Thursday, 8 March 2012

Blasphemy and Free Speech Talk for Southampton Atheists

This is my talk that I gave to the Southampton Atheist Society on the 6th March 2012 as part of their Reason Week events.  The audience were a mixture of atheist society members, Islamic society members and the general public.  See this blog-post for a report on the Q&A and further discussions and concerns that were brought up.


Today I will be talking about blasphemy and free speech. I will be focusing especially on universities, because we’re in one, and the depiction of the Prophet Mohammed because it was this which caused recent incidents at UCL and LSE in London. I shall also be looking at other challenges to free speech in universities, including secular sacred ideas such as “safe-space” which have the potential for abuse and how we should engage with causes that some might find unpalatable such as pro-life campaigns.

Blasphemy was only abolished in English Law in 2008, having existed in some form for nearly 1,000 years. Yet, not once, have they been used to protect religious freedom nor to protect God – after all he is an omnipotent being and is therefore entirely capable of taking care of himself – but instead blasphemy laws defend the state, church and established social order.

The last great blasphemy trial in Britain was in 1977. Kenan Malik describes it in his essay “Beyond the Sacred” where he states:

Mary Whitehouse had brought a private prosecution for blasphemous libel against the newspaper Gay News. It had published a poem by James Kirkup called ‘The Love that Dares to Speak its Name’, about the love of a centurion for Jesus Christ at the crucifixion. Whitehouse won the case and Gay News appealed against the conviction.
In 1979 the case finally came to the House of Lords, then the highest appeal court in Britain. The Law Lords, one of whom was Lord Scarman, upheld the original verdict. ‘I do not subscribe to the view that the common law offence of blasphemous libel serves no useful purpose in the modern law,’ Scarman wrote in his judgement. But such a law must be extended ‘to protect the religious beliefs and feelings of non-Christians’. Blasphemy ‘belongs to a group of criminal offences designed to safeguard the internal tranquillity of the kingdom. In an increasingly plural society such as that of modern Britain it is necessary not only to respect the differing religious beliefs, feelings and practices of all but also to protect them from scurrility, ridicule and contempt.’ ‘The internal tranquility of the kingdom’: the role of blasphemy, in other words, is again acknowledged not as protecting religion but as defending social peace.
In 1985 the Law Commission looked into this and rejected such an extension, arguing that the deficiencies of the law ‘are so serious and so fundamental that… no measure short of abolition would be adequate to deal with these deficiencies’. The Commission dismissed the idea that religion should have special protection, observing that ‘Reverence for God… does not differ fundamentally in character from reverence accorded to any person against whom those according respect are unwilling to entertain grounds of criticism.’ It pointed out that ‘one person’s incisive comment (and indeed seemingly innocuous comment) may be another’s “blasphemy” and to forbid the use of the strongest language in relation, for example, to practices which some may rightly regard as not in the best interests of society as a whole would, it seems to us, be altogether unacceptable’.
So, with the law seemingly on our side and those defining it strongly in favour of free speech, we’re OK, right? Well, there are still some ways in which blasphemy is being implemented “by the back door”. I will come back to these later, but I want to look further at our motivation for blasphemy.

Why do we care about blasphemy?

Why do we care about blasphemy? We might seek to offend when, on the face of it, it doesn’t seem constructive or helpful. It’s a good way of protecting minority groups, right?

The answer to this stems from the fact that no religious group is homogenous. As I mentioned before, I shall be concentrating here on Islam, because of the debate over the use of the cartoons depicting Mohammed. No religious group is homogenous and there is no agreement between all Muslims on whether the depiction of Mohammed ought to be allowed. Blasphemy laws only make sense if we accept the myth of communities and it is the blasphemy laws themselves which help to reinforce this myth. By enforcing a blasphemy law, you are showing agreement with one side of a debate, usually the more reactionary side. These more reactionary elements can then spin this enforcement of blasphemy laws as approval for their position, lending them legitimacy as “authentic voices of Islam”. Being able to blaspheme allows you to challenge self-appointed “community leaders”. Making that illegal indicates that certain forms of power cannot be challenged, and that cannot be right. Declaring an idea or image sacred shuts down debate and stifles free expression.

