University of London cartoon controversy: defend the right to criticise religion!

The new year has seen a controversy about racism, secularism, freedom of speech and the right to criticise religion at two University of London colleges, UCL and LSE.

We responded briefly and in broad terms in the 25 January edition of Solidarity, but wanted to try to understand the facts better before publishing more.

What happened?

In January the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (ASHS) at University College London published an image from the web-comic Jesus and Mo, which depicts Jesus and Muhammad engaged in theological and philosophical discussion, often while having a drink in a pub staffed by an atheist barmaid. The comic’s tone is gently satirical, mocking the sometimes violent intolerance of institutionalised religion and suggesting that all human beings ought to rub along, and listen to each other’s ideas calmly and respectfully.

UCL ASHS used an image of Jesus and Mo sitting at a bar drinking what looks like Guinness (see here) to advertise a society pub crawl. This led to widespread controversy, and UCL Union asked the society to remove the image.

The controversy then spread to LSE, with LSE ASHS reposting the cartoon on their Facebook wall. They were then threatened with deregistration by LSE Students’ Union.

(For a summary of the UCL events, see here and for the LSE events here.)

What we say

The AWL defends the right of the UCL and LSE secular societies to use the Jesus and Mo cartoons - because we defend freedom of speech, including the right to criticise religion.

For socialists, freedom of speech is a fundamental policy. The capitalist class has a partial interest in free speech — within limits. The labour movement and left have a much more profound interest in free speech.

Socialism means the defeat of entrenched power by the mobilisation of long downtrodden millions of people who at last dare to have thoughts and dreams other than those handed down by official society; thus it needs free debate. That must, of course, include freedom to criticise religion, and the role it plays in rationalising and maintaining class exploitation and all kinds of oppression. Lastly, free speech (real free speech, not the limited free speech available in a society where a wealthy minority monopolises the media, education, leisure...) is a vital part of the socialism we fight for.

Can there be limitations on our support for free speech? Yes. The class struggle comes first. In a strike, for instance, or when organised fascists are rallying, the need to defend picket lines or defend our communities may trump the general right to freedom of expression. And we are not in favour of the right to “freely” harass people because of their ideas – particularly when, as with some religious ideas, possession of them is bound up indirectly with suffering discrimination and prejudice (eg the discrimination of various kinds suffered by many British Muslims).

It is perfectly possible to imagine a racist “secularist” organisation which used the cover of criticising religion to effectively harass Muslims or some other group on a campus. But the UCL and LSE secular societies, although they do not seem to be left-wing, are clearly are not racist fake-secularists either.

What is clear is this: the fact that some (or many, or a majority of) people find an image or statement or whatever offensive is not adequate grounds to deviate from the fundamental stand of free speech. Once you head down that road, freedom of speech is no longer a basic position with exceptions at the margins. It is left in tatters.

If a large enough group of socialist-influenced students on a campus signed a petition to get a Conservative society banned, because they found Toryism and all its works offensive (and we do!), would that justify the ban? No, it would not, and the socialists would be extremely foolish to act in this way. (Fascist groups are, again, an exception because of the fundamental threat to our movement and to the oppressed they pose – but, again, this is not per se about their ideas, but about their violent organising and actions.)

Muslim students suffer something so close to racism as to be in effect, racism (in a way that socialist students, as a group, do not). But what needs defending from racism is Muslim and Muslim-background people, not Islam as a religion (let alone the right-wing theocratic politics espoused by a small minority of Muslims). This is a distinction a large part of the left continually blurs over.

The Danish cartoons controversy

We think that for those concerned with progressive social change, there must always be a balance between criticising religion and engaging, rather than alienating, religious believers.

For Marxists, who should have a subtle understanding of the roots and social role of religion, and who see working-class and popular unity in the fight against capitalist exploitation as our ‘categorical imperative’, this is crucial. Workers’ Liberty is an atheist, secularist and humanist organization – though not all our members are atheists – but not primarily. What we are primarily is an organization of class struggle, and that conditions everything else.

