Free Speech Goes Down to Defeat Down Under

Student newspaper members at Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra have recently learned the hard way how various Muslims do not accept criticism and condemnation like adherents of other faiths. Amidst the ecumenical satire of ANU's Woroni, the outrage and disciplinary threats provoked by the school newspaper's mocking of Islam suggests that this faith shall enjoy a privileged position among all beliefs.

As the Woroni editors explained on the newspaper website on May 26, 2013, the "'Advice from Religion' infographic on the back page" of the year's Edition 5 from April 18 "caused a flurry of activity." This infographic mocking Islam "was the fifth in a series that satirized facets of different religions; chronologically, Catholicism, Scientology, Mormonism, and Judaism." Many readers "condemned the piece as insulting and offensive to Islam and to religion in general." The editors acknowledged being "accustomed to receiving heated feedback," but "in this instance the extent of interference" by university officials "was unprecedented."

The day after publication, ANU Chancellery members met with Woroni's entire editorial board to discuss a "formal complaint submitted by the International Students Department" (ISD). As the Chancellery later stated to Woroni, the Islamic infographic violated "University rules" and Australian Press Council (APC) principles. The Chancellery added that the "University has a large international footprint and is mindful of maintaining its reputation of providing a welcoming environment for a diverse student and academic population." Referencing the 2005 Danish Muhammad caricatures and September 15, 2012, Muslim protests against the Innocence of Muslims film in Sydney that turned violent, Chancellery officials expressed concern about ANU's reputation and security.

To Chancellery calls for an apology and the infographic's official retraction, Woroni reacted "in a similar manner" to past complaints. A published "apology" would follow "to any readers who felt victimized... stressing" the infographic's "satirical" intent. The subsequent April 19, 2013, Woroni public response expressed these sentiments and denied any intention "to make anybody feel uncomfortable."

Yet the Chancellery remained unappeased. Regular uploading of Edition 5 as a PDF to the Woroni website archive and Facebook pages prompted a second meeting with Woroni editors and the three infographic authors. The Chancellery therein warned that the continued presence online of the Edition 5 PDF would lead to disciplinary action under Section 3.1(b) of the ANU Discipline Rules condemning as "misconduct" behavior that "unreasonably hinders other persons in the pursuit of their studies in the University or in participation in the life of the University." These disciplinary measures, along with threats to Woroni's ANU student funding, prompted removal of the back page from the Edition 5 PDF.

As The Australian reported (subscription for original story required), the infographic at the origins of the controversy asked from a mockingly Islamic perspective "How should I value women?" The "answers referenced Aisha, the prophet Mohammed's nine-year-old wife, and described the 72 'houris' -- women depicted in the Koran as large-bosomed virgins who are a reward in paradise -- as a 'rape fantasy'." The Australian added that someone from ISD effectively told one of the authors, Jamie Freestone, that he did not "understand the seriousness of this. In Pakistan, people get shot for this kind of thing."

Yet, as the May 26 explanation indicated, Woroni "regularly features material that is challenging, and even at times confronting," befitting universities as "forums to critique ideas and beliefs." Edition 1's premiere backpage "Advice from Religion" infographic, for example, asks "I'm a man. Can I have sex with this person?" Sarcastic answers from "Catholicism" included molesting priests and lack of female consent. Edition 2 references various conspiracies and esoteric beliefs in presenting the answers of "Scientology" to "Should I be candid and tell the truth?" While Edition 3 only has its cover page uploaded, Edition 4 shows "Judaism" giving answers of "Exterminate them" (Old Testament) and "Segregate them and claim what's yours" (modern Israel) to the question "How should I treat other cultures?"

Nonetheless, pages 10-11 of Edition 6 posted on the Woroni Facebook page document the controversy the Islam infographic generated in reader letters. ISD President Muhammad Taufiq bin Suraidi bemoaned that the student-funded Woroni had not shown a "certain level of cultural sensitivity" amidst ANU's student body, a quarter of which is from abroad. Bin Suraidi promised, though, that the ISD would "work closely with the Woroni... such that an incident of this nature does not reoccur."

Nadiatul Akmal Mohd Radzman from the executive committee of ANU's Muslim Students Association (MSA) also took issue with Woroni. She, for example, contested various assertions of the infographic such as the "myth" of "72 virgins in Paradise," something controverted by Freestone in his adjacent letter with Koranic verses (55:56, 56:22, 78:33).Radzman called "making fun of others... bullying" and falsely equated Islamic beliefs as a "way of life, not just a religion" with ethnicities like Asians. "We have racial tolerance, why can't we have religious tolerance?" she mistakenly analogized. "There are many other funny things that you can make fun of," she superficially concluded, "like botox and iPhones."

In contrast, Freestone's Edition 6 letter, also published on his personal website, saw no "reason to have a special standard for established religions that we would never conscience for any secular group, political party or new religious movement," even though "it's highly unsettling and confronting for believers to have their faith mocked." In the future, though, Freestone will no longer make this principled stand for open debate at Woroni, for he described this letter as "my last contribution to Woroni." As the May 26 explanation noted, though, the evident "implications of these events for freedom of speech" will remain.