 A good example of deviation from the orthodoxy is Persian Art. There is a Shia Muslim tradition of portraying the Prophet in art. This image, for example is Muhammad delivering The Farewell Sermon, a 17th century Ottoman copy of an early 14th century Persian image. Could you legitimately ban a large segment of Persian art from being displayed because it was blasphemous?

The idea that Muslims cannot handle the idea of Mohammed could itself be considered culturally elitist. Recently, Maryam Namazie, campaigner for the anti-Sharia group One Law for All, reacted to a poorly worded anti-Islamophobia motion being passed at the LSE Student’s Union by saying:

So why not pass a resolution on Christianity-phobia similar to the ridiculous Islamophobia resolution passed by the LSE Student Union?
Partly it has to do with the racism of lower expectations. ‘We’ can handle offence; ‘they’ can’t.
So this brings us neatly onto what has happened recently at Students Unions at UCL and LSE. 

UCL Facebook Event Icon

The story begins at UCL where University College London Union Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (UCLUASHS) used this image as the image for a Facebook event, advertising a pub social. This image is from the popular web-comic Jesus and Mo, there they are there, enjoying a pint together.


This caused a problem for one student who complained that the image was offensive both because it portrayed the prophet, but also because he is drinking an alcoholic beverage, an activity banned under Islamic law. The atheist society responded saying that they didn’t accept this as grounds for removing the image. The student then complained to the Student’s Union who went on to request that the society remove the image. The atheist society rejected this as well. The Union and UCLUASHS had a number of meetings to discuss whether their actions had broken their bullying and harassment policy. Eventually the Union decided not to press any further with disciplinary action.

Queen Mary’s Incident

The next week at Queen Mary’s, a very serious incident occurred. A Muslim man burst into a talk on Sharia Law by Anne-Marie Waters. The man threatened to kill anyone who insulted the Prophet Mohammed. He brandished a mobile phone, saying he was filming everyone there, getting up in the face of a number of committee members, claiming he knew where they lived. Before the police could arrive he then left with a gang of accomplices. Those involved were understandably shaken, so the event was postponed but will be put on again next week. The police are currently investigating, but, in an odd twist to this story, the maximum sanction he could face is an £80 fine, because his death threat was conditional on people insulting Mohammed. If you add any conditions to a death threat, it doesn’t get treated as seriously by the law, apparently. Strange but true!

LSE Student Union Formal Action

At LSE we have a different situation yet again. In short, people in the society posted the cartoon of Mohammed to the Facebook Group and a member society wrote a blog-post about the situation at UCL which used the image. 40 students submitted complaints to their Union about this. This was number was interesting large given the Facebook group only had 69 members at the time!

After discussions between the society and their union, the union took formal disciplinary action against the society. They instructed the society to remove the image of Jesus and Mo from their Facebook group. The society refused to do this. The BHA was able at this stage to offer legal assistance to the society now that formal steps were being taken. The union then instructed the society to remove the LSESU logo from the Facebook Page because it no longer constituted a “safe-space” for all members (inc. Muslims). The society complied with this at first, but reverted back to their original name. Since then, the LSESU have not followed up with any further disciplinary action.

What is acceptable and what is unacceptable?

So, when we’re talking about this area, what is acceptable and what is unacceptable? We must see if we can form some principles and guidelines for what is and what is not acceptable. Let’s first start off with the UCL case. Their student union investigated them for possible bullying and harassment. Neither of these things can ever be considered acceptable. The student union was completely right to investigate because it is under a duty of care to do so. As an aside, this is why I would urge you not to panic if someone does make a complaint against you and the union investigates – they’re just doing their job! An investigation does not mean they’ve already concluded that you’re in the wrong. Harassment and bullying are both quite complex issues because there is no good definition.

