In 2012, after interviewing 9,229 students about their experiences with religiously motivated hate crime in Higher Education (HE) and Further Education (FE), the National Union of Students (NUS) published the ‘No Place for Hate’ report.
In it they concluded that ‘hate incidents on the basis of prejudice against peoples’ religion or belief are relatively rare, affecting a small minority of the students’ surveyed. However, our findings show that these hate incidents are not exceptional occurrences, indicating that colleges, universities and students’ unions need to take action.’
‘Almost one fifth of hate incidents were thought to have an element of religious prejudice, making up 7 per cent of all bias and non-bias incidents reported in our survey. Respondents identifying as Jewish (30 per cent; 21), Muslim (16.6 per cent; 54) or Sikh (12.7 per cent; 8) reported considerably higher rates of incidents motivated by prejudice against their religion than students from other religious or belief groups.’
They made the ten following recommendations for FE & HE institutions to help develop a cross-sector strategy to tackle hate and prejudice experienced by students across the UK. They also suggested the recommendations could be used by other agencies, law enforcement practitioners and Student Unions.
1. Demonstrate a firm commitment to equality and diversity
2. Develop preventative and educational activity on prejudice and hate
3. Stop or mitigate against hate incidents
4. Establish multi-agency, joined-up approaches to tackling hate
5. Strengthen existing support services
6. Establish strong support networks (for victims and faith socities)
7. Encourage reporting of, and maintain systematic records on, hate incidents
8. Provide flexible options to report hate incidents
9. Promote greater confidence in reporting mechanisms
10. Provide clear guidance on the law
The gov.uk website defines a hate crime as ‘crimes committed against someone because of their disability, gender-identity, race, religion or belief, or sexual orientation’ [protected characteristics], including threatening behaviour, assault, robbery, damage to property, inciting others to commit hate crimes and harassment.
Discrimination based on these protected characteristics can include treating someone less favourably than others because of their gender, race, sexuality, disability, religion and so on. It can also be indirect too, such as putting rules or arrangements in place that apply to everyone, but that put someone with a protected characteristic at an unfair disadvantage. Discrimination also comes in the form of unwanted behaviour (harrassment) linked to these protected characteristics that violates someone’s dignity or creates an offensive or hostile environment for them.
In 2012 the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (ASHS) at University College London got caught up in a censorship row with the university’s student union (SU) for using a Jesus and Mo cartoon on a Facebook page advertising a weekly social event they were holding. Why? The SU had received a “number of complaints” that both the depiction of Muhammad and the fact that the image shows him with a drink that looks like beer were offensive. The issue was resolved a short time later with the SU agreeing that they can not ask the society to take down the image because, you know… censorship isn’t okay.
Later that year the Reading University Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society (RAHS) were forced to leave the Freshers Fair at the start of term because of the inclusion on their stall of a “blasphemous pineapple” named Mohammed. The point of the fruit was to promote their upcoming debate “Should we respect religion?” but they were intimidated into leaving by the SU and other students.
In 2013 Sabbatical Officers of the London School of Economics (LSE) intimidated students and members of the LSE Student Atheist and Humanist (ASH) society at a Fresher’s Fair because they wore t-shirts with comics from Jesus and Mo on them, which allegedly depict the religious figures of the prophet Muhammad and Jesus of Nazareth, and other students had made complaints.
(You should check out Jesus and Mo, by the way. The cartoons are wondering and make bold statements in such a admirably gentle way. These cartoons have a way of summarising in four panel what some of us can’t summarise at all.)
More recently, the South Bank Atheist Society (SBAS) fell foul of the same sort of censorship when members of the SU at London’s South Bank University (SBU) removed posters featuring the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Initially SABS were told the issue centred around the visibility of Adam’s genitals being offensive, but when society members offered to blur out the genitals, they were told the problem with the poster actually concerned religious offence. The issue was resolved recently and it became clear that the censorship was carried out by over-zealous and untrained staff.
It seems that perhaps HE and FE institutions, their agencies, and their Student Unions need further training about what does and does not constitute a hate crime so that they no longer treat people as though they are committing such offences when they are not. Either that or they’re being extremely over-zealous in stopping anything that has the potential to escalate into such from happening…. but at what cost?
Atheist and Secular student organisations have the same responsibility as other student organisations to ensure that they do not discriminate against other students based on protected characteristics, but holding and expressing different view points and opinions does not automatically become a form of discrimination. Free thought and free expression should not be censored simply because others are not willing to hear something they do not agree with, or something that challenges their own viewpoint.
SBAS president Cloe Ansari is quoted at politics.co.uk saying “I never expected to face such blatant censorship and fragile sensibilities at university, I thought this would be an institution where I could challenge beliefs and in turn be challenged. All I have seen is religious sensibilities trumping all other rights with no space for argument, challenge or reasoned debate. It is not what I expected when I came to university.”
This sums up this worryingly growing problem in a nutshell. Religious sensibilities are being made a priority ahead of the right of every student to freely express themselves. Being offended doesn’t whisk up the right for the material that challenges you and your view to be removed at your demand, and yet Student Unions appear to be acting as though this is the case and it is bitterly disappointing.
During the research for the 2012 NUS report those who identified as non-religious or atheist reported that they adapt their behaviour to avoid discrimination, were worried about being victims of religious discrimination, and had experienced discrimination on the grounds of their religious beliefs just as those with a religious affiliation did.
It is right that educational institutions and organisations are aware of the possibility that the expression of differences of opinion and viewpoints focusing on religious beliefs could turn into discriminatory behaviour and hate crimes, but it is vital that the experiences of the non-religious are also included when developing codes-of-conduct, protocols and guidelines on what is and isn’t tolerable behaviour, and how to deal with discrimination and hate crimes when they occur. This doesn’t seem to be happening, and by not considering the experiences of non-religious students agencies and unions and demonstrating both direct and indirect intolerance of atheist and secular students and this needs to change. This is not acceptable and it never will be.