On Wednesday 3rd October 2012, Reading University Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society was excluded from the Reading University Freshers' Fayre for displaying a pineapple with a label reading "Mohammed". We have since been informed that disciplinary action will be taken against us. Below are the statements we have released on the matter.
Today, the Reading University Atheist, Humanist, and Secularist Society (RAHS) participated in the Freshers' Fayre organised by Reading University Students' Union (RUSU).
We spent several hours talking to other students and visitors, promoting the society and encouraging people to attend our forthcoming discussion on the topic "Should we respect religion?" Among the material displayed on our stall was a pineapple. We labelled this pineapple "Mohammed", to encourage discussion about blasphemy, religion, and liberty, as well as to celebrate the fact that we live in a country in which free speech is protected, and where it is lawful to call a pineapple by whatever name one chooses.
Towards the end of the afternoon, we were informed by a member of RUSU staff that there had been complaints about the pineapple, despite the fact that no complaints had been made at any point to anybody on the stall. Our commitment to freedom of expression meant that we refused to remove the pineapple from our stall. After a few minutes, we were told by another member of RUSU staff that "Either the pineapple goes, or you do", whereupon they seized the pineapple and tried to leave. However, the pineapple was swiftly returned, and shortly was displayed again, with the name Mohammed changed to that of Jesus.
Shortly afterwards, the second RUSU staff member returned and ordered RAHS to leave the Freshers' Fayre. At this point, a group of around five students, some of whom self-identified as Muslim, approached the stall and began to criticise us, asking and telling us to remove the pineapple. Though these students mainly engaged in discussion, one removed the label from the pineapple without our permission.
As the RUSU staff member merely raised his voice and shouted at the RAHS president when he attempted to explain our position, we were ultimately forced to leave the venue. However, several other societies at the Fayre offered to continue distributing our leaflets, and we continued to hand out leaflets outside the venue until we were again asked to leave by RUSU staff members, this time accompanied by RUSU security staff.
The RAHS believes in freedom of expression. Our intent in displaying a pineapple labelled "Mohammed" was to draw attention to cases where religion has been used to limit this and other fundamental rights, such as the imprisonment of Gillian Gibbons. We did not expect to be forced out of the Freshers' Fayre because of a pineapple, and we are disappointed that RUSU took this action.
The RAHS invites anyone who is interested to attend our Think & Drink event on the topic of "Should we respect religion?" at 14:00 on Tuesday 16th October at Mojos, Student Union Bar.
In the wake of the Reading University Atheist, Humanist, and Secularist Society (RAHS) being expelled from the Freshers' Fayre run by Reading University Student Union (RUSU) last Wednesday, we believe it is important to explain our reasons for displaying a pineapple labelled "Mohammed" on our stall, and for resisting demands from RUSU to censor our display, which culminated in our expulsion from the Fayre.
In preparing our display at the Freshers' Fayre, we wanted to showcase to potential members the aims and principles of our society. To this end we carried literature on various issues of concern to us, such as the separation of church and state, the existence of faith schools, and religious opposition to LGBTQ rights.
We also chose to display a pineapple, which we named "Mohammed", and which carried a label showing this name. In doing so, we deliberately chose to draw allegories to cases where the name and image of the founder of Islam have caused controversy around the world. These include the case of Gillian Gibbons, who was imprisoned in Sudan in 2007 for naming a teddy bear Muhammad, the firebombing of the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo in response to a cover depicting the Islamic prophet, and the events earlier this year when student atheist, secularist and humanist societies at UCL and LSE were challenged by their respective students' unions for publishing "Jesus and Mo" cartoons.
In making the decision to display a pineapple, we anticipated thought, discussion, and debate on the subject, but did not anticipate ejection from the event, or the publicity which that ejection has caused.
In choosing this name for our pineapple, we sought to celebrate the fact that we live in a country in which free speech is protected, and where it is lawful to call a pineapple by whatever name one chooses. Our aims included promoting discussion about blasphemy, in the context of recent proposals for UN action against blasphemy, as well as highlighting previous cases such as that of Gillian Gibbons. This both expressed our position and promoted our forthcoming event, a Think & Drink session where we plan to discuss the topic of "Should we respect religion?"
The Reading University Atheist, Humanist, and Secularist Society is committed to "promoting, both on campus and elsewhere, free-thought … and all pertinent political activism." By publicly making a satirical comment on the topical issue of portrayals of the Islamic prophet Mohammed, in a manner which we knew would invite comment, discussion, and even criticism, we chose to take an active stance in favour of freedom of expression and free-thought.
We are opposed to the creation or implementation of blasphemy laws in the UK or internationally, and we wish to challenge the assumption that religious views are above criticism or ridicule. We chose to display a named pineapple because it is an object which is both inoffensive and surreal. We find it hard to believe that a tropical fruit can be found offensive by anyone, whatever it is called, and we felt that the use of surrealism in this situation was appropriate, as many religious viewpoints can seem surreal to those from outside the religion.
We were disappointed but unsurprised to hear that some members of the university community had objected to our display. It was never our intention to offend or upset anybody, but to prompt discussion and debate around issues which are important to us. The RAHS group strives to include everybody with an interest in discussing religion, atheism, humanism, and secularism, and believes in challenging religious privilege, regardless of the religion in question. We chose to name our pineapple Mohammed because of the topicality of this issue, and this was the sole reason for our choice of religious figure. We would like to affirm that the pineapple was in no way intended to be a representation of the founder of Islam, a figure revered by many people worldwide, but was intended simply to share his name.
When we were asked to remove the pineapple, we faced a choice between maintaining our commitment to freedom of expression, or allowing the contents of our display to be censored to accommodate a handful of religious students. We respect the freedom of all members of the university community to believe what they will, and to practice their religion or lack of it as they will, and we likewise expect our own freedom to be respected.
We are disappointed that RUSU asked us to leave the Freshers' Fayre because of alleged complaints from students. None of our members who had been staffing the stall had received any complaints about the pineapple until after RUSU asked us to leave, and we do not believe that these complaints merited either the removal of the pineapple from our display, or our society from the event. The RAHS would like to clarify that we did not physically resist the confiscation of the pineapple, and that it was returned to us peacefully on request soon afterwards.
The Freshers' Fayre is an annual event organised by RUSU to allow sports groups and societies on campus the ability to promote themselves and their activities to new and old students. In displaying the pineapple, we sought to promote our belief, as secularists, that the religious views of one group should not be imposed on others. We wanted to show new members that secular activism can be done publicly, and to demonstrate the supposed right to freedom of expression in the UK. We also wished to take the opportunity of a large audience to encourage as many people as possible to enter into thought, debate and discussion on the issue.
In ejecting us from the Freshers' Fayre on the grounds of causing offence, RUSU allowed the religious views of some students to override the rights that we all share. RUSU's actions, which attempted to silence our voice and place limits on discussion and debate, fail to fully recognise the fundamental human right to freedom of expression.
The RAHS once again invites anyone who is interested to attend our Think & Drink event on the topic of "Should we respect religion?" at 14:00 on Tuesday 16th October at Mojos, Student Union Bar.
We are grateful to those groups present at the Fayre who volunteered to continue passing out RAHS leaflets after we were removed. We would also like to express our gratitude for the messages of support we have received from around the world over the past week.
We continue to believe that it is absurd that our freedom to choose a name for a pineapple was restricted in this way.