That is why we are concerned not to offend religious people unnecessarily.

Nonetheless: six years ago, following the controversy over the cartoons of Muhammad printed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, we republished these cartoons on our website together with a strong defence of freedom of speech and the right to criticise and mock religion. We made it clear that we did not agree with the political ideas expressed in some of these cartoons, and attacked some of them.

We published the cartoons because of the specific issue of freedom of speech and freedom to criticise religion, following the worldwide, in some places very violent Islamist campaign (stirred up and funded by the Saudi government) to suppress them.

In this case, too, freedom of speech is once again a major issue. And it is even clearer since Jesus and Mo is not reactionary like some or even most of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, but broadly progressive and humanist. Whatever your assessment of its political seriousness, and whether it is to your taste or not, the idea that Jesus and Mo constitutes reactionary Islamophobic harassment is ludicrous.

The SWP’s confusion over religion

The Socialist Workers’ Party has, sadly but predictably, led the charge on the left in favour of religious censorship. Typically, it has refused to engage with the real arguments, but instead created a straw man to burn down, with LSE Socialist Worker Student Society commenting:

“The Atheist Society’s efforts to publish inflammatory “satirical” cartoons in a deliberate attempt to offend Muslims serve to highlight a festering undercurrent of racism.”

So, no attempt to actually engage with the cartoon itself, or with the issues relating to it. In fact, have LSE SWSS members even seen the image? And again, no direct accusation against the LSE secularists – which could be debated rationally – but a nasty implication.

Having just come through the University of London Union elections, in which one of our comrades stood against an SWP member for Vice President and we were slandered as racist, Islamophobic and so on, we are very familiar with these kinds of Stalinist-style smear tactics. Happily, many left-wing students are no longer buying – the bulk of independent left activists rallied to our campaign, and we won.

LSE SWSS also commented on its publicity that “Marxists defend religion” – as if we defend the ideas of religion, rather than the right of religious people to be religious and live their lives free from harassment and discrimination. This is a sign of serious political degeneration.

Unfortunately, such ideas are found, no doubt often in less clear form, way beyond the ranks of the SWP. They seem to have penetrated at least part of the leaderships of UCL Union and LSE Students’ Union – evidenced by the unions’ desire to push the secularist societies to back down. The student left and the left more generally needs a discussion on these issues urgently.

Fight racism and defend free speech!

During the same period that the UCL/LSE controversy was raging, what appear to have been Islamists burst into a meeting on the issue of sharia law at Queen Mary University, organized by a secularist group run by Iranian socialist exiles, and broke it up. This was accompanied by death threats to those participationg and their families. According to Maryam Namazie, one of the organizers, reference was made to the Jesus and Mo controversy.

The idea that some socialists do not think the atmosphere in which such things can happen is a problem is – bizarre!

Fighting the threat of Islamophobia – anti-Muslim racism – is a central task for the left. But so is fighting the growing tide of attempts – from some followers of all religions, not just Islam – to suppress criticism of religion. Socialists who do not even try to do both are giving up on being socialists.

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Where does this end?

I've tried - I really have - to get inside the mindset of the SWP et al on this. And I can just about see the argument that in a climate of anti-Muslim racism something which is unambiguously an attack on Islam - that is, even something apparently mild and harmless - will be seen by Muslims as an attack on them, and will bolster those on the far right who criticise Islam demagogically.

But *anything* anyone says which is critical of Islam, ie anything which isn't simply a placid acceptance of religious claims, will offend many Muslims. Many Muslims (and Christians, and followers of other religions) will think that my whole *life* - shacked up with my same-sex partner and so on - is pretty offensive. Are we supposed to keep quiet about all that kind of stuff, too?

And why stop at posters? What about what they *say* in the meetings of this Atheists and Secular Society? (As the article points out, it hasn't in fact stopped at posters).

Obviously there's a line to draw, somewhere and somehow - in a world where the EDL et al make criticisms of Islam as such, and obviously mean something different to what, say, Richard Dawkins means. But it boggles the mind to think that a Jesus and Mo cartoon is where the line is.