Recently, InQuire published the news that the University of Kent Students’ Union threatened the UKIP society with dissolution if it followed through with its planned pub crawl.
The theme of the pub crawl was a celebration of the First Crusades, a historical campaign to protect the Byzantine Empire, and expel largely Muslim forces from the Holy Land. What is obvious is the odious choice of celebration, what is less obvious—and more odious—is the decision to threaten the society with closure.
In an email sent by the Union, it referenced the fact that the Muslim community on campus felt ‘discomfort and frustration’ in response to the event. One need not be Muslim to feel the discomfort of a group wishing to celebrate the military campaign instigated by the worst impulses of religion. In trying to defend the position the UKIP society treasurer stated, they were honouring the action of peasants leaving home to fight abroad. He fails to mention that the peasants were promised salvation if they were to die on behalf of the Pope over land in the Levant- not a very noble way to motivate poor and benighted peasants to war. However, if we are going to say we are an open tolerant and democratic university we need to uphold those values in the face of discomfort.
In respect of addressing ‘discomfort’, the Islamic society’s engagement of the religious holiday of Eid al-Adha could be taken as instance of an ‘uncomfortable and frustrating’ behaviour to me. Eid al-Adha is a religious holiday commemorating the willingness of a father to sacrifice his son at the command of God. Abraham in showing his devotion to God brought his son on top of a mountain in order to kill him under the divine instructions he heard. At the last minute he was prevented from committing filicide, and instead, slaughtered an animal. Not only does this holiday celebrate the inherent immorality of submission, even in acquiescence to something clearly heinous, but also the cruelty of animal sacrifice.
Also, it is not only the celebration of this biblical event but how it is celebrated that strengthens my opposition to it. As part of the annual celebration, there is a mandatory injunction to slaughter an animal in the name of Allah named Qurbani. Innocent and defenceless animals are killed in devotion to a God that requires it as a form of submission to him. The Islamic Society promotes charitable websites which include reserve funds for Qurbani within their charitable donations, so it is not only a matter of tacit acceptance but active support that is given by the society. This broaches some discomfort upon students like myself, but is also tolerated by those who don’t share the same views.
To take a secular example, infringements on the freedom of expression attack the core of what I believe and who I am, just as religious faith another might hold. In every moral standard and constituent principle of my character this offends me, but I open my convictions and opinions to scrutiny—and sometimes ridicule—of a free society. Otherwise, as Thomas Paine puts it, I become a prisoner of my own opinions by denying myself the means to change them. Humility sides with those who allow others to speak.
As part of our compact with fellow students and other societies, a simple principle would suffice to guarantee our respective rights. We may each engage in expressions of opinion with the expressed knowledge we may oppose or offend others by doing so, but allow others the same right in return. This is plain meaning of freedom of speech. This fundamental principle has been abandoned by Kent Union’s decision to intervene on the side of one society’s opinions over another. Faith within a secular society holds no more particular weight than does any political opinion and hence must be respected in equal measure. Therefore, to intervene on behalf of one society is either to show selective concern or to open the Union up to endless battles defending various societies.
Take a quick look at the UKIP society’s Facebook page and you will see a list of societies’ posts that they find offensive. Just in this year they have taken umbrage at the University of Kent Marxist Society for celebrating Che Guevara, and the Labour Society for celebrating the execution of Charles I. The Union of course did not intervene to uphold the right of the UKIP society to take offence by threatening the dissolution of the offending societies. A glaring inconsistency has now been revealed in its practice. Speech is no longer a freedom, but a license: or better still, a reserved right. Reserved for whom we can only wait and find out.
In the great panoply of diversity and tolerance that our University wishes to uphold, will the belief in the free interplay of ideas and expression of opinion be tolerated? If no, then our Union cannot be called tolerant, our rights cannot be called democratic, and our campus cannot be called diverse.