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.