On Campus

Universities shouldn’t censor satire of Islam

Sensitivity only reinforces stereotype of Muslims as violent

The Woroni (ABC)

An event that has become all too common in our benighted century is the suppressing of anti-Muslim sentiment over fears of retribution. Canadians will recall it happening, for instance, at the University of Prince Edward Island in 2006.

More recently, the Australian National University made international headlines, when the student newspaper there was barred from running a satirical graphic about Islam.

The Woroni had already skewered other religions, but when it got to Islam, university officials stepped in, saying that the piece might gain “traction” in social media and could spark violent protests. The university’s vice-Chancellor called the graphic “offensive and discriminatory” and hinted that the Koran should be off-limits because of “very unfortunate side effects.” Even Civil Liberties Australia defended the Uni. Crikey!

Reaction elsewhere, however, has been critical as one might imagine. That criticism has largely, and rightly, been along the following lines: universities should not censor free speech, particularly at a university, where students should be encouraged, not prevented, from thinking and expressing controversial ideas. Friendly Atheist called it “foul and yellow-bellied” (I wonder what the unfriendly atheist is like).

Besides, the kinds of people who would do violence over student satire are not the sort, regardless of their religious or political views, who will be peaceful in the absence of such satire. Fanatics can always find an event or perspective to justify a bomb or a bullet. And if no real slight can be found, one can always be imagined. Crazy people are good at that.

But there is another point—mentioned in passing by FA—that has received too little attention, and I would like to develop it here. Censoring anti-Islam messages is offensive to Muslims.

This sounds counter-intuitive, of course. Isn’t such censorship done out of respect for Muslims? No, not respect. Fear. Fear of violence. Fear of bad press (how’s that working for you now ANU?). Fear of—well, who knows, exactly, but fear in any case. And there’s the rub.

Refusing to allow a student paper to mock Islamic beliefs about women (or anything else) is to assume, first, that Muslims are incapable of taking criticism, or, God forbid, even laughing at themselves. Still, worse, it assumes that Muslims are violent extremists that will blow up any institution that dares offend. Of course, there are violent extremists out there, but as we have been told repeatedly and rightly, those are a small minority, and those small groups of crazies are bound to exist in any sufficiently large group.

In a strange way then, exempting Muslims from our normal satires of religion singles them out as being uniquely irrational and dangerous.

To this the reader may respond, “that’s all well and good for you, a white non-Muslim, to say. You don’t know what its like to have your deepest beliefs mocked and belittled.”

“Ah,” I respond, “but I do.”

My deep and abiding belief in the vital importance of the arts is as profound as any religious belief and it is routinely mocked. The arts are denigrated as useless, silly, or inapplicable to life.

Do such critiques hurt me? Sometimes. Do they offend me deeply? Sometimes they do. Do I need to be shielded from them? Never. Because I am a grown man and I can take it. Sometimes, if the critique is well done, I can even tip my cap and note that we humanities scholars have our failings too. And, what’s more, I can respond, defending my beliefs and my values against those who scorn them. That’s what intelligent, civilized men and women around the world have done for millennia.

We must presume that Muslims are just as civilized as anyone else.

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