The report, “Religion and belief in HE: researching the experiences of staff and students” published by the Equality Challenge Unit last year states:

It is … important to recognise that incidences of discrimination or harassment need to be understood as perceived or reported experience. How an individual experiences and understands discrimination and harassment is likely to be personal and subjective …
Discrimination would, for example, be a member of staff being overlooked for promotion due to their religion or belief. Harassment would, for example, be incidents of threatening emails due to someone’s religion or belief, or graffiti targeted against a particular religion or belief.
So, as you can see, without any hard-and-fast rules, student union officials are required to make incredibly difficult judgements in these cases.

However, in the UCL case, none of the complaints mentioned harassment or bullying. Merely offence. We must be clear, simple offence is not the same as harassment or bullying.

In the LSE case, they were told that their Facebook group could no longer carry the student union’s logo because it violated the union’s safe-space policy. Because the image of Mohammed was there, the union said that Muslims could not participate fully in the society and therefore it was discriminatory. However, the group was open for all to join with no discrimination between members. Simply giving offence does not constitute discrimination. I would now like to look a bit closer at the idea of safe-space.


Safe-space is a concept originally championed by liberation societies such as feminist and LGBT groups which seeks to provide areas where people can fully express themselves without fearing the judgement of their peers. It is a way of creating an environment in which people can explore their experiences frankly and without fear of prejudice. Safe-spaces usually manifest themselves either as a physical space, like a “liberation room” or with groups asserting that a particular event will be conducted as a safe-space.

Exeter Students Guild produced a report in November last year called “Safe-Space and Freedom of Expression” which examined these issues. It posits the existence of two types of space, safe space and political space. Safe space is defined as:

Space which is non-confrontational to minority students – space in which they do not feel on guard against prejudice or hatred and where such incidents will not occur to threaten their safety. Safety is as much a state of mind as physical, it is a place in which you can “let down your barriers” and be among equals. Again, this is distinct from political space where equality is again necessary, but not comfort or the ability to relax.
It then goes on to define the sort of spaces you get in student unions:
… Political space, in which to act in political ways or engage in educational issues in a political sense is very different from social space; the space in which we live and expect a degree of comfort and security which is not given by a political space.
Campus space is both political and hybrid (social and private) in nature, since it contains learning facilities, eating facilities and for many students, their home living space while attending University.
So they definitely do not define the entirety of a student union as a safe-space. It is surprising to hear that several student unions, including my own in Bristol, have passed Safe-Space policies declaring unions and their members’ activities as safe-space events! It’s clearly absurd, saying noone can offended anyone else at union society event! It’s also a logical impossibility – a gay pride event might offend religious conservatives, but LGBT society members would be offended if you told them that they couldn’t have the event just in case they offended someone! You’ll be glad to hear that I’ve not found any evidence that Southampton Student Union has introduced a policy like this!

I met with my own student union to discuss giving this talk there. Whilst recognising my right to use blasphemous images, they said I should not use them, emphasising the safe-space policy and making arguments similar to the “maintaining social order” principle outlined earlier in my talk. This misapplication of safe-space policies gives Union officers incredible power to ban any activity of any society that they think might offend anyone. This is very dangerous for free speech and I would urge you at Southampton to make sure that any Safe-Space policies which are introduced here are careful to include limits on their scope. It de-values the idea of safe-space which serves a legitimate purpose within restricted boundaries.

So, having established the idea of safe-space and political space, how do we go about distinguishing one from another? At the two extremes, you have a liberation societies room, which can clearly be used as a safe-space and at the other you have a talk, debate or presentation taking place in a room like this which is clearly political space.

Pro-Life Pamphlet

The best way to test your liberalism and attitudes is to see how you’d treat something that you might not necessarily agree with. Here is a leaflet that Bristol pro-life students were handing out. It’s quite strong, as you see, with a picture of a foetus and text implying that abortion is morally equivalent to slavery. I find this offensive, but this does not cause me any more distress than that.  It is, however, important to think about the impact this can have on others. If you had recently had a termination you might already be carrying feelings of guilt because our society stigmatises those who have abortions. Something like this could prove incredibly upsetting. Bristol Students for Life were asked to remove this particular leaflet from their stand at Fresher’s Fair, which they did. Do you think that was right? Is Fresher’s Fair a political space, a hybrid space or a safe-space? 

