A comment was made by a member of ASHS called Jacob. A member of AMYA UK very kindly sent me in a response and I thought it best to put this is up as a post as both comments are pertinent to the wider discussion taking place. It is stated below, but I will restate it; Jacob’s contribution here is his own and not as a representative of any group or organisation.
Lastly, I would argue that the below discussion is the type of productive and useful freedom of expression worthy of an institution like UCL. Jacob and those with a similar zeal to enter into constructive discussion will always be welcome to comment here. This site is as much for them as it is for anyone else. As the moderator here, I have no issue with people of different ways of thinking asking tough questions of each another. That is to be encouraged here.
Speaking as a member of the ASHS (but please don’t think I represent the society in any official way, the views I represent here are entirely my own), I’d just like to ask a question for the purpose of clarification/enlightenment and raise one or two ‘issues’:
Firstly, what are the grounds that mainstream Islamic theory, or the Qur’an provides for advancing the view that one should not create images of Muhammad? I am just genuinely curious to know…
Now, I would point out that whilst it is clear that Muslim individuals might be offended by the portrayal of Muhammad in an image, it is not the case that there is universal offense caused by the image, which is to say that not everyone is offended by it. Not everyone subscribes to the view that Muhammad was in any way holy or worthy of a special sort of deference. In this respect it is not a case of objectivity as to the ‘goodness’ of posting an image of Muhammad. What I mean by this is that some people consider this a bad deed, and others do not. It’s not a black and white issue as to whether it was wrong to post the image. So when it is asked “Is it not better to choose to be kind, to choose to be respectful, to choose to be good?” (presumably questioning whether one should have posted the image on a moral basis) the answer within this context might reasonably be ‘yes, but what we consider to be good differs vastly from what you consider to be “good”‘.
Moreover, you are correct to identify the parallel themes in Mill’s analysis of rights (the notion of our possession of rights is distinct from the utilisation of our rights). However, you must understand that the ASHS’s qualms lie with the Union. Whilst, in your view, it might not have been the right time of use our rights to freedom of speech it does not detract from that fact that we do still possess the right to free speech and the Union tried to surpress this. You are wholly entitled to see it as inappropriate to speak freely in this instance, but that does not constitute grounds for censorship (something I imagine you may agree with me on, given how I’ve read you analysis of Mill). Our petition is against the Union, not against people considering us as inappropriate in our exercise of free speech.
I would also personally challenge the notion that the image was a “distasteful attempt to insult, mock and deride”. When the posting of the image is viewed within a certain context you might see why I object to this. The image appeared on the Facebook page of the ASHS. The members of the group are largely Atheists. The image is from a popular cartoon series that many Atheists find humorous on account of its ironic depiction of the two Prophets and the even more ironic (and frequently innocent) conversations that the two of them partake in. One particular cartoon showed Jesus and Muhammad in a bar. The event was for a pub social, where we aim to engage in conversation. Ergo, the cartoon had a degree of relevance to the group’s event. It portrayed something most people find humorous, it was contextual, and it was primarily directed towards a group not likely to be offended (on account of their Atheism). I don’t see any direct attempt to insult, or deride either Muslims or Muhammad in the image’s posting. I should note that this is not to say that individuals should not be offended, or that no one was offended, that would be ludicrous for me to suggest such a thing, but simply that there was no malice in its posting.
If you’ve read this far, thanks for your time!
RESPONSE SENT IN
Thank you for actively engaging in this and probing in a constructive manner. In essence, this is how we feel our rights to free speech ought to be exercised; with a view to a positive, constructive dialogue engaged in with mutual respect. If only this was the attitude of more of your associates, I’m sure we would all be benefitting immensely.
I will try to take some of your points in turn, made on January 12, 2012, at 12.33am, and will also consider some of the reply points made on January 12, 2012 at 9.13pm.
The first point about not creating images of Muhammad is actually somewhat secondary to the issue. The complaint is not per se about the images, but rather about the insult, offence and disrespect targeted at both Jesus and Muhammad, and consequently, at the Muslim and Christian communities. This is based on Islamic principles of mutual tolerance and respect. I can dig out relevant verses of the Quran and extracts from the Hadith (the sources of Islam) if you that is what you mean.
