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Never anything more than an informal request

This morning I received an email from the Secretary for the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (in the UK), Michael Paynter, saying he’d seen that I’ve commented on the “take the image of Mo from Jesus and Mo off your Facebook page please” fuss at UCL (the wording is mine) and that he wanted to provide some context because the media coverage has been distorted. I’ve heard from other people who received much the same email (or possibly exactly the same), so I feel free to quote from it.

UCL Union (UCLU) did make a request for the University College London’s Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (UCLUASHS) to remove an image of the prophet Muhammed after a complaint was filed, but this was never anything more than an informal request.  Before the President had contacted the students’ union to discuss the issue further, an individual blogger, neither a member of UCL nor UCLUASHS, decided to exaggerate the story, making accusations of “Muslim-led censorship”, in order to garner attention for himself.  This subsequent coverage has unnecessarily strained relations between UCLUASHS and UCLU.

I don’t like that “but this was never anything more than an informal request.” I don’t see what difference the fact that it was “informal” makes. An informal request can always lead to a formal one, you know, kind of like with protection rackets. “I’m just passin’ the time of day here, but you might want to think about what this nice little store would look like if something should happen to it.” In any case the request is not of a kind that should be made, formally or not.

I don’t like the fact that the secretary of a student atheist humanist and secular organization is trying to minimize and make excuses for a theocratic attempt to get rid of a cartoon.

I don’t like the secretary of a student atheist humanist and secular organization backing up this attempt by claiming that a blogger posted about the issue “in order to garner attention for himself.”

It doesn’t matter what I like or don’t like, of course, but in this case it appears that the secretary of a student atheist humanist and secular organization is making excuses for unreasonable requests that would interfere with free debate, and that does matter.

Michael Paynter went on to say that “the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies fully support UCLASHS right to freedom of speech” and linked to a statement he wrote. That’s good, but the statement isn’t exactly robust, and it’s a week old. The tenor of his email message is even less robust. Its conclusion is downright…accommodationist:

The AHS would like to point out that we support both UCL Union and UCLUASHS in discussing how to move forward, what to do next and how to build understanding between the religious and non-religious communities, though we appreciate that it could be more difficult considering the way some bloggers and now the wider media have reported it.

It’s not the job of a student atheist humanist and secular organization to “build understanding between the religious and non-religious communities.” It’s not even its job to think of themselves and others as either religious or non-religious “communities.” It’s the job of a student atheist humanist and secular organization to be just that, not to try to build understanding with its own opposites. Do student socialists societies spend their time trying to build understanding between the socialist and capitalist communities? Do gamers spend their time trying to build understanding between gamers and jocks? For that matter, do student religious organizations spend their time trying to build understanding between themselves and atheists? No; it’s only the non-theist groups who are always apologizing for existing.

The day after the only semi-robust statement, Michael Paynter wrote a note to “Ahmadiyya Muslims” in which he threw the naughty blogger mentioned above very firmly under the bus:

Dear Ahmadiyya Muslims,

I would like to start by saying that the organisation I represent, the AHS, supports entirely the right of UCLUASHS to use the picture they used and we have written a statement to that effect:

http://www.ahsstudents.org.uk/news/2012/1/10/uclash-and-blasphemy/

However, we have also noticed that Alex Gabriel has been writing particularly inflammatory articles about the situation, exaggerating it beyond its actual scope.  Alex Gabriel is neither a member of UCLUASHS and is not even a student at UCL and we do not support his distorted view of the situation.  The publicity that has been manufactured in the blogosphere is entirely down to him and not members of UCLUASHS.

We know that you have had a good relationship with UCLUASHS in the past and hope that this may continue after this episode.  Please get in touch if you have any questions!

This is not what the secretary of a student atheist humanist and secular organization should be doing.

Comments

  1. piero says

    For shame! What is Paynter doing in an atheist organization? What does he want to achieve? Why doesn’t he join his “dear” Ahmadiyya Muslims instead?

    His attitude in trying to blame Alex Gabriel for the whole nasty episode is cowardly and undignified. I don’t want such a spineless and apologetic bloke to believe he has anything in common with other atheists. I’d rather have valiant enemies than pusillanimous friends.

  2. Dave says

    Personally, I don’t think the relentless sectarianism and hostility of student socialists is a good model for anybody else, but that’s just me. I also think that people should be able to join a society without subsequently discovering that they’ve been drafted into somebody else’s culture war.

    Whatever the merits or demerits of this particular case, I am fairly confident that it is better, in real life if not on the internet, to be a person who aims to keep lines of civil dialogue open rather than being one who is certain that all those they label as opponents are beneath contempt.

    Of coure, if it should transpire that the writer of this message was having his genitalia twisted in a vice, all bets are off.

