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Oct 04 2013

Reading University has banned its atheist society. Why? Because they named a pineapple Muhammad

Gillian Gibbons, a teacher from Liverpool who worked in Khartoum, was arrested in 2007 for naming her class teddy bear Muhammad. Authorities detained her in a police cell, and a court sentenced her to fifteen days in prison and deportation. This was a comparatively lenient decree: Gibbons, charged triply with insulting religion, incitement of hatred and public contempt for religious beliefs, might have faced forty lashes for these under Sudanese law.

A year ago as freshers’ fair took place at Reading University, its atheist society sought to raise awareness of blasphemy laws’ global effects, citing the Gibbons case specifically. To pique passing first years’ interest as a conversation-prompter, they wrote the name Muhammad on a post-it note and stuck it to a pineapple, assuming no doubt that this exhibit’s surreal whimsy couldn’t possibly be viewed as aggressive, prejudicial or intolerant. They erred in thinking so: after the best part of a day passed without signs of trouble, a representative of Reading’s student union (who ran the fair) informed them a number of complaints had been received, adding the earnest but Pythonesque instruction, ‘Either the pineapple goes, or you do.’

According to a statement the group made which hit the press:

They seized the pineapple and tried to leave. However, the pineapple was swiftly returned, and shortly was displayed again, with the name Mohammed changed to that of Jesus.

Shortly afterwards, the second RUSU staff member returned and ordered [us] to leave the Freshers’ Fayre. At this point, a group of around five students, some of whom self-identified as Muslim, approached the stall and began to criticise us, asking and telling us to remove the pineapple. Though these students mainly engaged in discussion, one removed the label from the pineapple without our permission.

As the RUSU staff member merely raised his voice and shouted at the [society] president when he attempted to explain our position, we were ultimately forced to leave the venue. However, several other societies at the Fayre offered to continue distributing our leaflets, and we continued to hand out leaflets outside the venue until we were again asked to leave by RUSU staff members, this time accompanied by RUSU security staff.

‘Our Freshers’ Fayre’, the student union commented, ‘is an inclusive event for all students. As the societies [sic] actions were causing upset and distress to a number of individual students and other societies attending we took the decision to ask them to leave.’

Defending the society’s expulsion on grounds of inclusivity seems Orwellian in the extreme. It’s true events can’t and shouldn’t be equally inclusive of women and misogynists, homophobes and queer people, Muslims and the far right’s anti-migrant racism – but this wasn’t an anti-Muslim display. It wasn’t a depiction of Mohammad as a suicide bomber, for example; it wasn’t a placard blaming Sweden’s Muslim populace for its rape statistics; it was a tropical fruit emblazoned with a so called prophet’s name, so as to start discussions about blasphemy and free expression. (The atheist society, when the English Defence League planned a demonstration on their campus earlier this year, soon organised a counter-protest. The EDL themselves were acting in response to the Muslim Society at reading hosting a talk by Abu Usamah at-Thahabi, a supporter of queer and LGBT people’s violent murder. The event was proscribed, but only due to fears of violence; while the Muslim Society’s views on tropical fruit remain unknown, no action against them seems to have been taken.)

Reading’s student union, after this, took disciplinary action against the atheist society, issuing it in spring term this year with an official warning. According to Rory Fenton, president of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (who really, seriously need to fix their name), ‘the union then updated their behavioural policy to forbid societies from causing “offence” to other students or even to members of the wider local community. The policy offers no definition of offence, creating in essence a blasphemy ban.’

In order to continue operating under the union’s auspices, the society was asked to sign an agreement to avoid causing offence in future. They declined to do this, quite understandably for a body whose central premise is that other people’s most cherished views are wrong, and have now been disaffiliated. The atheist society, officially speaking, no longer exists – while it still meets and recruits, union officials have now informed committee members they consider it dissolved, removing financial support for the group’s activities, room-booking privileges for events and rights to a table at freshers’ fair. (A few days ago, as autumn term began, members stood outside the premises to advertise.)

The union has, in effect, banned atheist societies – banned anyone, specifically, who won’t abide by a faith’s religious taboos which they don’t practise and who won’t refrain from violating vague ideals of non-offensiveness through benignly blasphemous displays.

This is cause for extreme concern.

What’s more concerning is that judging by events this week in London, it isn’t alone.

16 comments

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  1. 1
    moleatthecounter

    And yet another backwards step into the 14th century…

  2. 2
    moleatthecounter

    All this happening in our universities too… For shame!

    These places *should* be bastions of free expression and homes to free and forward thinkers. It seems to me that a small minority of pathetic ‘jobs worths’ are trying to rule with from an iron pulpit.

