A media that paints puritans and fanatics as mainstream forfeits its right to condemn them

Asif Quraishi, better known as drag queen Asifa Lahore, sits unassumingly in a TV studio. ‘One question I’d like to ask’, he says, ‘is when will it be all right to be Muslim and gay?

The programme is Twitter-powered BBC Three debate series Free Speech, whose host Rick Edwards (of Tool Academy and, unexpectedly, Cambridge) makes Nicky Campbell seem subdued, and where no thought is too complex for 140 characters. Producers, show name notwithstanding, spiked the question from a previous edition when officials at Birmingham Central Mosque, where Free Speech filmed on March 13, ‘expressed deep concerns’ about gay Muslims being discussed. The speed at which showrunners acquiesced, postponing the segment, speaks to a wider trend.

So begins my column this week at Index on Censorship – read the rest there.

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How filesharing in Germany cost me $3000

At my new address, the scientist – passive-aggressively polite – told me I had to sign a retroactive rental contract. This could easily have been done by email — when he asked to meet, I should have smelled a rat, but obliged outside a supermarket in November, not stopping to wonder why both ex-flatmates turned up. ‘While you were here,’ he said once papers were filled out, ‘you used BitTorrent?’

I had, I said, like almost all my friends. Filesharing was in my eyes like speeding on the motorway, an illegality most practised and few cared about. ‘We all do it’, the Barcelonian said, who seemed to have come reluctantly.

The scientist produced a further wad of fine-print forms. ‘We got sued’, he told me, ‘by the music industry.’

* * *

Above is an extract from my piece today at Index on Censorship. Read the rest there.

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Chutney, pineapples and flying spaghetti: why atheism can never be inoffensive enough

This month, posters were snatched from an atheist group at South Bank University. ‘Looking for logic?’ they read, Flying Spaghetti Monster in God’s place on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. ‘Pastafarianism is a real religion.’ Not quite The Satanic Verses, but student union officials took them down in the society’s absence, afraid they’d trigger ‘religious offence’. (The union has since apologised.)

The row recalled a string of prior ones. Censors initially claimed the problem to be Michelangelo’s Adam, painted nude, but changed once offered a blurred-out version to fears of offensiveness. We’ve seen this bait-and-switch before: when UCL’s union tried to ban Jesus and Mo from its atheist group’s Facebook page, complaints were just as interchangeable – the cartoons, said critics jumping between bad arguments, were wrong to show Mohammed in a pub, blasphemous for depicting him at all, or else a form of ‘bullying and harassment’. Officers’ invasiveness is likewise familiar: when LSE’s atheists wore Jesus and Mo shirts at their freshers’ fair, union staff ‘started removing material’; a year before, when Reading’s labelled a pineapple Mohammed, authorities ‘seized [it] and tried to leave’.

Drawings of the Prophet; fruit with his name; the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Targets of censure on our campuses grow, by the year, absurder. The pineapple, displayed in reference to a teacher prosecuted in Sudan for calling her class teddy bear Mohammed, was no doubt chosen for its innocence. The Monster, like space teapots or invisible pink unicorns, is a generic spoof-god – mocking no faith in particular, targeting no one for abuse. It’s a nicer god than any mainstream one, as venomless as parody could be. These items are whimsical, silly, fun. To call them offensive is to take offence per se at anyone finding religion funny.

Atheist blasphemy, even as atheism is blasphemy, has been called gratuitous. Drawing Islamic prophets like Jesus and Mo, or for Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, is one example. Mocking the Eucharist, like PZ Myers or Goodness Gracious Me – whose banned sketch where a British Asian adds chutney to his wafer visibly pained Ann Widdecombe – is another. These exercises, we’re told, are intolerant and crass, offending with intent and for the sake of it. It’s rarely true, but anyway: if any atheist meme attempts the opposite, being as inoffensive as it can, surely the FSM does? If Spaghetti Monsters are aggressive enough to ban, what isn’t?

‘There’s probably no god’, Ariane Sherine’s Atheist Bus Campaign proclaimed, ‘now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ Just calling oneself an atheist, most of time, says something not unlike that, but the ASA got 141 complaints. When the British Humanist Association pushed for better census data, railway companies refused to run its ads, which read ‘If you’re not religious for God’s sake say so’ - suggesting nothing either way about believers or belief. In Pennsylvania, bus owners rejected signs as overly controversial and provocative which would have read ‘Don’t believe in God? You are not alone’ and, in one case, simply ‘Atheists.

