THE ANU should hang its head in shame. Students and staff have stood idly by while their own administrators have attacked their freedom of speech and expression.
They, like the chancellery, have buckled when threatened by religious bullies. And they have done so with barely a peep.
The facts of the case are simple. The student newspaper “Woroni” has been publishing a series of satires on various religions. They began with Catholicism then moved to Scientology, Mormonism, and Judaism. So far so good. Oh sure, there were some protests from devotees, but that was part of the process. However, then came Islam. And that’s when the ANU was put to the test.
Universities by their nature are concerned with the quest for the truth of the matter and religions – by their nature – claim to have discovered the answers already. The two modes of thought are in natural conflict and over the centuries the universities have gradually undermined the ignorance and fear that their adversary feeds upon. But there is still a long way to travel before either side can claim the final victory.
Each uses a range of rhetorical devices in the struggle and at the pointy end the religions demand censorship. And since reason – by its nature – is an ineffective weapon against faith, their opponents resort to humour, sarcasm and satire to highlight its absurdities. But not, apparently, when it comes to Islam, and certainly not at the ANU.
According to a statement from the “Woroni” editors, the university’s administrators last week threatened “all “Woroni” editors and all three authors of the piece” with academic misconduct that could lead to “exclusion from the university”. In the face of these threats the editors removed the offending material.
The vice-chancellor Ian Young told ABC radio: “There have been a number of cases internationally of satirical cartoons about the Koran which can have some very unfortunate side-effects… we felt that it actually breached the rules of the university in terms of students’ conduct.”
This is a tragedy. For it is an extremist and distorted form of Islam that today represents the greatest threat to peace. Indeed, our troops have been fighting its leaders in Afghanistan. Violence between Islamic sects is raging in Syria and Iraq. Our shores are beckoning an increasing number of refugees from Iran. Britain is convulsed with rage over Islamic extremist atrocities in its streets.
Clearly, censorship that has been imposed quite unashamedly since the fatwa on Salman Rushdie in 1989 is not helpful. It merely protects the purveyors of hate from exposure. It actually empowers them since it gives an official imprimatur to their eminently contestable beliefs. This is bad enough when the mass media bow their knee as happened when a Danish newspaper published a satirical cartoon. But it is outrageous when applied to a student newspaper in what purports to be a leader in the great quest to bring enlightenment to the dark corners of the human experience.
The faculty opted out. Perhaps they have forgotten the words of Edmund Burke, that graduate of Trinity College, Dublin: “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”