The editors of Clareification, the student humor magazine at Cambridge University’s Clare College (UK), struck a nerve recently with an issue devoted to religious satire. Indeed, the title they chose for their spoof, “Crucification,” has proved to be a sadly apt description of their own fate.
The magazine included a feature juxtaposing one of the notorious Mohammed cartoons from Denmark and a photo of the president of the Union of Clare Students. The editors appended two captions—“violent paedophile” and “prophet of God, great leader, and an example to us all”—without making clear which one referred to which image. Condemnation and open threats from outraged students and faculty rained down on the magazine’s staff, and one of the editors has gone into hiding for fear of reprisals.
Has Cambridge come to the defense of its beleaguered journalistic provocateurs? Not exactly. The university has cut off the magazine’s funding while mulling further disciplinary action. Worse, local law-enforcement authorities are considering prosecuting the students under Section 5 of the Public Order Act, which criminalizes causing “harassment, alarm, or distress.”
That this ferocious and unprecedented campaign has taken place at Cambridge, one of the world’s great universities, says much about the state of free speech in Britain today. One would think a country famed for it rationalist skepticism toward religion (still going strong in some cases) would be a safe intellectual home for such satirical work. But not all religions are equal in Britain today. Mocking Christianity or Judaism is tolerated, even encouraged; mocking Islam, by contrast, supposedly serves only to inspire racial animosity.
Whatever the personal and legal hardships they may suffer, the editors of Clareification have served a serious purpose with their satire. They have highlighted the special protection that Islam now enjoys in the nation that, more than any other, established the modern rights of public debate and criticism. As Melanie Philips documents in her excellent book, Londonistan, Islam is now virtually immune from critical scrutiny by Britain’s educated elite.
Cambridge University’s motto runs Hinc lucem et pocula sacra: “From here, light and sacred knowledge.” In Britain’s current climate, it would be a great blow on behalf of freedom to emphasize the former at the expense of the latter.