The advert U.S. bus owners refused to run

Unbelief can never be inoffensive enough. Items like these – bus and rail ads, sketches, spoilt Communion wafers, Mohammed drawings, Jesus and Mo, the pineapple, the Flying Spaghetti Monster – are awkward reminders atheists exist, and this alone, it seems, makes them impolite, unwelcoming and intolerant. Widdecombe, gasping in anguish for the cameras at the gentlest fun-pokes, seems genuinely unready for a world where not everyone shares her beliefs or has grace enough to act as if they do. In theory, no doubt, she’d concede atheists their right to draw breath, but that some might actually behave like crackers aren’t really Christ’s flesh appears to wound her. Response to Mohammed cartoons can be the same, and whoever tore the South Bank posters down must have felt similar. ‘We know you don’t believe,’ blacklisters say, ‘but for heaven’s sake, must you live like it, too?’

Few things but faith could yield such results: blasphemy, even apparently when most benign, threatens the norms on which religion rests. The earnestness of faith, and faith itself, can’t be taken comfortably for granted when its sacraments are others’ standing jokes, and what can’t be assumed must be explained. Spectators like Tom Bailey of Spiked overlook this, who conflate the campus banning of Spaghetti Monsters and unholy fruits with that, for instance, of Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’, a song a score of student unions boycotted, which insists in colourfully violent language that women who dance with men ‘must want’ sex with them. No thinking person equates advocacy of rape, or any assault, with dismissing or lampooning doctrines of faith.

Conservative believers and the faitheists who aid them, on campuses and elsewhere, suppress the softest of critiques insatiably – motivated, it’s hard not to conclude, by simple shock at public sacrilege. We can only guess, after the hateful smörgåsbord of chutney, pineapples and noodles, what their next targets will be, but if ‘zero tolerance’ means anything, it’s this.

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Updates on student union goings-on at LSE

Abishek Phadnis, one of the students castigated at LSE for donning Jesus and Mo t-shirts, gives his version of events in an account at Trending Central. Given the swamp of student union trouble waded through by atheists there in the past, he’s had no end of practice drafting succulently barbed rebukes; this latest doesn’t disappoint.

The trouble with advertising yourself as an institution for people who enjoy being “challenged intellectually, socially and personally” is that some of us will actually believe it, and expect you to live up to that promise by being a haven for free inquiry and free expression.

Paul Thornbury, the Head of LSE Security, was summoned to inform us that we were not behaving in an “orderly and responsible manner”, and that our wearing the t-shirts could be considered “harassment”, as it could create an “offensive environment”, which is an absurd claim to make of wholly innocuous t-shirts whose writing, in any case, is obscured unless you stop, stare and squint at the right angle while the wearer is still. And that’s if you visit the Atheist Society Stall, never the most popular hangout for deeply religious people anyway.

Mr Thornbury was unmoved by our arguments, and had us surrounded by security guards, with the warning that should we disobey his command, we would be dragged out. Browbeaten and awaiting a clearer interpretation of the rules, we said we would temporarily put on our jackets, and so in a surreal sequence, the Head of LSE Security hovered about us like a short-sighted tailor, assessing whether we had concealed enough, pausing to protest at one point that the word “prophet” was visible from a certain angle. He then deputed two guards to stand in the aisle, facing our stall, to stop us attempting to take our jackets off and to shadow us wherever we went till closing time.

Shortly after midday, Deputy Chief Executive O’Hara descended on us, demanding we take the t-shirts off as per his instructions of the previous day. We explained to him that we had redacted them this time, and offered to use our home-made tape to cover any other areas he wished to see covered. Our concessions came to nought. He refused to hear us out, and left, warning us that he was summoning LSE Security to remove us from the premises.

Surprisingly, several hours passed before their next move (a curiously tardy response for an administration purporting to counter harassment), in which Mr Thornbury reappeared near closing time, armed with a letter from the School Secretary Susan Scholefield, which claimed that since some students found our t-shirts “offensive”, we were in possible breach of the LSE Harassment Policy and Disciplinary Procedure. It claimed that our actions were “damaging the School’s reputation” and concluded by asking us to “refrain from wearing the t-shirts in question and cover any other potentially offensive imagery” and warning us that the School “reserves the right to consider taking further action if warranted”. On our way out at closing time, we saw Mr Thornbury, General Secretary Stoll and Deputy Chief Executive O’Hara skulking in the corridor, accompanied by a posse of security guards. They shadowed us to the exit.

Mr Stoll and the School have some nerve to claim that we were threatened because “it was feared” that we would “disrupt the event”, when in fact the event was progressing perfectly smoothly until it was disrupted by the ham-fisted intervention of the student union. We strove to remain calm, pacific and reasonable, standing our ground even as we were subjected to a barrage of increasingly egregious demands and jostled by security guards. If harassment is, as the LSE Harassment Policy defines it, anything that “violates an individual’s dignity and/or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”, then we were harassed.

