Friday, 9 March 2012

Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression Q&A for Southampton Atheists

This Q&A Session took place after the talk I gave to the Southampton Atheist Society on Tuesday.  There is a text version of that talk here, where I discuss why blaspheming is important, the concepts of "political space" and "safe-space" and other threats to freedom of expression in UK universities.  Please read this for context!

The event was well attended with a mixture of atheist society members, Islamic society members and the general public.


Appropriate Space

The discussion began by coming back to the tricky area of "safe-spaces" and what material was appropriate where.  Using the example of the pro-life poster from the talk, we discussed if it would be appropriate to have this in the corridors of a university, student union building or even a student health clinic.  Opinion was divided with some arguing that the best way to deal with it being to launch counter-campaign with leaflets and posters defending the pro-choice perspective.  Others felt uncomfortable about the effect this could have on vulnerable people who had had abortions, suggesting that the material be banned from routes and corridors in the university which were unavoidable thoroughfares.  The idea of special poster-boards was suggested, which would be explicitly political-space and immune from censorship on ground of offence.

How do we define harassment?

A Muslim audience member grilled me on one of the weaker parts of my argument, asking how precisely we distinguish harassment from offence.  He was concerned that attacking someone's ideas in a sustained way could lead to a cumulative effect which might constitute harassment.  Jenny offered the analogy of grains of sand; if you keep putting single grains in one place, at what point does it stop being "some sand" and become "a pile of sand"?  

I began answering this by pointing out that there were two concepts wrapped up in this, the message itself and the way in which the message is delivered.  The message itself must always be free from censorship; blasphemy alone does not constitute harassment.  The method of delivery is important though.  Using a much less poetic example than Jenny, I considered how many times you could phone someone and tell them their ideas were shit before it became harassment.  Eventually I had to admit that any answer to this question will be highly context-dependent.  Undeterred by this, two brave audience members tried to define harassment using a sort of "your-ideas-are-shit per-hour" metric to define a limit.  After this surreal debate had gone on for a while an exasperated member of the audience exclaimed "alright guys, you're trying to find a limit, not a quota!"

Does banning blasphemy protect against stereotyping?

Another Muslim audience member suggested that by allowing people to blaspheme, you are allowing people to stereotype Muslims.  Opposing blasphemy was given as a mechanism by which stereotyping could be prevented as in the case of the Danish cartoon constroversy in 2005.

I argued the opposite.  Having a blasphemy law says "all Muslims believe this is sacred" which is a homogenising and stereotyping idea in itself.  If we want to oppose stereotyping, then we must be clear that that is what we oppose.  Using blasphemy laws as a proxy for this is using a poorly aimed sledgehammer to miss a nut.  Comparing the Jesus and Mo cartoon with some of the Danish cartoons we can immediately perceive the differences.  Both cartoons are blasphemous, but the Jesus and Mo cartoon is clearly absurdist - Jesus and Mohammed lived at different times and would never have met in a modern-day pub!  By contrast, some of the Danish cartoons contained imagery stereotyping Muslims as terrorists.  Conflating stereotyping with blasphemy is a hindrance rather than a help.

Have the religious co-opted equality-speak?

An audience member reminded us of the victory in the UN last year when the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution that addresses the problem of violence and discrimination fuelled by religious intolerance without including the controversial notion of “defamation of religions” or other restrictions on freedom of expression.  This was an important step in supporting the principle that we should protect people and not ideas.

Equality law continues to be under attack, however, as shown by the recent "Clearing the Ground" report.  An example referenced by this report was the of the Christians in Cornwall who would not let a gay couple stay in their B&B.  It claimed that this was an example of how sexual orientation trumped religious beliefs in the UK.  This is nonsense of course because the law treats everyone equally - a gay proprietor would be acting illegally if he banned Christians from his B&B!

Is the sale of Halal meat in the UK an example of Islamic power?

One audience member was worried that the prevalence of Halal meat was a manifestation of the growing influence of Islam in the UK.  He was especially concerned because of the ethical implementations of Halal Zibah (Muslim ritual slaughter) which can mean that an animal is not stunned before slaughter.

I answered that this is an issue which people need to be made more aware of.  The AHS released a report at the end of last year about this issue and Halal meat in universities.  We found that 80% of animals slaughtered for Halal meat in the UK were, in fact, stunned before slaughter.  This means that simply labelling meat "Halal" isn't sufficient for consumers to make an informed opinion.  Ideally we'd like to see 100% of animals slaughtered for Halal meat stunned before slaughter (as in the Netherlands) but the first step to this is to introduce full-labelling so consumers have a true choice.

As for whether this is a manifestation of Islamic power in the UK, it's more a manifestation of economic power than political power.  Butchers keep track of which meat is Halal and which is not, but they don't track which is from animals which have been stunned before slaughter or not.  Responses from caterers such as Sodexo suggested that they would not voluntarily introduce labelling without leadership from central government so the AHS lobbied the government to do this and received a reply stating that labelling was an option being looked into.

When talking about the influence of Islam in the UK it's important to have some perspective.  Muslims are a small minority of the UK population and those holding extreme views are a tiny fraction of that.  We must be careful not to over-emphasise the power of groups of the population who are poorer and less powerful than the average.  One of the biggest examples of state-funded religion in the UK is faith schools which account for a third of all schools.  Of these, 97% are Anglican or Catholic which goes to show just how powerful a force Christian denomenations remain in the UK today.  This is not to deny the power of "leaders" within Muslim groups, but we must not exaggerate the privileges of a group which is, on the whole, not that privileged in British society.

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