Imagine a world where anything that might cause offence was forbidden. Whatever you said or did would have to be filtered through even the least important whims and fancies of society. What space might this world leave for humour, say? Or more seriously, freedom of speech, and thus intellectual debate and progression? Perhaps, you might say, only those beliefs which people hold most dearly, at the core of their existence, should be barred from attack. Is it not instead the case that these beliefs should be scrutinised and satirised more than any others? Either we will come to see them as farcical and mistaken, or the attacks will meet rebuttal and those beliefs will become strengthened. The alternative is a world of static sterility, without vigour, passion or even truth.
It is for these reasons that the resignation of Robbie Yellon, former President of UCL's Atheist, Agnostic and Secularist society, is such a great shame. The move came after controversy caused following the group's Facebook post of a cartoon depicting Mohammed and Jesus drinking in a bar to advertise a pub night. The picture of course violates the sacred command prohibiting images of the prophet. Though the demand was most likely originally intended to prevent the worship of false idols, it is doubtful that Muslim voices advocating censorship are worried that over time they may come to pray for a cartoon. Why is it that so many, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, are so opposed to the light-hearted mockery of a 7th century Arabian merchant?
This small tale is not the first of its kind. 14th February 1989 - a death warrant is issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini for the writer Salman Rushdie. His crime? Writing a book that depicts the prophet and Islam unfavourably. Rushdie's book is burned across the world with total vigour and a lack of shame. The fatwa still stands. In 2005 a Danish magazine published cartoons of the prophet, one depicting him as a terrorist. The reaction is hysterical; embassies burned and people killed. Even South Park's creators censor their show. This recent fiasco is a minor variation on a major theme. I hope I find no disagreement among readers, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, in the view that these events are damnable in the highest degree.
So why do these events ignite such sentiment? Let's be frank - religion, Islam in particular, cannot take criticism well. In a society that professes to protect free speech, all institutions claiming power and authority will be subject to harmless jibes and rigorous scrutiny alike. If freedom of thought and expression are to be safeguarded there can be no exceptions. This includes politics, economics, science, but most importantly religion. I say most importantly because religion has so often seen itself as exempt from precisely this sort of attention. Blasphemy is a crime punishable by death in many nations of the world, most prominently in those fond of Sharia law. It is not Islamophobic, nationalistic or unimportant to ask ourselves why this is. Some of the most troubled and violent regions of the world deny the freedom of expression that characterises those of the most developed.
The greatest threat to Islam comes from within. For a religion with a history of comparable tolerance, whose very name means peace, the refusal to even permit any form of critique displays nothing but an unreflective adherence to medieval norms of censorship. We cannot pander to the repugnant mindset of an Ayatollah who demands death in response to free expression. It is the same putrid intolerance that leads to ostensibly polite yet deeply misguided demands to ‘avoid causing unnecessary offence'. Offence is necessary. I have the right to offend you and you have the right to offend me. We must all do our upmost to keep it that way.
Michael Campbell is a first-year philosopher at Caius