CAIRO - An atheist group in University College London has sparked uproar after publishing a cartoon depicting Jesus and Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) on a webpage.
"[We have] a duty to foster and encourage freedom of expression among our members, ensure diversity of our membership is recognized and pursue equal opportunities for our members," the unversity's student union said, The Guardian reported on Friday, January 13.
UCLU aims to foster good relations between different groups of students and create a safe environment where all students can benefit from societies regardless of their religious or other beliefs, it added.
Problems started when The University College London's Atheist, Secularist and Humanist society published a cartoon depicting prophets Jesus and Muhammad.
The atheist society used the title page from a comic book, Jesus and Mo, by a pseudonymous British cartoonist called Mohammed Jones, to advertise a Facebook social event.
Following complaints from students, the student union advised that it would be "prudent" to take the cartoon down.
The society refused, launching an online petition to "defend freedom of expression at University College London" and criticizing "attempts to censor" the society.
By Thursday morning the petition had nearly 3,000 signatures, including secularist Richard Dawkins.
It also received support from the British Humanist Association, the National Secular Society, the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies and the New Humanist magazine.
Facing resistance, a spokesman for the student union said the request to remove the cartoon remained in place, but that decisions regarding advertising for events remained at the discretion of individual societies.
"Society presidents take responsibility for their own publicity, and it is not vetted by UCLU prior to distribution," the union said.
"They are provided with equality training prior to running a society, to help them understand the balance between freedom of expression and cultural sensitivity."
The atheist society took the move as a victory for their decision to keep the controversial cartoon, thanking the thousands of secularists who signed a petition in its support.
"University College London Union has recognized that mistakes were made and that the initial correspondence with our society was flawed, the society's president, Robbie Yellon, said in a statement on its Facebook page.
The union is to review its stance on such matters and has said that this will not happen again. They can no longer call on us to withdraw the image.
Though social groups inside the university are granted the freedom to advertise their events, the student union confirmed that the society could still face disciplinary action.
"If people continue to complain then we are going to follow normal procedure," James Skuse, the union's democracy and communications officer, told The Guardian.
He said disciplinary action, which could entail forced resignation of committee members, or disaffiliation from the union, was "one possibility out of many".
A spokesman for the union added that it was their duty to ensure students were not harassed because of their race, gender, religion or nationality.
The atheist society said it would resist any disciplinary action.
"Unfortunately, the union has considered the possibility that posting the image might have constituted an act of bullying, prejudice, harassment or discrimination," it said.
"We firmly believe in the protection of our fellow students through university and union policy; however we cannot accept such a suggestion."
The society's president, Robbie Yellon, added that the society could not be guilty of bullying or harassment.
As far as I, and the society, is concerned, that's an absolutely shocking accusation, Yellon said.
If it does happen we will face it and do everything in our power to fight it.
Over the past few years, the numbers of non-believers have been noticeably increasing in Europe and US.
A 2005 survey published in Encyclopedia Britannica put non-believers at about 11.9 percent of the world's population.
An official European Union survey recently said that 18 percent of the bloc's population do not believe in God.
The Washington Post reported in September that atheist movements were growing across Europe, lobbying hard for political clout and airtime.