Sunday, 16 October 2011

Event report: Paul Sims - "Criticising Islam: Free Speech or Bigotry?"

Time: 13 October 2011, 19:00 - 21:00
Place: Darwin Biochemistry LT, Darwin Building, University College London

Following the successes of past events with Paul Sims, including a talk on the importance of keeping a dialogue with believers, UCLU ASHS was happy to welcome the News Editor of New Humanist Magazine back to chair a debate on the grey area between criticism of Islam and Islamophobia.

Sims introduced the topic with a reference to Conservative minister Baroness Warsi's comment earlier this year on how open criticism of Islam is now so widespread, it has "passed the dinner-table test." This provoked strong reactions from secularists, who assumed the Baroness was criticising the critique of Islam. While he initially agreed with her critics, Sims now find himself seeing eye to eye with Baroness Warsi, citing two important concerns: i) the rise of the EDL (English Defence League) and in particular their intimidating and violent protests against not only Islamist groups, but Muslims in general; and ii) the way in which media, in particular right-wing tabloids, demonise Muslims and portray them as a threat to the country (examples here and here). Is it evident, then, that the Baroness is correct in that constructive criticism has crossed the line to biased bigotry?

We were delighted to see that there were amongst the audience, not only atheists and the non-religious, but also religious debaters discussing the matter from their viewpoints, including those of the Christian faith and members of UCLU AMSA. The debate that followed Sims' introduction explored various issues, some of which are summarised below.

  • Where do humanists and secularists stand in relation to Islamophobia? Our friends from AMSA highlighted the importance of not polarising Muslims and humanists/secularists. They explained that while they do not agree with atheism, they consider themselves both humanists and secularists, as they define humanism as the promotion of human welfare, and view secularism a strong root of Islam. Input from the humanist point of view put forth the question of whether Islamophobia is directed towards the religion or towards the religious, and that this is important in distinguishing between religious critique and prejudice. 
  • What is the difference between Muslim satire and Christian satire? The cover of the last edition of New Humanist depicts Ricky Gervais posing as Jesus Christ, which was put in contrast with the much-publicised Muhammad charicatures in the Danish newspapers in 2005. A debater argued that although he was personally offended by the magazine cover on the grounds of his Christian faith, he accepted that he is living in a secular and democratic society. He then proceeded to question why Muslims are given privilege when it comes to sensitivity to satire. A response to this from a non-religious debater was that attention should be directed towards whether or not the satire has any real political message, or whether it is meant to only offend - arguing that, unlike Gervais' cover, the Muhammad cartoons only intended the latter. A point raised from AMSA was that religious criticism must be interpreted in the context of the current political climate. For example, the first South Park episode portraying the Prophet Muhammad, albeit after the 11 September attacks, was broadcast prior to the Danish caricatures, and thus received comparatively little response.  
  •  Presenting religious criticism in the public sphere versus the non-public sphere: Most debaters seemed to agree that while they all were offended by statements and depictions disparaging their identities, beliefs, lifestyle choices and similar, they would not ban people's right to voice any opinions they might have - but that critics should be encouraged to exercise self-censorship. Sims contrasted this view of the freedom to say and publish anything you like in e.g. newspapers and magazines, i.e. in the public sphere where the public can choose for themselves whether they want to listen/read to it or not, with imposing your views directly on people in their personal space. Here, he made a reference to an incident where a militant atheist posted derogatory anti-religious images in an airport prayer room. In a sense, Sims argued, the atheist's freedom of speech limited the freedom of the users of the prayer room, as they due to personal convictions could no longer use the room.
The general opinion amongst the debaters, religious and non-religious alike, was that legislating any form of criticism would not solve any problems, but only make matters worse - especially in a society where freedom of speech is already so entrenched. Rather, any issue should be approached in an intellectual and respectful manner: when used, political/religious satire should have a real message; and negative reactions to such satire should encourage dialogue instead of polarisation.

Following the debate, we made the usual trip to the Bentham where Sims also joined us to continue the discussion. Thanks to everyone who attended - we hope to see more input from our religious co-students (and non-students) in future events!

No comments:

Post a Comment