Saturday, 28 January 2012

Blasphemy is Back

The blasphemy law was abolished in March 2008 but is creeping back through claims of Islamophobia by both Islamic extremists and the Left.

The latest example of a growing attack on freedom of expression happened at the London School of Economics this week.

It started when the LSE Atheist Secular Humanist Society (ASH) posted a Jesus and Mo cartoon (see above) on their Facebook page. They did this in support of University College London ASH who had run into trouble with their Union after a few Muslims complained about the cartoon on their Facebook page.

The LSE Students Union (LSESU) told the group that unless it removed the cartoon from its Facebook page, it could be expelled from the Union because ‘posting these cartoons was in breach of Students’ Union policy on inclusion’ and that they ‘strongly condemn and stand against any form of racism and discrimination on campus’.

In a statement on behalf of LSE ASH, its President Chris Moos said:
‘There are no reasonable grounds for the LSESU’s instruction because we are in no way violating their policies or byelaws. The cartoons on our Facebook page criticise religion in a satirical way and we totally reject any claim that their publications could constitute any sort of harassment or intimidation of Muslims or Christians.

‘That there was no deliberate intention to offend is illustrated by the fact that the cartoons were posted only on the LSESU ASH page and not in other spaces. But even if some people are offended, offence is not a sufficient reason for certain artistic and satirical forms of expression to be prohibited. A university should hold no idea sacred and be open to the critiquing of all ideas and ideologies'.

An Emergency General Meeting was held at LSE on Thursday. The Union noted ‘That Islamophobia is a form of anti-Islamic racism’. The motion passed by 339 votes to 179. The voting bloc of 339 contained people from Far Left groups as well as Muslims. The Union resolved:

- To define Islamophobia as “a form of racism expressed through the hatred or fear of Islam, Muslims, or Islamic culture, and the stereotyping, demonisation or harassment of Muslims, including but not limited to portraying Muslims as barbarians or terrorists, or attacking the Qur’an as a manual of hatred”,

- To take a firm stance against all Islamophobic incidents at LSE and conduct internal investigations if and when they occur.

You can listen to the debate at the EGM here.

A spokesperson from the National Federation of Atheist Humanist and Secular Student Societies said: ‘This is not the first time that an AHS member has been caught up in a row over published material. In 2008, Warwick Atheists caused controversy with a poster showing religious symbols being put in a bin. Leeds and Southampton Atheists have both experienced intimidation when they proposed showing material that some Muslims took offence to’.

Schoolboy and campaigner against quack medicines Rhys Morgan also ran into trouble when he posted the same cartoon on his Facebook page. He received a barrage of hate mail and faced serious disciplinary action from his school.

In a separate incident, a debate at Queen Mary College about sharia had to be cancelled when a Muslim man filmed people there and threatened to kill them if they said anything negative about the Prophet.

The other side of the attack on freedom of expression comes from the probably well-intentioned but misguided liberal Left. A recent letter to the Guardian with a long list of signatories stated that 'over the past decade, a number of academic studies have indicated a worrying and disproportionate trend towards negative, distorted and even fabricated reports in media coverage of the Muslim community'. It called for an inquiry into media representation of Muslims on a par with the Leveson inquiry.

While it is true that Muslims often don’t get fair representation in the media, the conflation of religion with race and the portrayal of the Muslim community as a homogenous entity is becoming a way to blackmail and manipulate, to stop any questioning of Islamists and their activities, even the most serious attacks on human rights. Freedom of expression is being held hostage by a minority of religious extremists who are manipulating the well-intentioned but wrong-headed into silencing debate.

There are laws against inciting hatred and against attacks on individuals because of their race or religion. But Islam is not a race. And Islam is not Muslims. A religion is a set of ideas that anyone should be able to question, criticize or mock in public. It’s only through robust debate that human rights are protected, even if fundamentalist believers resent having their beliefs challenged. Only a person can be insulted, not a set of ideas.

Part of the reason the liberal left is being manipulated by extremists is the Japanese knotweed that is post-modern relativism. According to this, all truths are relative and all beliefs equally valid - even if this means that some people (for example women, LGBT and more moderate or secular/cultural believers) are not treated equally or accorded their Human Rights.

If Human Rights are mutable and vulnerable to demands from extremists and a violent minority, then they are not Universal, they are a pick and mix. If there is a hierarchy of rights, any privilege granted to one group means that other groups are seriously disadvantaged.

This relativism also forbids criticism of other cultures as colonial imperialism. It's one reason why dealing with Female Genital Mutilation and forced marriage is such a problem, for example.

If there is no freedom of expression and open debate of ideas in an academic setting, this bodes very badly for the rest of society, especially when the media and politicians either can't or won't defend free expression.

It should be made very clear that it's not just Muslims who want special consideration, there are many examples of Christian extremists claiming persecution, demanding exemption from Equality laws and trying to shut down criticism.

Other examples of how blasphemy is creeping back are here and here.

The National Secular Society’s briefing paper on Freedom of Expression is here . It has a series of useful extracts from the United Nations and Council of Europe on the defence of this Right.

The NSS submitted a response to the Police Powers Consultation to remove the word ‘insulting’ from section 5 of the Public Order Act. This states that it is an offence to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.

Claiming insult on behalf of a religion is becoming another weapon to silence debate. The NSS believes that insult is too nebulous a concept and too open to abuse. Its removal would protect freedom of expression and set the bar higher for a criminal offence.

There is a rally for freedom of expression in central London on February 11.

The situation at LSE and the other colleges is still developing and I'll post updates as they happen.

31 January LSE ASH have now been 'unaffiliated' by their Students" Union.


  1. Just read about this motion on LSE and I just cant believe it passed. I have feeling we are changing into this.

    Best wishes Igor

  2. I am occasionally insulted for my atheism and free thinking. It is all part of the fun of living in a democracy and is quite stimulating. I say "Make my day; argue with me!"