Do Atheists have the right to offend Muslims?

Speech

By Darkeyedmuslim

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.

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11 thoughts on “Do Atheists have the right to offend Muslims?

  1. Hi, can I just add my 2 cents to this potentially excellent discussion?
    In order to make progress in a given area or field (e.g. scientific / human rights / government / academic) it is necessary to make criticism.
    When a new scientific discovery is made, it is first peer reviewed (other experts are invited to pick holes in it). If it passes this test, it is then published for experts globally to read and criticise.
    In government, democracy allows citizens to discuss (criticise) politicians and if enough people don’t like the government it can be changed.
    How does this relate to religion?
    I don’t agree with someone wearing a t-shirt depicting Mohammed drinking beer. But that isn’t the topic of your discussion.
    Criticism is important in every field, as I’ve said, so equally in religion if human progress is desired. Offence is just a natural part of criticism, as anyone who believes something is good hates to see it pulled down. If anyone wishes to criticise Islam, which is an unproven theory – akin to the published scientific paper – then this should be encouraged and others should be also encouraged to agree / disagree with them. In this way we can work together to make a better world.

  2. Pingback: Pub Discussion – The Crown Inn – 04/11 | Southampton Atheist Soc

  3. When ever some body create Such kind things like here t-shirt , their is always a message whether to get some publicity or create disorder in the society. Now we look at the history the way religious scholors used religion for their own means and way they created hatred in the society has made the way for those people who don’t believe any religion .
    But freedom of speech doesn’t mean that you won’t repect your elders, forefathers,parents and others religius prophets. If this is the teaching we getting from University and from the civilised society then we have thing where this freedom of speach will take us.
    What I believe is that we need to provide them the true teaching of Islam. And Islam teach is brotherhood, love for every body without any race, colour and religion. No body wants that his forefathers or parents or any body who has repect and honour in their eyes been mocked or insulted in name of freedom speech. We have to love each other and create society where every body cares about other values. We learn the meaning of civilised humanbeing.
    That’s why we are getting education, to educate our society.
    I believe their is no need to make blasphemy laws to teach or to stop some body who creating disorder in society, but I will invite those people to come and see the reall teaching of Islam which is given by my beloved prophet Mohammad (p b u h). If we nead stick to learn simple values of life then their is no difference in humanbeings and animals.
    We learn these manners from our parents that not to heart some body feelings or create any hatred in society. I believe in love for all hatred for none.

  4. KC: I completely understand the rationale behind the points you have made. That an extreme statement is sometimes needed in order to defend a greater freedom – here freedom of expression.

    I disagree with recent Atheist methods, though. What seems of paramount importance to me is societal cohesion.

    I believe you have missed an important point. There certainly are some extremists who believe that freedom of speech should be completely curtailed and that punishments should be set in place for blasphemy. This is not, however, the belief of the majority of Muslims. For most, no law should be established to curtail our shared universal freedom of expression. Many Muslims, as has already been pointed out, are mortally aware of the harm that blasphemy laws bring about. However, it seems logical that the desire for social cohesion should lead us all to avoid needlessly insulting and alienating one another when making important statements.

    And so when someone chooses to wear an offensive tee-shirt in order to push back extremists, they should accept that the feelings and sensibilities of the enormous non-extreme majority form part of the collateral damage of their statement. That appears to be a rather clumsy and immature way to tackle a very important and mature issue. Intelligent people should surely be able to achieve their goals through more intelligent means?

    To get to the point, what you seem to have missed is that the protection of freedom of speech is in reality a cause we are fundamentally united upon. Perhaps working together to safeguard our freedoms is a better tactic than divisive statements.

  5. Dear KC,

    I’m not sure who your message is directed at. If it’s directed at those muslims who respond violently to criticisms of Muhammad (pboh), then I can certainly accept some of your concerns. But when you write “your grievance is clearly theological” then I have to respond as if you’re addressing me, because I wrote the article.

    Firstly, a little background information. I’m a member of the ahmadiyya community. Not to get bogged down into details, but we are a community of muslims whose freedom of speech is curtailed severely (ie murdered and imprisoned) in some fundamentalist countries, on theological grounds. This probably gives us a greater appreciation of freedom of speech than British people, whose appreciation is genuine but academic by comparison. We have experienced extreme brutality, and we have always responded in a civilised manner. We do not need to be told to grow a thick skin, because our skin has been regularly beaten physically! Furthermore, we have a clearly stated public position that punishment for blasphemy is wrong.