  3. 3
    left0ver1under

    If the atheist group were really trying to be “offensive”, they would have labelled the pineapple “mahound”, a derogatory term for mohammad.

    Were the nutbags claiming the post-it on a pineapple was an insinuation that muslims are terrorists? “Pineapple” is an old slang word for a hand grenade. That’s stretching credulity, but we are talking about the religious here, not rational people….

    Whenever the word “pineapple” comes up on the internet, I always end up thinking of this picture:

    http://p.twimg.com/AutIxwdCAAAQwxA.jpg

  4. 4
    John Horstman

    *headdesk*headdesk*headdesk*

  5. 5
    praggers

    Why oh why are Muslims so incredibly touchy about their Prophet? Islam seems to attract those suffering from anger management issues, seemingly. Take this particular instance of fury over a pineapple called “Mohammad”. Had the pineapple been named “The Prophet Mohammad” Muslims might possibly have had a valid reason to be a tad irritated. however, the fact is, the pineapple was just called “Mohammad” which is just about the most popular name in the Arabic world and predates the advent of Islam by centuries. Who’s to say which particular “Mohammad” the pineapple was caricaturing? Its high time Muslims got over themselves.

  6. 6
    Alex Gabriel

    @praggers (#5)

    A few things:

    - I’d suggest it’s a good idea to avoid speaking about ‘Muslims’ as an homogenous mass, particularly in this case, where most of the officials involved weren’t Muslims.

    - Islam generally doesn’t ‘attract’ its followers; the vast majority of Muslims, like followers of any religion, are raised in their parents’ faith.

    - The strict taboo about treatment of Mohammad, and in particular the taboo against pictorial depictions (e.g. cartoons) of prophets seems to me a product specifically of 20th century Islamist politics as formed during the cold war. (To answer your question.)

  7. 7
    Alex Gabriel

    @left0ver1under (#3)

    While I agree with your sentiment, I’d ask you to avoid words (e.g. ‘nutbag’) that use mental illness as an insult. (Not your fault, obviously – I still need to establish a comment policy.)

  8. 8
    left0ver1under

    It won’t be used again.

  9. 9
    scimaths

    Why are the Atheist H S Soc not putting in a counter-complaint that they have taken “offence” at the Muslim and Christian and other religious student societies ? There’s certainly plenty to get offended about.

  10. 10
    Rich Woods

    Why are the Atheist H S Soc not putting in a counter-complaint that they have taken “offence” at the Muslim and Christian and other religious student societies ? There’s certainly plenty to get offended about.

    Possibly because that would be using a policy they disagree with. It would probably be better just to point out that it could be abused that way.

  11. 11
    Steven Price

    Holy mother of god! Who the hell do these [redacted] think they are? How dare they be offended by the use of a simple christian name :-) How dare the powers-that-be exercise censorship in this way! The Atheists Society would surely have a legal case against the Union if they could afford it, which of course they can’t. Jesus Christ, what is happening to our universities?

  12. 12
    Alex Gabriel

    @Steven Price (#11)

    I have already asked above that derogatory terms for those with mental illness not be used here. Continuing to do so, in particular by using emphatically (as you just did) the same one I asked to be avoided, will result in a ban.

  13. 13
    Steven Price

    Alex, you are wrong to ban the use of that word. It is simply not derogatory to anybody with mental illness. I used it on purpose of course to see what you would do. IMHO you are guilty of the same arbitrary censorship as the SU. Perhaps I could substitute another word like ‘idiots’; would that be OK, or is that offensive to idiots or derogatory to some group in some way?

  14. 14
    Alex Gabriel

    @Steven Price (#13)

    Please respect my to right moderate my comments how I want. A list of alternative terms you might use is here.

  15. 15
    kungfuhobbit

    re: #13, 14

    I second that this banning of language seems arbitrary and poses the genuine (non-halting) problem of ‘how far do you go?’
    It is Monty Python-esque.

    And in a post promoting the freedom to make satirical comparison and the utility of metaphor in the exchange of ideas, descending into this seems especially…(checks approved list)…farcical.
    For any casual readers it is a bad advert for atheism blogs.
    If I werent familiar with your style Alex, I’d think it were a Poe.

  16. 16
    Alex Gabriel

    @kungfuhobbit (#15)

    1) This is my personal (atheist) blog. It is not an advert for other atheist blogs. I do not have a duty to advertise atheist blogs.

    2) If you think derogatory terms for mental illness being unwelcome in the comments section of my personal blog is comparable to people being threatened, harassed and expelled from public space for blasphemy, think again.

    3) If you can’t accept that this is my personal blog, where I make the rules about what kind of language is welcome, please leave. If you continue to oppose that, you’ll be helped to leave.

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