Op-Ed Collaboration: Why we need a radical AHS movement

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As members of AHS societies, we all have certain aims in common. At the heart of those is a commitment to humanism, a belief in a fairer world without religious privilege. Ideally, we’d live in a better world, where there would be no need for our societies to exist, and no need to act. But the reality is that, when we take a position against religious privilege, for free speech, or for a fairer world, we’re taking a position against the status quo, on our campuses, across the country, and globally. As atheists, secularist, and humanists, we must try to change our campuses, and the world, for the better.

When the AHS society at UCL used a cartoon of Jesus and Mohammed on their own facebook group, they met with censorship from campus authorities. [1] At Reading, we were forced out of our freshers’ fair for taking a pineapple-based stand for free speech, [2] and at LSE the society has faced similar censorship and restrictions over similar trivialities like supposedly offensive cartoons and t-shirts, [3] as well as being forbidden from adding ‘Ex-Muslim’ to its own name. [4] In all these cases, students have fought back against the erosion of our liberties, but this is not enough.

This recent Universities UK report, [5] which endorses binarist gender segregation on campuses whenever religious speakers demand it, goes one step further and actually establishes new forms of religious privilege. But what could justify pandering to misogynists like Hamza Tzortzis, whose events are often segregated by gender?

Our various encounters with Reading’s management last year were most illuminating, such as when one of our supposedly guilt-free oppressors admitted, much to our amazement, that the reason he was concerned by the Spectator’s article [6] on the ‘blasphemous pineapple’ was because articles like it might eventually reduce the university’s intake of international students. Finally, they provided a motive we could believe!

When higher education’s inaccessibility to the poor is continuously rising, and universities are trying to chase wealthy international students in an attempt to make more profit, is it any surprise that employers in the British university system see appealing to the latter as being more and more important? Rather than offend the assumed delicate sensibilities of those who are coming from hardline religious countries, they’ll sacrifice principles valuable in any place of education – such as freedom of expression.

When profit is one’s main concern, every thing else is considered in its light. Why stand up for human rights if it threatens the bottom line, and when most bystanders are wallowing in apathy? Far too often, important struggles are lost in this sea of apathy, and our campaigns receive little attention outside of our own social circles.

However, we should be aware that as AHS activists we can be guilty of ignoring other struggles too. Marketisation and privatisation affect our campuses in countless ways, and the rising cost of studying, the course closures and cuts that threaten our degrees, and the worsening pay and conditions for staff on campus are all symptoms of this dangerous trend.

The last fortnight has seen an upsurge in students and campus staff making their opposition to marketisation and privatisation known. Students at Birmingham occupied their university’s Senate Chambers, protesting against unaffordable student housing, calling for a living wage for university employees, and demanding transparency and accountability from university management. [7] A national strike on Tuesday saw university staff demanding wages that reflect the cost of living. [8]

The wave of occupations that followed, in around a dozen universities across the UK, shows the willingness of students to fight for a better world – although it was quickly met with violent evictions by university security staff and the police, [9] court injunctions to clamp down on protest, [1011] and arrests of peacefully protesting students. [12] The bail conditions imposed on protesters in London evoke the seventeenth century by prohibiting assembling “in a group fo [sic] four or more persons… in any public place” [13] – before they have even been charged or cautioned. The fact that campus authorities find it necessary to use such disproportionate force shows that when students work together we have power; protests like these are effective. If the baton is their only defence, then your arguments are winning.

This repression is the work of the same authorities that we, as AHS members, are in conflict with on campus, and it is our duty to oppose this repression and stand with those who are fighting under it. They have shown that they will censor us and now they have shown that they will assault us. We need to be visible, protesting as the atheists, humanists, and secularists that we are, to show that we are for a better world, not just against gods.

We cannot rely on universities to act in our best interests without radical action. Radical action means firmly expressing our beliefs, making sure that university management knows about them, and that we will not sacrifice them. If your university’s vice chancellor is a member of UUK (unless you’re in Ireland, they almost certainly are) then you and your society should write to them to make your opposition to gender segregation clear.

If that isn’t enough, then we’ll have to get even more radical. After the success of a vibrant national demonstration at the University of Sussex in March, the mere suggestion of a national demonstration in Birmingham a few months later caused the university to back down on a proposed restructure that threatened working conditions for staff. The effectiveness of radical action should be a lesson to us, and be an example of how to campaign. AHS activists in London have called a demonstration against gender segregation on Tuesday, [14] and there’ll be another demonstration on Wednesday against police violence on campuses. [15]

To be an atheist, a humanist, or a secularist may have little to do with party politics, but is politically significant nonetheless, and we should not be afraid to act on this.

Co-writers: Adam Goodkin & Tim Rouse