The second point you raise is about the “good” and about its relativity depending on one’s philosophical leaning. You are entirely correct that the “good” can be a subjective thing. That is precisely why Islam and Mill etc advocate free expression, precisely because the conception of the good differs, and the only way to truth (which is the main telos of free expression according to Islam and Mill) is through open exchange of ideas by way of free expression. But that was not the point made in the article above (An Open Letter from AMYA UK), and my apologies if this was in any way misstated or confusing. The good referred to in the article was not the substantive good, but rather the procedural good, namely consideration of the context and consequences of exercising one’s own version of the good. The issue is not whether you or I consider whether the posting of an image of Muhammad is good or bad, but rather what will the reasonably likely consequences of those actions be. The fact that they will insult or offend, or even incite violence, is a relevant factor to take into account. That is what is meant by exercising the right in a good way – not that the expression should somehow be objectively good, but rather irrespective of the substance of the expression, the way in which it is expressed and the consequences of that way of expressing it ought to consider by the speaker.
As far as the third point goes, about being targeted at the Union. That makes sense, to an extent, but (and maybe I have misunderstood) it comes across a bit childish. It is almost like you are saying because we are being told not to say something, we are (somewhat petulantly) going to say it even more. What is between you and the Union, I do not know, but the knock on effects on others ought to be a relevant consideration, which, in all honesty, in the majority of those who are promoting these action, does not seem to be the case.
The fourth point you raise is the lack of intent to insult, mock and deride. I can totally understand if there was no intention to “directly insult” as you put it (although even you will have to admit that some of the things that the proponents of the cartoons are doing and saying is plainly with a direct intent to such an end). What you have to also consider is the indirect intent, i.e. a recklessness as to the consequences of certain actions, which in most forms of legal and moral philosophy is considered to be a form of intent. It may be that you walk past a particularly disabled child in the street with your friends and you think of a particularly amusing joke about her, which you share with your friends in front of her and her parents. It would entirely legitimate for you to say, “I did not directly intend to insult her, but to make my friends laugh”, but this would, in my view, constitute reckless intent. Often this form of insulting is done largely through ignorance of the consequences of one’s actions. Which is why it is so important to engage constructively, as you seem to be doing, with a view to empathising.
In relation to some of the points that you raise in reply to “Ibne Khalid”. I take your point about “egotistical goals”. Perhaps I would not have put it like that. But I don’t think simply saying: look at the goals of the society makes the point you seek to make. It is not about the goals, per se, it is about the manner in which they are sought. Furthermore, where there is the point about being actively blind to those around you, and the effect that you are having on them, that may give the impression to others such that you may come across selfish. You may have a valid point about individuals posting and not the Society, but the Society has taken a particular stance, and it is that stance taken by the Society which is being questioned.
As an aside, it seems to me that this where a sharp division between humanism and atheism may come into play. The principles that are being espoused by the Muslims (and Christians) in response to this matter – namely, of peace, tolerance, mutual respect and cooperation – are much more closely aligned with the humanist branch of the Society. It might be nice to see those who affiliate themselves more closely with humanism rather than atheism make this point, and recognise that it is possible for all humanity to live together, to exercise their rights but in a way that takes into account these basic humanist principles.
As regards the right not to be offended, first of all it is not so simple. Sometimes there is such a right, sometimes there is not. A footballer who makes racist remarks to another footballer on the football pitch which are offensive may sometimes be prohibited and punished. Does this not equate to a right not to be offended? But perhaps I am digressing. The point – and this was the thrust of the article – was that there is a distinction between a legal right or duty and a moral right or duty. One may have a legal right to act in a certain way, but there may be a moral duty not to act in that same way. Again, this is where humanism sometimes tends to depart from atheism. You may have a legal right to lie, but you may have a moral duty not too.
And that leads me on to your point about Mill. I would likewise recommend you and maybe others too re-reading Mill’s works, and not just On Liberty, but perhaps Utilitarianism too, and again, this was the thrust of the article above – that whilst the State may not interfere with one’s free expression, one’s own moral judgment might. Again, it is this which seems to be completely missing from the atheist discourse, which is very present in all Mill’s work.
Ultimately the issue is not about free speech vs a right not to be offended. Rather, given that we have this right to free expression, how should we choose to exercise it?