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.

LSE threatens disciplinary action against atheists

LSE students’ union, which on Thursday tried to confiscate material from its atheist society during freshers’ fair, had security guards surround and follow members and threatened them with expulsion, has issued a public statement.

Jay Stoll, the SU’s general secretary, has the following to say about what happened:

At the LSE Students’ Union Fresher’s 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.

Here are the t-shirts. Judge for yourselves.

The Students’ Union, which runs the event, received a number of complaints from other students.

The SU asked the students to cover the t-shirts in the interests of good campus relations. The society remained free to share their literature and views.

One member of the society declined to do this. The student was attended by a cameraman and it was feared that his behaviour would disrupt the event.

The SU referred the matter to the School. Representatives of the School in attendance agreed that the matter was a cause for concern and that the presence of the t-shirts was in danger of eroding good campus relations and disrupting efforts to run a Fresher’s Fair designed to welcome all new students.

LSE is committed to promoting freedom of expression and is known for its public events and wide range of speakers. In this instance, it was judged that the actions of the students were undermining what should have been a welcoming and inclusive event.

Banning cartoons to promote freedom of expression; trying to make people leave so as to be inclusive. Orwellian, isn’t it? And it only gets worse.

Here’s what happened yesterday, on the second day of freshers’ fair, according to society members:

In silent protest at our treatment the day before … and still unsure as to what parts of the t-shrits had allegedly caused “offence”, we put tape (with the words “Censored”, “This has been censored” and “Nothing to see here”) over the faces of the “Jesus and Mo” figures on the t-shirts.

Shortly after midday, the LSESU Deputy Chief Executive Jarlath O’Hara approached us, demanding we take the t-shirts off as per his instructions of the previous day. We explained to him that we had covered the “offensive” parts this time, and offered to use our tape to cover any other areas deemed “offensive”. He refused to hear us out, insisting that if we did not take off the whole t-shirt, LSE Security would be called to bodily remove us from the premises. He left, warning us that he was summoning LSE Security to eject us.

At about 2:30pm, Paul Thornbury, Head of LSE Security, delivered a letter from the School Secretary Susan Scholefield. The letter claimed that some students found our t-shirts “offensive”, even though we had covered up the “offensive” parts of the t-shirts. It claimed we were in possible breach of the LSE Harassment Policy and Disciplinary Procedure, and that our actions were “damaging the School’s reputation”, and “undermining the spirit of the LSESU Freshers’ Fair and good campus relations at LSE”. It 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”.

Shortly thereafter, having completed our work at the stall, we began packing up. As we were about to leave, Paul Thornbury returned to confirm we were leaving. We told him that we were, and as we left the room, we saw that he was accompanied by several security guards, LSESU General Secretary Jay Stoll and Deputy Chief Executive O’Hara. The Security officials left the building at the same time as we did, confirming our impression that they had only been there to monitor us, like the two security guards positioned at our stall the day before to stop us attempting to put our t-shirts back on.

I don’t think those t-shirts damaged LSE’s reputation. You know what I think damages its reputation? Enforcing blasphemy taboos from one conservative interpretation of one particular religion at its freshers’ fair.

It’s abundantly clear officials, when asked, couldn’t identify what parts of the cartoons the t-shirts bore were objectionable. It’s clear in particular that it wasn’t the text, which yesterday was covered. The mere fact a cartoon showing (Jesus and) Mohammad in a humorous way – not one which in any way endorsed ostracism of Muslims – was present at its freshers’ fair was enough for the union to make harassment allegations.

Previously, and prompted by Jesus and Mo cartoons’ presence on the atheist society’s Facebook page, the student union passed a ‘No to Islamophobia’ motion, designed to oppose anti-Muslim bigotry in the same way as anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, its resulting rules define ‘Islamophobia’ (a stupidly misleading term, as Marwa Berro describes here) in the following vague, unwieldy way:

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

Tackling racist, anti-migrant, anti-Muslim sentiments is a project that, as I wrote yesterday, deserves support. (I’ve written before at length about the atheist movement’s failings here.) But this rule makes it impossible to know where prejudice ends and blasphemy begins. Muslim students, like anyone else, are entitled not to be bullied, harassed or demonised for their religion – this is a serious, credible problem. They are not entitled, any more than anyone else, to have things excised from public space which violate their faith-based taboos.

It’s clear some think a named pineapple is racist and Islamophobic; some think any cartoon depicting Mohammad, no matter how or to what end, is racist and Islamophobic. Rules made here need to distinguish between xenophobic, racist demonisation of Muslims and criticism or satire of beliefs. Events like these are what we get when they don’t, and LSE student union’s oily careerist bureaucrats seem not to see this.