The audience voted 16 for political space, 8 for hybrid space and 1 for safe-space
Justifying themselves at a Student Union meeting, a member of Bristol Students for Life said that the Pro-Life society couldn’t be held responsible for any upset they caused to anyone who had had an abortion as “a sense of guilt can only come from within”. Whilst this is technically true, it’s not a valid argument in favour of free speech. As I have mentioned before, guilt, offence and upset cannot be objectively defined and are inherently subjective experiences but this does not mean they are valueless.

How Else Are Student Unions Curbing Freedom of Speech?

UCL Pro-Choice Motion

So we have looked at how safe-space can be misapplied to curb free speech, but there are other mechanisms too. Here are two resolves from the recent UCL Pro-Choice Motion.

5. To ensure that any anti-choice campaigns run on campus are obliged to inform the Union in advance so that pro-choice campaigns have the opportunity to campaign at the same time with an equal budget and an equal amount of advertising space and vice versa.
6. To ensure that any future open events focusing on the issue of termination invite a anti-choice speaker and a pro-choice speaker as well as an independent chair, to ensure there is a balance to the argument
Though clearly well intentioned, these requirements are highly illiberal. Forcing societies to adopt balanced platforms is wrong. It is true that debates are useful and interesting, but should every event be a debate? What if your society were forced to gather an interfaith panel every time you wanted to hold a speaker? It would be very weird for me to give this talk to you, the audience, with a panel of theologians interrupting everything I said like some ecclesiastical X-factor! Balanced platforms are desirable, but not always appropriate and certainly not something we should enforce.

LSE No to Racism, No to Islamophobia Motion

This motion was brought in to combat Islamophobia on campus at the LSE. Most of the principles on which it was based were sound – we should prevent people preaching hatred or targeting minority groups. However, the key sticking point was the definition of Islamophobia.

• 1. To define Islamophobia as “a form of racism expressed through the hatred or fear of Islam, Muslims, or Islamic culture, and the stereotyping, demonisation 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”
Islamophobia is an inherently problematic word. It implies that Islam itself is something that should be protected. This misses the point. We should be protecting Muslims and people against hatred and persecution, but the religions and ideas they hold should always be open for scrutiny. The best alternative suggestion I’ve heard is “anti-Muslim bigotry” which cuts to the heart of the issue, even though it’s a somewhat unwieldy phrase!

This statement also protects the Qur’an from being called a “manual of hatred”. Like Islam, the Qur’an is an idea and a concept and so should not be free from scrutiny or criticism. Protecting the idea of Islam in this way de-legitimises liberal Muslims and apostates whilst perpetuating a false, monolithic perception of Muslims.

Remove all references to Islam and the Qur’an from this definition and you are left with a definition of anti-Muslim bigotry which protects Muslims from harassment and demonisation which is something I would strongly support.


The ability to blaspheme is important because it means that no ideas can be allowed to go unchallenged. Blasphemy laws only defend those in power and those with a vested interest in maintaining social peace.

Simple offence is not the same as harassing or bullying someone. Harassment and bullying are subjective experiences, but no one claimed to have been harassed or bullied by the cartoons used by the societies as UCL and LSE.

Safe-spaces are an important and legitimate concept for liberation societies. However, the protections against offence that exist in a safe-space cannot be extended to cover an entire student union and the activities of its societies.

Student unions should make sure they re-assert their commitments to freedom of speech whilst taking their commitments to protect minority groups into account. Most space in a student union should be considered political space where ideas can be freely debated and where simple offence is not grounds for disciplinary action.


  1. Thanks for this, it was extremely interesting reading and rather pertinent in the light of the CU lunchtime talk this week. I think that there may well be good uses for safe spaces within the union (e.g. LGBTsoc might be a good place), but designating the entire union as a safe space does seem misguided.

  2. Yeah, these issues are always highly context dependent and are a case of balancing rights rather than the black and white approach some have. The freedom of speech debate rather unfortunately concentrates on *what* is acceptable, rather than *where* or *when* certain things are acceptable.