Recently some atheists at the LSE Freshers day were asked by university authorities to remove T-shirts depicting the Prophets Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them both) sharing a beer together. Well, to be more exact, they were asked to remove “Jesus and Mo” cartoon t-shirts, where “Jesus” is depicted as a cartoon caricature of the real Prophet Jesus (peace be upon him) and “Mo” is ostensibly a ‘body double’ of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
Such conflicts are proliferating, and present an interesting challenge to our democratic society in the UK: do atheists have the right to offend Muslims?
On the face of it, this may seem a simple question, and most people probably will start reading this article with a fixed opinion on the issue. But it’s actually a rather complicated question!
The European Convention of Human Rights guarantees freedom of expression in Article 10 of that Convention. However, like all fundamental rights, it recognises exceptions. Particularly relevant exceptions in this instance are for the purpose of preventing social disorder, of protecting morals, and protecting the reputation or the rights of others.
Of course, the freedom itself and also the exceptions are malleable concepts. For instance, if a Muslim group were to demonstrate and create disorder as a result of some people in the UK who raised criticisms against Islam, I don’t think it would be reasonable to draw the conclusion that British people are not allowed to criticise Islam. In general, the freedom should prevail and any exception needs to be supported by particularly compelling arguments.
Now let us turn to the cartoon itself. Interestingly, LSE students are amongst the most academically gifted and politically aware students in the UK, and the cartoon in question reflects this. Hypothetically, if I were an LSE atheist trying to attract membership in a Freshers’ Fair, here is what I might propose as an intelligent strategy:
(1) Offend Muslims, because they are the most easily excitable religious group;
(2) don’t appear to specifically single out Muslims so as to avoid being labelled an Islamophobe (aware that I’m treading a thin line between freedom of expression and public disorder);
(3) depict a cartoon of both Jesus and Muhammad drinking a beer (which is not a sin in Christianity but is a sin in Islam), knowing full well that Christians won’t react, though Muslims will react, and thus the Muslims will appear as intolerant by comparison;
(4) furthermore, depict an act which to the average British person seems relatively harmless, but which is deeply offensive to the average Muslim, again to portray Muslims as intolerant; and
(5) play the role of the innocent victim and attract sympathy, whilst at the same time bathing in the publicity of the inevitable outcry from Muslims.
In this particular case, the LSE Student Union itself decided to put a stop to any such tactic, and thankfully Muslims were not publicly involved. It is for this reason that I believe it was reported originally in an obscure journal. But of course, there will be many more opportunities to play this game. Indeed, Richard Dawkins, the National Secular Society and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Great Britain have already waded into this particular fracas.
It is worth noting that both Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them both) experienced far more vitriol and invective in their lifetimes than what is being presented now. Their response to personal attacks on their character was generally to admonish peacefully, forgive and move on. Is that not a lesson for us all? Or are there occasions when we have to limit freedom of expression in order to preserve public order, or (in the words of the LSE Student Union) to preserve “good campus relations”?
I am quite clear in my mind that reasoned argument should never be inhibited. Furthermore, satire may well constitute a form of rational argument, and indeed the “Jesus and Mo” cartoon strip does attempt to use satire and humour to make serious and reasoned criticisms against religions. The display of this particular t-shirt at the LSE Freshers’ Fair, however, does not seem to fall into this category. The image of “Jesus and Mo” drinking beer does not in itself provide any satirical message outside of the context of the comic strip story, but rather it seems to be an attempt purely to mock, create social friction, and thereby promote a particular cause. Like religious extremists, such people aim to cause outrage and provoke a reaction from the Establishment which will feed their message, albeit of course cartoons constitute an entirely different grade of provocation from extremism which may escalate into physical violence. This, in a way, makes them a more intellectually challenging problem than violent extremists. A cartoonist, unlike a a violent extremist, can innocently claim, “But these are just harmless cartoons, only a lunatic would take offence, let alone seek to ban them”. But make no mistake, cartoons are a political tool since the days of Thomas Nast, and they merit our intellectual attention.