    Secondly, I accept what you’re telling me, as a personal expression of your personal motivations. Your motivation is probably also true of many British people. Whether it is true of the LSE atheist society is another question. I gave a hypothetical example of a strategy which I believe some atheists may be using. It’s certainly not unknown for people and governments to deliberately manipulate religious sensitivities. We already know that for instance the USA stoked up islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan against the USSR. We know that some religious leaders act corruptly, so are we to take the position that some leaders of the atheist movement do not act corruptly also?

    Thirdly, I would appreciate a similar courtesy from you to me. Whereas obviously my sentiments are deeply hurt by criticism of Muhammad (pboh), I don’t believe criticism should be curtailed on theological grounds. For you to say my grievance is theological, when I have clearly stated a rational non-theological basis for limiting freedom of speech, would mean that we cannot communicate because communication is not possible if we don’t believe what our fellow says is in his heart and mind.

    Lastly, I take what you’re saying, that you don’t mean to offend muslims at large by caricatures of Muhammad (pboh), and that it’s simply an expression of religious liberty. The problem is this (and it’s not theological!). The problem is that Muhammad (pboh) is very difficult to separate from muslims, and in this sense he is literally in a different category from other religious leaders, and I’ll explain why. You may have noticed that muslims eat with their right hands. They do this because Muhammad (pboh) ate with his right hand. You may have noticed that muslims grow beards; this is because he did the same. You may have noticed that “Muhammad” is the most popular boy’s name on Earth. So Muhammad (pboh) is indeed long dead, but he continues to play a very real living role in the day-to-day life of many millions of muslims. Which means that if people mock him, then a lot of very real sentiment and emotion will be aroused, and this can lead to social unrest. The question then leaves the theological arena and enters the social and political arena. Regardless of what theology says (and there is much Qur’anic evidence to say Islam permits people to mock the prophets without any worldly punishment)… should a public or private institution such as a university permit activity which may disrupt the proper function of that institution? This is a difficult question to answer, and my article doesn’t actually put forward a solution, because I genuinely don’t know the answer myself! But I’m sincerely perplexed how you drew the conclusion that my grievance is theological, when I expressed no theological grievance in my article and I have never believed in any punishment for blasphemy and indeed my loved and dear ones are suffering the brutality of blasphemy laws daily.

    BW,
    Darkeyed

  6. I don’t think it is proven that the sole intention of those who wear the tee shirts was to offend mock and ridicule. These tee shirts are a political statement made in the context of Salman Rushdie, the Danish Cartoons Charlie Hebdo, etc. etc. There is clearly a stark disagreement that has been going on for decades now between most westerners and most Muslims about whether society has a right to suppress “freedom of speech” in the name of blasphemy/preventing offence. I see these tee shirts are a symbol of defiance by those who feel that society has no such right. I have no interest in wearing a Jesus and Mo tee shirt outside of that context. But when I’m told I can’t I feel a greater desire to do so. Many westerners love free expression as much as much as some Muslims love Mohammed so it is a test of resolve.

    You can dispute that there is a “blasphemy” aspect to the Muslim reaction here if you want but I think it rings pretty hollow to me and most other westerners. Your grievance is clearly theological. Offense is taken at people doing something Muslims deem blasphemous. If it weren’t blasphemous no offense would be taken.

    I’ll agree that there can be something “racist-esque” about bigotry against religious people and we see that in the EDL. I cringe when I hear people say “its not racist, Islam isnt a race its a religion”. Technically true but wholly missing of the point.

    But at the same time there is a line between the theology and the people that needs to be made clear. Mohammed is part of the theology, not the people and is open for satire in western society. Mockery of Mohammed does not promote hatred against Muslims.

    There are also a lot of poor comparisons tossed around in this debate. I’ve heard people say “you wouldnt allow a shirt that said “death to jews” or “homosexuals are destroying the earth” why would you allow this shirt? Because they’re not the same! If the cartoon were “death to Muslims” or “Ahmed the stereotypical Muslim terrorist” I would probably be on your side of the issue but Mohammed is not being used as “code” for Muslims writ large. He is a historical figure who is part of the theology and thus falls on the “free speech” side of the line.

    If I were Muslim I would be concerned about situations like this that keep popping up and would be angry at my brothers and sisters who create them. The EDL and the far right like to say “The Muslims are taking over”–which we know is bogus. But when things like this happen it allows them to say “See see! They’re doing it”. No one is going to commit a hate crime because someone wears a Jesus and Mo tee shirt to a fair, but they may when they see western values like free expression being trampelled by what they see is blasphemy.

