe space, it’s us. That’s partly what our online groups are for, which leads me to…
  4. The concern for the feelings of Muslims in, for fuck’s sake, an atheist Facebook group. If we’re going to use a ‘space’ analogy, the group LSE’s atheists use is (like the one at UCL) a private one. It’s a closed group, which you have to ask to join if you want to be in it. Any Muslims who saw Jesus and Mo reposted there had asked to enter atheist webspace. What did they expect? If atheists had asked to join the Islamic society’s group, been let into it, and then complained to the union of images saying ‘God is great’, would they have a case? Is it really grounds for action when Muslims join a godless internet community and find its members don’t follow Islam?
  5. The condescending, euphemistic, irrelevant reference to a ‘request’. Again, we saw this with the claim UCL’s union had ‘informally requested’ atheists take down the cartoon. Well, no, I’m afraid. If you’re a student union officer and you e-mail a society following complaints, you’re not acting informally. We can’t discuss what UCLU’s e-mails said, since (stupidly) they can’t be reproduced, but either in that case or in this one it’s irrelevant. Student unions have many members with diverse views. They are, I presume, at least partially state-funded. This obliges them to take a neutral stance. So I don’t care if this was a ‘request’ or not – if it was, it wasn’t a request they should have been making. In any case, trying to have an ‘offensive’ image removed is an attempt at censorship, no matter how politely it’s done.

LSESU, have you learnt nothing from the past two weeks?

The atheists of LSE are going to be just as firm about this as everyone else, and if you’re reading this blog then they’ll be asking for your support.

Watch this space – safe or not – for updates.


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