Students at a UK university have responded to claims that they “offended” the Muslim prophet Mohammed by naming a pineapple after him at a freshers’ fair.
The students who placed the exhibit there say in a statement that it was to encourage discussion about blasphemy.
This didn’t stop them from being given the ultimatum: either the pineapple goes or you do.
They took the latter option, and quit the Freshers’ Fayre at the University of Reading.
One of the British papers that broke the story last week was the Daily Mail, which says: “The Reading University Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society (RAHS) said they wanted to celebrate free speech and promote their upcoming debate ‘Should we respect religion?’”
Students’ Union staff said the exhibit was causing “upset and distress” to Muslim students. They were told to remove the pineapple.
“RAHS refused,” says the Mail, “citing that they had labelled the pineapple after the Islamic prophet to ‘encourage discussion about blasphemy, religion, and liberty’.”
However, the RAHS is defending its actions in a detailed statement on Facebook.
“We spent several hours talking to other students and visitors, promoting the society and encouraging people to attend our forthcoming discussion on the topic ‘Should we respect religion?’,” the statement says.
“Among the material displayed on our stall was a pineapple. We labelled this pineapple ‘Mohammed’, to encourage discussion about blasphemy, religion, and liberty, as well as to celebrate the fact that we live in a country in which free speech is protected, and where it is lawful to call a pineapple by whatever name one chooses.”
The atheist students say that, towards the end of the day, a member of Reading University Students’ Union (RUSU) staff said there had been complaints about the pineapple. Yet no complaints had been made to anyone on the stall, say RAHS.
The statement continues:
Our commitment to freedom of expression meant that we refused to remove the pineapple from our stall. After a few minutes, we were told by another member of RUSU staff that “Either the pineapple goes, or you do”, whereupon they seized the pineapple and tried to leave. However, the pineapple was swiftly returned, and shortly was displayed again, with the name Mohammed changed to that of Jesus.
Shortly afterwards, the second RUSU staff member returned and ordered RAHS to leave the Freshers’ Fayre. At this point, a group of around five students, some of whom self-identified as Muslim, approached the stall and began to criticise us, asking and telling us to remove the pineapple. Though these students mainly engaged in discussion, one removed the label from the pineapple without our permission.
As the RUSU staff member merely raised his voice and shouted at the RAHS president when he attempted to explain our position, we were ultimately forced to leave the venue. However, several other societies at the Fayre offered to continue distributing our leaflets, and we continued to hand out leaflets outside the venue until we were again asked to leave by RUSU staff members, this time accompanied by RUSU security staff.
The RAHS believes in freedom of expression. Our intent in displaying a pineapple labelled “Mohammed” was to draw attention to cases where religion has been used to limit this and other fundamental rights, such as the imprisonment of Gillian Gibbons [a British teacher who allowed her class of six-year-olds in a Sudanese school to name a teddy bear Mohammed; see video above]. We did not expect to be forced out of the Freshers’ Fayre because of a pineapple, and we are disappointed that RUSU took this action.
The RAHS invites anyone who is interested to attend our Think & Drink event on the topic of “Should we respect religion?” at 14:00 on Tuesday 16th October at Mojos, Student Union Bar.
The Daily Mail story quotes a blogger on the subject of student rights, who says the union was wrong to censor the atheists. “Extremes of free speech should be limited to ensure that they do not become hate speech,” says the blogger, Rupert Sutton.
“However, students do not have the right to impose their religious sensibilities on others and they must accept that they may be offended by those who do not share their convictions.
“Whilst this action by the RAHS may have been provocative, they should have every right to do it.
“Instead of closing down debate, Reading University Student Union (RUSU) should be encouraging students to interact with one another rather than pandering to the hurt feelings of the devout.”