These have not been good times for free speech in the UK. Islamist students and cowardly student bodies – which, ironically, would identify themselves as liberal and progressive – have clamped down on the right of secular and atheist societies to voice their opposition to Islam (as they do to other religions too).
An event organized by the "One Law for All" campaign group at Queen Mary University in London was cancelled at the last minute after an Islamist made death threats against everyone attending. Anne Marie Waters, a spokeswoman for the National Secular Society had been due to address the room on Shariah law [Muslim religious law] and human rights. The room filled with students, but shortly before Waters was due to begin, a man entered the lecture theatre and filmed everyone in the audience. He then told them he could identify them all and knew where they lived – and that if anything insulting about the Prophet Mohammed was said, he would "track down" the audience members. Other students were also told that they, along with their families, would be murdered if any insult was perceived.
The event was cancelled and the police were called. The President of Queen Mary's Atheism, Secularism and Humanism Society, who had organized the event, later commented:
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.
This was not an isolated incident. A few days earlier the Atheist Secular Humanist group at University College London (UCLASH) had been asked by the Students Union to remove an advertisement which depicted Jesus and the Prophet Mohammed sharing a beer. As ever, threats were made; the Students Union caved to pressure after several students protested.
The circumstances could not be more ironic. University College London (UCL) was founded in 1826 as a secular alternative to the strictly religious universities of Oxford and Cambridge. It was the first institution of higher education in England to accept students of any race or religious or political belief, and was described by Thomas Arnold as as "that Godless institution in Gower Street." That religious intolerance should now threaten its student societies marks a staggering turns of events. UCLASH was forced to remove its publicity material, and the President of UCLASH noted:
That student representatives of the country's first secular university should attempt such an act of censorship is disheartening.
In the past, atheist groups have caused controversy also at Warwick University, with a poster showing religious symbols being put in a bin; while students at Leeds and Southampton have experienced intimidation when they proposed showing material that to which some Muslim students took offense.
Maryam Namazie, who leads the "One Law for All" campaign, explains:
This is not about lacking cultural sensitivity or discrimination…It is not about racism and 'Islamophobia'. It is not our fault for raising the issues. We are not to blame for 'provoking' the Islamists; they need no such provocation…
It's about being able to criticize and speak out against that which is taboo and the barbarism of our century. Free expression is all we have at our disposal.
That very principle may now be under threat on some campuses. The London School of Economics (LSE) has passed a motion effectively making it impossible for students on campus to criticise Islam. The motion denounced "Islamophobia," which it defined in broad brush strokes as:
A form of racism expressed through the hatred or fear of Islam, Muslims, or Islamic culture, and the stereotyping, demonization or harassment of Muslims, including but not limited to portraying Muslims as barbarians or terrorists, or attacking the Qur'an as a manual of hatred.
The linguistic ambiguities in the wording of the motion and its broad construction make it prone to misuse. Indeed, some critics have denounced it as a "blasphemy law." The director of Student Rights, a pressure group which fights extremism on campus, has denounced the move:
This is an extremely worrying day for the London School of Economics. Shutting out people from voting online, effectively leaving the Union in the hands of political extremists who turn out day-in day-out, and passing what is a flimsy motion on Islamophobia means that freedom of speech, expression and effective representation is being curtailed on campus by those with a distinct political agenda.
A rally was to be held on February 11 to push back against rise of reactionary group and the curtailment of free speech on campus. Hailed as "a day to defend free expression," protesters will rally opposite the House of Lords. A remarkable coalition has come together to lend their support to the movement including progressive and liberal Muslims who are working with atheists, Jews, Christians, and others to ensure that the most important guarantee of religious freedoms – secularism – is not irreparably eroded in Britain.