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Date: 19/01/12

Quench The Cultured Light (Now With Update!)

Worrying - no, enraging - developments this week in the war between primitive superstition and reason. Here's the sequence of events:

On Monday evening last, there was to be a talk at Queen Mary College of the University of London, entitled "Sharia Law And Human Rights"; the event was organised by the college's Atheism, Secularism and Humanism Society (ASHS).

Five minutes or so before the keynote speaker was to start her presentation, this happened:

"Five minutes before the talk was due to start a man burst into the room holding a camera phone and for some seconds stood filming the faces of all those in the room. He shouted "listen up all of you, I am recording this, I have your faces on film now, and I know where some of you live", at that moment he aggressively pushed the phone in someone's face and then said "and if I hear that anything is said against the holy Prophet Muhammad, I will hunt you down." He then left the room and two members of the audience applauded.

"The same man then began filming the faces of Society members in the foyer and threatening to hunt them down if anything was said about Muhammad, he added that he knew where they lived and would murder them and their families. On leaving the building, he joined a large group of men, seemingly there to support him. We were told by security to stay in the Lecture Theatre for our own safety. On arriving back in the room I became aware that the doors that opened to the outside were still open and that people were still coming in. Several eye witnesses reported that when I was in the foyer a group of men came through the open doors, causing a disruption and making it clear that the room could not be secured. Unfortunately, the lack of security in the lecture theatre meant we and the audience had to leave and a Union representative informed the security that as students' lives had been threatened there was no way that the talk could go ahead."

"This event was supposed to be an opportunity for people of different religions and perspectives to debate, at a university that is supposed to be a beacon of free speech and debate. Only two complaints had been made to the Union prior to the event, and the majority of the Muslim students at the event were incredibly supportive of it going ahead. These threats were an aggressive assault on freedom of speech and the fact that they led to the cancellation of our talk was severely disappointing for all of the religious and non-religious students in the room who wanted to engage in debate."

So here we have a case where a lecture and debate, which was open to the public and which was clearly supported even by Muslim students, was stopped by threatening and violent behaviour on the part of a small but determined group of people who - were they to do this in any other context - would be described as being what they are: cowardly thugs.

This follows on from ASHS' use on their Facebook page the previous week of an image from the web-comic Jesus and Mo advertising its weekly social gathering.

This obviously pissed off those amongst the Muslim students who had their senses of humour and proportion removed at the same time as their foreskins, and the usual "number of complaints" were received by the UCL Students' Union (UCLU). (Hint: 'one' and 'two' are numbers).

Rather than telling these po-faced whiners to grow up, get a life and realise that they are living in a society where freedom of peaceful expression does get a little more than lip service, UCLU instead ordered - ordered if you please - that ASHS remove the image because "...it may cause offence to Muslim students".

Well deary, deary me! The poor faithful will be offended by a portrayal of Mohammed (or however it's spelt) - a tricky theological grey area, considering that no-one has any idea what the man looked like anyway - and wish a society based in the first university in England not to discriminate in its intake on the grounds of religion either to be censored or to be browbeaten into something far worse - self-censorship - because some of them may feel slightly got-at by a picture.

Now - and here I echo the comments of Alex Gabriel on the issue - I'm very offended by a number of things: children having bits of their genitals cut off because it is "God's will", i.e., it was scribbled down on a piece of goatskin in a date-and-donkey economy many hundreds of years ago; that women should be made to walk around like ambulating post-boxes because "it is written" (by the same sort of individual as in the first case), on pain of ostracism, disfiguration or death for non-compliance; where the feudal rulers of country after country from the Maghreb to the Pacific use the fear of superstition to render their populations docile and compliant so that they don't rise up and overthrow their corrupt princelings and dictators (whilst they - the rulers - routinely ignore any tenet of that religion which stands in the way of them boozing and shagging their way across the planet - yes, House of Saud, I'm looking at you).

I'm offended by all of these, and many more. I am quite seriously hacked off by approving depictions or descriptions of them. But guess what?

I don't want them to be censored.

I willingly concede that there is a cynical and black-hearted reason for this: the more these phenomena are made manifest, the more their vicious absurdities are laid bare for all to see, and the greater the chance that at least some of those people who have been in thrall to the idiocies thereby represented may come to see that that is no way for intelligent, rational human beings to behave.

But the second reason why I would not wish to have such material 'disappeared' is a much more serious and far-reaching one. I will spell it out:




I hope that that is clear. It applies to me, and it applies to you (and them) as well. I detest the knuckle-dragging racism of the so-called British National Party and the soi-disant English Defence League, but - so long as their words are not inciting violence, which is where the grey area in this truly begins - then I hope, were push to come to shove, I would defend their right to speak. I abhor the self-regarding self-righteousness of the more purblind of the supporters of the State of Israel, but even when the hasbaraniks are seeking to justify shooting children in the streets, I do not wish them to be silent or silenced (if only for the less elevated reason I gave earlier).

Were my fellow atheists, agnostics and free-thinkers to advocate violence against someone because they had a different viewpoint on the universe, I would condemn it outright, and not just because such exudations would be a huge own-goal for us.

That is most clearly not what we see in either the ASHS' Facebook page or in their staging of an open debate on a matter of public moment. In each case, there was no violence or threat of violence, there was no intent other than the peaceful exercise of an inalienable freedom of expression. And when we are offended by something, then we combat it with debate, argument and Reason (albeit passionately should the need arise).

