Church-state separation heroine Jessica Ahlquist.
This past January and February were a very busy time for theocratic enemies of free speech, thought, and inquiry.
On January 11, U.S. District Judge Ronald Lagueux ruled a school prayer mural on the wall of a Cranston, Rhode Island, public high school unconstitutional. The suit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Jessica Ahlquist, now a junior at Cranston High School West. As soon as the ruling hit the news, Ahlquist became the object of a torrent of vicious abuse. On Facebook and Twitter, classmates and strangers called her names, and in the newspapers and on talk radio, adults did the same thing.
Here is a small sample of the abuse on Twitter that I collected:
• “May that little, evil teenage girl and that judge BURN IN HELL.”
• “How does it feel to be the most hated person in RI right now? Your a puke and a disgrace to the human race.”
• “shes not human shes garbage”
• “Jessica Ahlquist may have won her case, but she’s going straight to hell.”
• “your home address posted online i cant wait to hear about you getting curb stomped you fucking worthless cunt”
One could make an argument that the above is not about religion at all; it’s just high school bullying with religion as a pretext and righteousness pump. I suspect that’s partly true, but then the pretext and righteousness-pump are not incidental but crucial: people will let themselves do things, and forgive others doing things, in the name of religion that they would not otherwise. And anyway, the comments weren’t limited to social media and teenagers. Rhode Island State Representative Peter Palumbo, Democrat, went on a talk radio show to discuss the decision and called Ahlquist “an evil little thing.” Palumbo can’t very well use the hormone-crazed teenager excuse.
Also in January, Salman Rushdie withdrew from the Jaipur Literary Festival in India after police warned him of credible threats that paid assassins were on their way to Jaipur to kill him. Other Indian writers—Amitava Kumar, Hari Kunzru, Jeet Thayil, and Ruchir Joshi—read passages from Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses by way of protest, but then the police arrived and the festival organizers reluctantly shut the readings down. A few days later, as if to underline the point, the organizers of the Kolkata Book Fair canceled the release of a new memoir by Taslima Nasrin, aptly titled Exile.
Meanwhile in London, the University College London Atheist, Secularist, and Humanist Society (ASH) posted on the group’s Facebook page the cover of a book of collected Jesus and Mo cartoons, showing the eponymous heroes sitting at a bar drinking stout (or perhaps Coke in pint glasses). The picture was posted to advertise the group’s evening in the pub. Soon after the picture appeared, the UCL Student Union told ASH to remove the cartoon because there had been “complaints” about it. ASH reluctantly and provisionally complied, but it also launched a petition to defend free expression. The petition included this statement:
In response to complaints from a number of students, the University College London Union has insisted that the UCLU Atheist, Secularist & Humanist Society remove the following image from a Facebook event advertising a pub social. It has done so on the grounds that it may cause offence to Muslim students.
This is a gross infringement on its representatives’ right to freedom of expression taken by members of the first secular university in England. All people are free to be offended by any image they view. This does not give them the right to impose their beliefs on others by censoring such images.
A few days later ASH restored the cartoon and firmly told the Student Union it was there to stay.
The ASH Society at the London School of Economics published some Jesus and Mo cartoons on its own Facebook page and was duly rebuked by the LSE Student Union but in harsher terms, which included charges of racism and a threat of expulsion from the Union. The Union called an emergency meeting to vote on a measure against “Islamophobia,” at which the measure passed by a wide margin. ASH nevertheless refused to remove the cartoons from its Facebook page, and it has now filed a complaint against the Student Union over the accusation of racism. The complaint has not been resolved as of this writing.
At a third London university, Queen Mary, Anne-Marie Waters of the anti-sharia organization One Law for All was scheduled to give a talk on January 16 organized by the Atheist, Secularist, and Humanist Society on sharia and human rights. The meeting was canceled when a man went to the front of the room, took pictures of the audience, and threatened to kill anyone who “defamed the prophet.” (The meeting was rescheduled in March and drew more people than the first one. There was security present, and the meeting went off without a hitch.)
In February, a Saudi journalist and cartoonist wrote some tweets critical of the prophet Muhammad and received a torrent of angry responses. Alarmed, he left Saudi Arabia for New Zealand, but he stopped in Singapore first, where the authorities extradited him back to Saudi Arabia to be arrested and charged with blasphemy, for which he could face execution.
And yet, with all this, a Tory minister in David Cameron’s government, Sayeeda Warsi, felt able to write an article for the Telegraph in which she warned of “militant secularism.” She wrote the article on the eve of a trip to Rome to meet the pope and urge an alliance against this militant secularism. Warsi herself is not a Catholic but a Muslim. In her article she said:
My fear today is that a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies. We see it in any number of things: when signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings; when states won’t fund faith schools; and where religion is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere.
It seems astonishing to me that those who wrote the European Constitution made no mention of God or Christianity. When I denounced this tendency two days before the Holy Father’s State Visit in September 2010, saying that government should “do God”, I received countless messages of support. The overwhelming message was: “At last someone has said it.”
Where is the real militancy here? Is it in familiar secular rules that protect both nonbelievers and believers, particularly those of minority religions? Or is it in threats of violence or charges of racism against people sharing cartoons or appearing at literary festivals?
It seems to be a deeply rooted human urge to defend imaginary beings and sacred rules with escalating rage. On the other hand, the courage of the Jessica Ahlquists of the world make it possible to keep trying to do better.
Ophelia Benson is the editor of the website Butterflies and Wheels and the coauthor (with Jeremy Stangroom) of The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir, 2004); Why Truth Matters (Continuum, 2006); and Does God Hate Women? (Continuum, 2009).