  3. stonyground says

    The second anyone complained about the cartoon the complainant should have been told, in no uncertain terms, that freedom of expression is important in our country. You are granted freedom of expression and, quite rightly, claim this right for yourself, but you have to understand that this freedom also applies to everyone else. There is no way on earth that we will even politely request that this cartoon is removed, if you don’t like that, well, tough.

    Of course that would have required both courage and intelligence. This pathetic damage limitation and blame shifting shows neither.

  4. says

    Let’s see who can bow the lowest, shall we? God, what rot! If Paynter wants to do anything he’ll ask himself what the hell he’s about, because it seems, contrary to what he wants to claim, that he is not for free speech, or the rights of unbelievers to critcise religion, mock it, and parody it, but for appeasing religious zealots, blaming everything on someone else, and especially the poor bloke who told people about the problem in the first place. Why shouldn’t he have told people about this attempt to limit free speech and appease Muslims? Of course he should, especially in the UK, where even the lawyers seem to want to live under Sharia law. Paynter, like so many other “liberals”, is selling our birthright for a bunch of seventh century pottage, and he’s making excuses for not selling it fast enough, making the ridiculous assumption along the way that humanist and atheist societies should be kowtowing to the religious. What unmitigated rot! I’m angry. Can you tell?

  5. piero says

    Dave, it is not a matter of being confrontational for the hell of it. The origin of this fiasco was a complaint by Muslim students concerning a cartoon of Muhammad displayed on a Facebook page as an advertisement for a private meeting. It should be obvious to anyone who expects to live in a free society that the complaint had no merit, and it should not have been even discussed by the UCLSU, let alone induced them to rebuke the Atheist Society.

    I’m all for peace and harmony, but not with those who expect me to submit to their will. That’s called capitulation. If you want to join the ranks of Chamberlain and other misguided individuals throughout history, you can be my guest, but not my friend.

  6. eric says

    Dave, I agree wholeheartedly with your comments. But I think maybe you should be directing it at the people who took offense at the cartoon rather than the people who used it as an advertisement for a social hour.

    I mean, let’s think about this. A secular society is inviting people to come to a happy hour at a bar to discuss religion, secularism, and like concepts. To do that, they show a cartoon Christian and Muslim at a bar discussing religion with an atheist bartender.

    Wow. What a crazily offensive and inappropriate idea; showing people doing what you are inviting them to do!

    Not only that, but according to the comic strip’s author, the characters are not intended to be the real historical characters. These toons are not THE Jesus and Mohammed, they are (toons of) 21st century people who dress up like them. So the whole ‘no idols’ thing is irrelevant.

    If there is any ‘relentless hostility’ going on here, it is one religion’s hostility towards any representation of their own religion – no matter how innocuous – which is not controlled and approved by them.

  7. 'Tis Himself, OM. says

    Whatever the merits or demerits of this particular case, I am fairly confident that it is better, in real life if not on the internet, to be a person who aims to keep lines of civil dialogue open rather than being one who is certain that all those they label as opponents are beneath contempt.

    Who is saying the Ahmadiyya Muslims are beneath contempt? I have exactly the same contempt for them as I do for every other flavor of goddist. If they’re civil to me then I’ll be civil back. However this group has forfeited their claim to civility. They want people who do not accept their religious prohibition against pictures of Mohammed to refrain from showing such pictures.* In other words, they want to impose their religion on unbelievers.

    So I’ll express my contempt for the Ahmadiyya Muslims instead of civilly keeping my contempt masked. If they want to play silly games then we can play silly games.

    *Yes, I’m aware that Mo is supposedly a body double. And if you believe that then I have some ocean front property in Manitoba you might want to invest in.

  8. says

    All these “lines of communication” demands only happen in one direction, don’t they? The communication from the theists is nearly always some form of “shut up” when they are talking to atheists, so why should the response be anything except “no” with or without some profanity to spice it up?

  9. says

    The AHS would like to point out that we support both UCL Union and UCLUASHS in discussing how to move forward, what to do next and how to build understanding between the religious and non-religious communities,

    How to move forward: Everyone involved understands that non-religious people and groups have every right to be publicly critical of religious beliefs and actions and no obligation to be deferential to the religious, and that many non-religious people hold it as an ethical obligation to be publicly critical and to speak the truth, and will continue to do so. If this is not the basis for mutual understanding, then there won’t be any mutual understanding.

  10. F says

    accusations of “Muslim-led censorship”

    Really? That isn’t the idea I got from the story so far. This sounds like further misdirection.

  11. says

    Good point. I just looked again at Alex Gabriel’s post, and in fact he says the opposite. The opposite.

    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?

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