And if all this causes discomfort to people whose grasp on their own beliefs is so tenuous that they cannot countenance the slightest discomfiting of their rigid and moribund view of the world, then that is their problem to address within themselves and not to seek to resolve by intimidation - or worse.

(I think it proper at this point to make it clear that the above strictures do not apply merely to the wilder elements within contemporary Islam; they operate with the same force against those mad sons of Abraham the Haredim who throw stones and spit at women and girls in the street for not dressing in a way which would prevent men - weak creatures as they are - from getting a hard-on from seeing a female shin; they operate against the Hindus who burn down mosques; they apply to the Christian fundamentalists who use their misuse of scripture as a justification for gunning down nurses and doctors, or simply to smear, intimidate and bully a sixteen-year-old student in Rhode Island state who pointed out that it was against the Constitution of the United States for her high school to have a blatant prayer banner pinned to the wall of the school gymnasium; and they apply to that New-Age fraudulence called Scientology™).

I have not quite come to the end of this tale of pre-mediaeval thuggery, however

In the case of ASHS, for example, although UCLU backed down to the extent that they admitted to having mishandled the matter both in principle and in practice, they have reserved the power to themselves to bring disciplinary measures against ASHS for 'bullying', and to force the resignation of members of ASHS' committee and even its forcible disaffiliation from the Union. In a separate development, the President of ASHS has resigned for personal reasons.

But, back to the plot.

There is a young man in my nation's capital city. His name is Rhys Morgan, he is seventeen years old, and he has gained rightful acclaim for his campaigns against quack medicine and its practitioners.

When this latest superstitious-dolts-are-scared-of-cartoons shitstorm broke, as an act of solidarity Rhys posted to his Facebook profile the same cartoon which had caused the kerfuffle. It stayed there for about a week.

Then, on Tuesday last, someone claiming to be a Muslim contacted Rhys to ask him to remove the image as he - the correspondent - found it to be - yes - offensive. Rhys politely declined, pointing out that he - Rhys - was not a Muslim and so was not bound by the strictures of Islam. The correspondent then posted the cartoon to his own Facebook page (showing that he was something of a stranger not only to his own creed's blasphemy regulations, but also to irony).

Which is when the threats to Rhys Morgan really began. He was accused over and over again of being a racist (hint to the ignorant: Islam is not a race, anymore than Conservatism is); he was accused of being 'provocative', of being solipsistic. And then there were messages like this:

"well we'll see tomorrow..."
"ima burn your house down"
"Yeah and i could break your fukin nose and because im a dick i might:)"
"...rhys u can u can fuck off if u think your gettig away with this u racist cunt"

And other such deep, philisophical contributions.

Certain elements in his school were not exactly supportive. He had (the past tense may be appropriate here) 'friends' who apparently said that they would side with the person who made the "break your fukin nose" threat; a number of other students at Cardiff High either threatened him, abused him or ostracised him, the general message being, "Yes, you have freedom of expression, but not to do that!" (as Rhys pointed out, had he wished to be offensive, he could have found far worse illustrations of Muhammad to post); and the school warned him that they would have to "seriously consider the situation" if he didn't take the image down (although they did balance this out by giving a warning to those who were threatening him).

On the whole, it is not anything like the scale of abuse and threats which Jessica Ahlquist has faced in recent months. But then she lives in the US, where lack of any 'official' religion is more than made up for by the rabid adherence of a substantial section of society to a combination of Bronze Age nostrums and modern weaponry. Nonetheless, that such a thing could happen in a supposedly 'secular' society as ours is reputed to be is indicative that the forces of darkness, whether toting a cross, a crescent, a star or a crystal pendant from the spiritual equivalent of Argos, are not yet decisively quelled. The death throes of any creature are when it may be at its most dangerous, and we who rely on reality to guide us must be suitably forearmed.

So, to recap: religious extremists are dangerous (to society, to enlightened values, to humanity its very self), from whichsoever sect they derive their precarious certainties; the so-called 'moderate' adherents of those same sects are, at best, timid when it comes to condemning the nutters in their midst, at worst willing to be the sea in which those monkfish of backwardness skulk; the Beast of Irrationality has not been vanquished, and that Beast will not hesitate to stoop to threats of violence even against young people and their families.

Oh, and the image which triggered all this? Here it is. Cover your eyes, oh ye pious ones, lest ye be eternally defiled!

Cover of a collection of Jesus & Mo cartoons

Update (24/01/12): As if their pants-pissing in the face of threats from religious militants were not bad enough, the LSE Students' Union (LSESU) has since ordered ASHS to an 'informal meeting' where they were browbeaten and bullied, with the result that LSESU has now told ASHS that they can no longer hold any events or activities under the LSESU 'brand'.

Are these cowards future cabinet ministers in waiting? They show all of the rank cowardice which would serve them well in a political career. The fact that they refer to the Students' Union as a 'brand' suggests that they are yet more people who believe in the commodification of absolutely everything.

Possibly the ASHS is better served by disassociating itself from them. And almost certainly the whining entitlement junkies who complained because they were s-o-o-o-o offended, poor little bastards, would be better off sampling the delights of freedom at a university in, say, Riyadh. I hope the door doesn't hit them on their djellabas on the way out.

More on this from Ophelia Benson and Alex Gabriel.