    My advice? Suck it up. Grow thicker skin. And quit caring so much about what others are doing.

  7. Dear Anti-Theist,

    Thus far three people have rated my article negatively, and I assume they were atheists. However, only you took the trouble to comment negatively, and I thank you for contributing your thoughts.

    This event was first drawn to my attention by the National Secular Society webpage, with an accompanying cartoon illustration of “Jesus and Mo” sharing a beer. The webpage is linked in my article. It may have been a wrong conclusion on my part, that this particular illustration was on the T-shirts in question. If you have any witness accounts or other information regarding what was on the T-shirts, then I’d be happy for you to correct my (genuine) error, if indeed it was an error.

    Regarding Islam’s definition as a race or a religion, in my opinion this is a “straw man” argument. Whether Islam is defined as a race or a religion is irrelevant. How is it not okay to mock a person’s race or sexual orientation, but okay to mock a person’s religion? The Equality Act 2010 recognises that religion (including atheism) is, similar to race and gender and sexual orientation, a “protected characteristic” and that discrimination on grounds of religion (or atheism) is unlawful for this reason. It recognises that a person’s belief regarding God or the non-existence of God is as integral to that person’s nature as is his/her race or gender.

    Regarding the statement “This essentially made blasphemy an punishable offense on campus”, for me this statement can be misleading. Firstly, we need to define what punishment exactly was meted out to LSE or UCL students who committed “blasphemy”? Secondly, I think it is inflammatory and misrepresenting the LSE and UCL authorities to allege they were forbidding “blasphemy”. Did either of these establishments say, “we forbid blasphemy”? My understanding is that they clearly said they were concerned to preserve good relations on the student campus and avoid enmity within the student body which might affect the principal purpose of universities (to impart intellectual knowledge). To my mind, a Student Union is entirely entitled and indeed responsible to make policy decisions regarding what measures need to be taken to encourage harmony in the student community. If the Student Union genuinely believed that the LSE Atheist society was engaging in actions which were purely inflammatory and had no intellectual purpose or merit, then I think they have a good case. In this context, knowing the stated position of the LSE Student Union, I think it is intellectually questionnable for the LSE atheists to present this and publicise this as a blasphemy issue.

    Lastly, I have yet to read any LSE atheist to present any intellectual purpose for wearing these T-shirts. In fact, on the contrary, I have now read that Maryam Namazie, the spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Great Britain, will be wearing a “Jesus and Mo” T-shirt in her upcoming LSE debate on the burqa “to teach LSE a lesson”. What lesson exactly does she seek to teach and what rational argument will she make by wearing this T-shirt? It is, in my eyes, an immature approach which is unworthy of LSE. I would much prefer a genuine intellectual discussion regarding the differences between atheists and muslims.

    All the best,
    Darkeyed

  8. Anti-Theist: I disagree. University is a place for people to be educated. It has a responsibility to create learning environments which allow students to learn and then become productive members of society. With this in mind, Universities have every right to restrict bigotry and keep the focus on education.

    Once someone graduates, he or she can enrol onto a PhD and cause all the offence in the world so long as they can evidence their conclusions.

    I also disagree with the premise that there is any intellect underpinning the UCL, LSE and Reading University Atheist debacles over the past couple of years. A postgraduate student would be failed for posing such an intellectual argument. A professor would be disregarded as someone who has no objectivity and is thus unreliable if he or she made such an intellectual statement. And an employee in the workplace would quickly find himself / herself the subject of disciplinary action. Even a child would be reprimanded at school.

    Sadly, Atheists of recent -at University- have turned towards childish and primitive methods of denouncing religion. Here’s a thought: perhaps Atheists at University should pick up their pens and write something, or even script poetry or profound statements to deliver with great oratory?

  9. The author has made one rather glaring error in that neither T-shirt features alcohol, or drinks/liquids of any kind.

    Such an image was the cause of complaints the previous year at LSE & UCL, leading to the LSESU adopting a policy prohibiting societies & students from causing offense on religious grounds and, having deemed Islam to be considered a race, declared the image to be Islamaphobic and therefore racist.

    This essentially made blasphemy an punishable offense on campus, restricting free speech for the sake of sparing the sensibilities of the religious who may take offense. Is it any wonder that the society chose to highlight the issue at this year’s Freshers’ Faire?

    It’s nice to see what the author thinks were the motivations behind the wearing of the T-shirts, sadly the facts are markedly different.

  10. Following its publication, the author requested that the post be taken down and then reposted subject to further amendments. The author expanded upon the original article and it has now been reposted. We apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused.

    Admin.

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