Atheist society harassed by student union at LSE freshers’ fair

Grave matters at Reading University. Grave and worrying similar matters in London too.

Yesterday at the London School of Economics’ freshers’ fair, the atheist society manned their table wearing t-shirts which bore images from Jesus and Mo, a popular atheist web strip satirising religion, principally Christianity and Islam.

It’s justified to grimace in anticipation when cartoons of Mohammad come up. Fear not: Jesus and Mo is nothing like the Jyllands-Posten cartoons from 2005 – funnier, cleverer, lacking the xenophobic undertones and simply better. I don’t know which images were used on the group’s t-shirts, but here are a selection of past favourites.

That last one, I regret to say, refers to what the t-shirts prompted. They were worn, other than for purposes of humour, in response to LSE student union’s actions last year. To quote the NSS’s summary:

In 2012 the LSE Students’ Union effectively made blasphemy an offence following protests from Muslim students about a Jesus and Mo cartoon posted on the LSE Atheist, Secularist and Humanist student group’s Facebook page.

The LSESU passed a motion proposing that ‘Islamophobia is a form of anti-Islamic racism’. 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”.

It said it would take a firm stance against all Islamophobic incidents at LSE and conduct internal investigations if and when they occur.

Ostracisation and demonisation of British Muslims is, to be absolutely sure, a serious problem. It is not solved by overly broad proscriptions which silence critique of beliefs and empower the Islamist far right. LSE’s atheists no doubt think similarly, which is why they donned the t-shirts. Here, according to their official statement, is what happened next:

At around noon, we were approached by LSESU Community and Welfare Officer Anneessa Mahmood, Anti-Racism Officer Rayhan Uddin, and Deputy Chief Executive Jarlath O’Hara and several others who identified as LSESU staff.

Without explanation, Anneessa Mahmood started removing material from the stall. When challenged, she claimed that it was “offensive”. In addition, the LSESU staff members demanded that we remove our t-shirts. We were told that should we not comply we would be physically removed from the premises. When we asked for the reason for this request, the LSESU officers stated that several students had complained about our t-shirts. When we asked what rules or regulations we were in breach of, they told us that they did not need to give reasons for removing students, and we would be informed at a later point in time. As we refused to take off our t-shirts or leave without appropriate explanation, we were told that LSE security would be called to physically remove us from the building. We came to the Freshers’ Fair to promote our society to new students. Our ability to do that was heavily curtailed by the actions of the LSESU staff. We especially felt that the abrasive behaviour of the LSESU staff was not aimed at protecting other students from harm, but rather an attempt humiliate us in front of dozens of students.

When the LSE security arrived, we were asked to cover our t-shirts or leave LSE premises. When we asked for the rules and regulations we were in breach of, we were told that the LSE was being consulted about how to proceed. After a period of consultation, Kevin Haynes (LSE Legal and Compliance Team) and Paul Thornbury (LSE Head of Security) explained to us that we were not behaving in an “orderly and responsible manner”, and that the wearing of the t-shirt could be considered “harassment”, as it could “offend others” by creating an “offensive environment”. We asked what exactly was “offensive” about the t-shirts, and how the display of a non-violent and non-racist comic strip could be considered “harassment” of other students. Paul Thornbury told us that it was “clearly deceitful” of us to say that we had not intended to cause offence and that we did not feel that we had behaved inappropriately or harassed other students. This unreasonable behaviour of the LSE and LSESU staff caused us serious distress, particularly the allegations that our motives were to “offend” others.

At the end of this conversation, five security guards started to position themselves around our stall. We felt this was a tactic to intimidate us. We were giving an ultimatum that should we not comply immediately, we would be physically removed from LSE property. We made it clear that we disagreed strongly with this interpretation of the rules, but that we would comply by covering the t-shirts. When we covered our t-shirts with jackets, the head of LSE security told us that “this was not enough”, and that we had to zip up the jackets. When we zipped up the jackets, we were told that this was still not enough, as the word “prophet” was still visible at the top. After that, the head of LSE security told us that as he believed that we might open the jackets again when was going to leave, two security guards were going to stay in the room to monitor our behaviour. These two security guards were following us closely when we went in and out of the room. We felt that this highly unnecessary and geared at intimidating and humiliating us in front of others.

It’s less than encouraging to see this so soon after Reading University’s atheist group was banned, for highly similar (if even less inflammatory) behaviour. Combatting racist harassment of Muslims is a worthy goal, and secularists should support it; it is not a worthy basis to censor and silence critical satire of belief – especially in intimidating, humiliating ways which themselves harass.

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