Our critics contend that we were being needlessly inflammatory. Quite apart from the cliché that the people who rule over us are the people we cannot criticise, do these people genuinely think it is a waste of time and effort defending freedom of expression from religious reactionaries? Could they suggest a better cause? Perhaps they will be swayed by the fact that the gifted cartoonist whose t-shirts we wore publishes his work under a pseudonym because of threats to his life.

These sickly invocations for decorum are of a piece with the risible claim made by Mr Stoll and the School that their clampdown was prompted by the fear that we were sabotaging the prospects of a sanitised Fair “designed to welcome all new students”, and that our t-shirts and posters were welcome once this delicate initial period had passed. We have good reason to doubt this.

For one thing, Mr Thornbury contradicted it with his warning that we would be evicted if we were ever seen wearing these t-shirts on campus again. And just last year, our efforts to better signpost ourselves for Muslim apostates on campus by adding “ex-Muslim” to our Society’s name (on the lines of ex-Mormon groups in the U.S., and for the same reasons) were gratuitously frustrated. First, the Union ordered us to prove “clear cooperation with the Islamic Society” before they would consider our application; then, they backed out with the wet excuse that the change could jeopardise the “safety” of ex-Muslims in our group, which came as news to the ex-Muslim organisations on whose insistence we’d sought the change.

But it isn’t all gloom.

In one of those beautiful little ironies of life that makes even a staunch atheist like me wonder if there might, after all, be a god, the LSE student newspaper reported in its edition of October 3 that LSESU had been rated the worst Students’ Union in London[.]

General Secretary Stoll, everything about whom smacks of New Labour, invited me last week to correspond with him about his student union’s actions, offering to comment on the record (i.e. for this blog). Our exchange of emails looked like this:

Hi Alex

How do you want this to work? You send some questions and I answer? Would just want to point out now that Im [otherwise engaged] all day, so you’ll probably have full answers to any questions by tomorrow night at the latest. 

Hope this is okay,

Regards

Jay

All right, let’s begin like this.

Since your official statement from Friday, while failing to mention details like attempts to confiscate society material and use of security staff, doesn’t challenge your atheist society’s account of what took place on Thursday, I’m assuming you don’t dispute it.

Perhaps you could start by explaining how that society’s treatment by LSE’s student union and staff is justified: why forcing them to cover their t-shirts (below), surrounding them with LSE security, trying to expel them from the building and threatening disciplinary measures was a fair course of action.

I’d like you to answer both in terms of ethics and of how they were breaching regulations – including specifically LSE’s harassment policy, which School Secretary Susan Scholefield told the group prohibited these t-shirts.

Thanks.

Alex

Hi Alex

Sorry to have to renege on this, but I have been advised by the LSE to not give further comment as we are releasing another official statement today. Further, I will be addressing the Union at our General Meeting where I believe the National Collective of Atheist Societies will be present – so there won’t be a deficit of accountability!

Again, apologies for the inconvenience but as Im sure you will appreciate, the press situation is constantly changing and we have to act accordingly.

Best

Jay

The statement in question says nothing very new:

At the LSE Students’ Union Freshers’ Fair on Thursday 3 October two students from the LSE SU Atheist Secularist and Humanist Society (ASH) wore t-shirts that were clearly designed to depict Mohammed and Jesus in a provocative manner. A number of students complained and the ASH students were asked to cover their t shirts by representatives of both the School and the SU.

This has led to a great deal of debate on social media platforms and concerns that the School will stop students from wearing similar t shirts at an event hosted by ASH on 15th October, the topic of which is the wearing of the Niqab. This is a student society event, open to the public, and utterly in the spirit of LSE’s commitment to free speech and the discussion of contentious issues. It will be chaired by Professor Chetan Bhatt, the Director of LSE’s Centre for the Study of Human Rights.

The event is quite different to the Freshers’ Fair, which must be accessible, inclusive and welcoming and which was in danger of being disrupted. The School hopes that those attending the event on 15th October will do so in a spirit of open discussion and respect and that any views expressed – orally, on clothing or however – will be in this spirit.

The School and the SU would also like to put on record concern over the nature of some of the social media debate, which has been highly personalised. The good campus relations group at LSE will take forward work to discuss the issues raised by the recent events in a calm manner that can further understanding, bring reconciliation and continue to make LSE the centre of global debate on the issues that matter to us all.

It’s a back-to-front approach to free expression, to say nothing else. If for instance LSE’s Islamic Society want to prohibit cartoons of prophets at their meetings, that’s up to them – communal spaces are exactly those from which heretical items shouldn’t be banned.

I’m inclined anyway not to trust the competence of a body whose work on ‘good campus relations’ starts with threatening and trying to intimidate people who wear blasphemous t-shirts. (‘This is an inclusive event,’ they told the atheist group, as Jesus and Mo‘s author puts it. ‘Get out!’) I’m especially disinclined to trust a student union whose staff and representatives seem unwilling, pressed over and over again, to answer critics.