'Too often, universities are giving in to the demands ..

December 14, 2007

'Too often, universities are giving in to the demands of religious lobbies, at the expense of precious principles'. The naming of furry animals, as T.S. Eliot reminds us in Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats , is a difficult matter, not just one of your holiday games. Now that Gillian Gibbons is back home after her Sudan adventure, she's probably pondering those very perils, perhaps wishing she'd had a chance to rename her furry Muhammad, as the children's author Kes Gray has managed to do. He's just halted the reprint of his book Who's Poorly Too? so that his mole, Mohammed, can be recast as Morgan. He thought it might be safer that way, even though the story has sold 40,000 copies since 1999 with no complaints.

This sensitivity reminds me of a baffling incident last year when one of our fine art students created an installation in the main internal causeway running through the Harrow campus. Modelled on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, it was entitled Street of Shame . In his version, the stars engraved on paving stones commemorated world dictators who had been funded by the CIA.

The week it appeared the Saddam Hussein star was vandalised. The perpetrator was captured in the act on CCTV and hauled before a disciplinary committee. Hunched, hooded and angry he said that the piece was sacrilegious: "It dissed my religion," he explained, claiming that Saddam Hussein was the name of the Prophet Muhammad's grandfather, and he wasn't having anyone showing disrespect by walking over it.

The student felt entitled to desecrate the piece because it offended him. Indeed, he thought the university should not have allowed it in the first place. When it was explained to him that to ban a work because it might cause offence was censorship, he remained unmoved. Because it dissed his religion. It abused a sacred name.

The incident threw into sharp relief the age-old conflict between competing human rights. Our university requires respect for religion and for religious beliefs. It also enshrines the right of freedom of expression. And in this case the two collided, just as they did when it was discovered that fundamentalist Muslim male students were harassing women for wearing brightly coloured hijabs instead of black ones. The men were asserting their devoutness but flouting another university value: women's rights.

All too often it's religion that contradicts democratic principles. All the major religions have traditionally been opposed to equal rights for women; fundamentalist Christians, Jews and Muslims regard homosexuality as a heinous sin; blasphemy remains a crime in flagrant opposition to freedom of speech; it is the unelected bishops in the House of Lords who manage repeatedly to overturn proposals for allowing assisted suicide despite the strength of popular and political support. And the Christian lobby in the US has managed to replace sex education in schools with abstinence education, favouring protection from information above debate and knowledge.

And yet in public life and public institutions, religious sensibilities are routinely privileged. A recent government survey revealed that a number of schools are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons to avoid offending some Muslim pupils. The report said teachers feared confronting "anti-Semitic sentiment and Holocaust denial among some Muslim pupils". Some teachers were worried that Muslim students would express anti-Semitic sentiments, while others were "unwilling to challenge highly contentious or charged versions of history in which pupils are steeped at home, in their community or in a place of worship".

Meanwhile, some Muslim medical students are refusing to attend lectures or answer exam questions on alcohol-related or sexually transmitted diseases because they claim it offends their religious beliefs. It's not simply that their faith forbids them to treat such conditions, but that they won't even contemplate learning about them.

The choice of ignorance over information, silence rather than argument, is anathema to democracy, but even more so to education. That was the substance of Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell's courageous defence of freedom of speech recently, when he supported the Oxford Union's decision to allow the British National Party's Nick Griffin and historian David Irving a platform. "Unless everyone involved in higher education is prepared to stand up for free speech, even when we disagree profoundly with what is being said, then we risk losing the right to speak freely," he said.

And that right is being eroded, stealthily, by the sinister exercise of self-censorship. Too often, universities are giving in to the demands of religious lobbies, even at the expense of other precious principles, because they are frightened - of conflict, of the reprisals of controversy, of being dubbed racist or intolerant.

That creeping cowardice is what the universities, as the shrines of unfettered inquiry, tolerance and academic freedom, have a duty to oppose. Just as Kes Gray really should think twice about his mole and his ineffable, effable, effanineffable, deep and inscrutable singular Name.

Sally Feldman is dean of the School of Media, Arts and Design, Westminster University.

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