The President of the UCLU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (ASHS), Robbie Yellon, has resigned over the controversy surrounding the “Jesus and Mo” cartoon published by the society.
Last month, UCLU ASHS published a cartoon on Facebook entitled “Jesus and Mo, Volume 2: Transubstantiated,” by pseudo-anonymous British cartoonist Mohammed Jones, to advertise their pub social.
The cartoon depicts Jesus and Mohammed at a bar, drinking beer and engaging in theological debate. They were subsequently requested by UCLU to take down the picture following complaints from students who found the cartoon offensive.
Robbie Yellon cited the stress of the controversy as the reason for his resignation, and announced Michael Thor, his former Vice-President, as his successor.
The ASHS had initially refused to take down the picture, claiming that it would violate their right to freedom of expression. The suggestion from UCLU also prompted the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies to start an online petition, which successfully gathered over 3500 signatures in an attempt to “Defend freedom of expression at University College London.”
The petition gathered high-profile attention, and notably the signature of Richard Dawkins. Dawkins commented that the cartoon “would offend only those seeking to be offended”, and pledged his support for the freedom of ASHS to use the image.
With regard to the online petition and the society’s initian intransigence, the author of Jesus & Mo told Pi Newspaper that “UCLASHS has won a very important victory. I don’t recall anyone since the Satanic Verses affair standing up so firmly and publicly against Islamic censorship. The phenomenon which Kenan Malik calls “the internalisation of the fatwa” has held sway since that time, with publishers and individuals all self-censoring for fear of causing offence.”
Concerns about the content of the cartoon were also voiced online, however. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Students Association released a statement in support of the UCLU’s request for the image to be removed, calling it an “outright insult”.
The statement read:
“Perhaps what is most shocking is that at an esteemed house of learning intelligent people, fully aware of the offence that such cartoons have caused in the past, consciously chose to post them… whilst we do not agree with the notion that causing offence to others should be a crime, we do believe that in order to produce a cohesive and harmonious society all people should observe not only tolerance of each others’ way of life, but should avoid making others feel insulted.”
The issue has been commented on by organisations and personal bloggers alike. Paul Sims, News Editor of the New Humanist magazine told Pi that “the events at UCL suggest that societies are under particular pressure to moderate and censor what they do in order to avoid causing offence to religious groups. As the row over the Jesus & Mo cartoons has shown, there are strong opinions on both sides of this issue, but it is something that should be debated, not sidestepped via censorship.”
At present it is unclear whether the society will face a disciplinary hearing, as positive relations seem to reestablished between ASHS and UCLU and the issue has been largely resolved.
A statement from UCLU has been released: “The atheist society has agreed they will take more consideration when drawing up publicity for future events. The society was asked to remove the image because UCLU aims to foster good relations between different groups of students and create a safe environment where all students can benefit from societies regardless of their religious or other beliefs.”
Michael Thor, the new president of UCLU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society, has also issued a final statement in response to media attention. He explained with regards to the scale of the controversy: “What makes a student society is the ability to be open, foster community and – most importantly – encourage critical debate. … By our publication of this image there was no intention to offend and I am sorry to hear that people took personal offence when viewing it.
“However, ‘offence’ was certainly inadequate grounds for the removal of the image to be requested by the UCL Union. Their policies need clarification to prevent this same situation from arising in the future. In the meantime, I am looking forward to maintaining the positive spirit and riveting discussion.”