A meeting at the University of London had to be cancelled yesterday after threats of religious violence. The talk on ‘Sharia Law and Human Rights’ was organized by the Atheism, Secularism and Humanism Society at Queens College.
The President of the Society, describes what happened:
Five minutes before the talk was due to start a man burst into the room holding a camera phone and for some seconds stood filming the faces of all those in the room. He shouted “listen up all of you, I am recording this, I have your faces on film now, and I know where some of you live’”, at that moment he aggressively pushed the phone in someone’s face and then said “and if I hear that anything is said against the holy Prophet Mohammed, I will hunt you down.” He then left the room.
The same man then began filming the faces of Society members in the foyer and threatening to hunt them down if anything was said about Mohammed, he added that he knew where they lived and would murder them and their families. On leaving the building, he joined a large group of men, seemingly there to support him. We were told by security to stay in the Lecture Theatre for our own safety. On arriving back in the room I became aware that the doors that opened to the outside were still open and that people were still coming in. Several eye witnesses reported that when I was in the foyer a group of men came through the open doors, causing a disruption and making it clear that the room could not be secured. Unfortunately, the lack of security in the lecture theatre meant we and the audience had to leave and a Union representative informed the security that as students’ lives had been threatened there was no way that the talk could go ahead.
This event was supposed to be an opportunity for people of different religions and perspectives to debate, at a university that is supposed to be a beacon of free speech and debate. Only two complaints had been made to the Union prior to the event, and the majority of the Muslim students at the event were incredibly supportive of it going ahead. These threats were an aggressive assault on freedom of speech and the fact that they led to the cancellation of our talk was severely disappointing for all of the religious and non religious students in the room who wanted to engage in debate.
The police were contacted about the incident and the Society is waiting to hear how their investigation will proceed.
Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA) gave support to the society: “The attempted intimidation that this society has experienced is shocking. Free expression, the free exchange of ideas and free debate are hallmarks of an open society; violence and the threat of violence should never be allowed to compromise that, especially in our universities. We will work to support our affiliate society at Queen Mary’s and look forward to a speedy police investigation and resolution of this case.”
Jenny Bartle, president of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS), noted that, “More and more atheist, humanist and secular student societies are forming on campuses across the UK and we deserve the same levels of respect as any other community. Our members have as much right as anyone else to participate in the free inquiry, discussion and debate which should exist in universities. The threats our members have received are both troubling and repugnant and we reject all attempts to counter debate with violence. At the same time, we welcome the support from across faiths that many of our societies experience on campus to help us secure the freedom to have our say, just as we support them in having the freedom to have theirs.”