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:
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.