Belfast Telegraph

Queen's University Charlie Hebdo ban an affront to values it claims to hold dear

By Paul Connolly

Embarrassing, short-sighted, counter-productive. And of course deeply, deeply ironic. The decision by the Queen's University vice-chancellor Patrick Johnston to cancel a conference on the fallout from the Charlie Hebdo murders in France is, in my opinion, all of the above and much more.

It is also a telling insight into the risk-averse, conservative mindset that too often blights officialdom in Northern Ireland.

Mr Johnston says he cancelled the conference because of the security risk and concerns for QUB's reputation. He has, conversely, inflicted damage to the reputation of his university.

A university that shies away from sombre reflection on mass murder? An academic institution that recoils from discussing the most traumatic event in France for many years? A university that effectively bans an event with freedom of expression at its core?

It is a nonsense, an affront to the academic values the university proclaims to hold dear. What security risk?

Unless the participants have indicated they actually intended the display images of the prophet Mohammed - an extremely rare occurrence even in the UK - then there is no security risk at all.

It's another example of the risk-averse local mindset that holds Northern Ireland back. You see it all around you: the default secrecy from officialdom; the refusal to remove blatantly illegal paramilitary murals; the continued existence of peace walls 21 years after the IRA ceasefire; the lack of sympathy towards risk-takers in business; the refusal to properly promote mixed communities.

The symposium was called Understanding Charlie: New perspectives on contemporary citizenship after Charlie Hebdo. It had been due to be hosted by QUB's Institute for Collaborative Research in the Humanities.

It's the sort of thing that should be meat and drink to academics in our own, much-studied society. Indeed, Queen's has invested in initiatives like this in the past and likes to be regarded as having a presence in conflict resolution academia.

As recently as 2012, it created the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice with a brief to connect "the perspectives of all those who seek to contribute to conflict transformation and social justice - from the insights of world-leading researchers to the experience of practitioners, policy makers, politicians and activists".

In the absence of a compelling security reason, Prof Johnston's decision amounts to severe self-censorship. Irony was piled upon irony then, when it emerged self-censorship was one of the themes to be explored.

One attendee, Dr Brian Krug from Oxford, caught the arguments perfectly, noting it is "the responsibility of academia to respond to complex international conflicts in a constructive analytical way".

So, far from banning this event, Queen's should have been celebrating it. Mr Johnston should have turned up at the opening, with a proud welcome speech about how important it is that these matters are explored in a scholarly context.

Don't get me wrong: Mr Johnston is a great man, one of the finest achievers of his generation. Northern Ireland should be proud of his accomplishments to date.

He has, however, made a mistake with this decision. It's not too late to reverse it, and to remember and reflect upon the dead of Charlie Hebdo in the manner befitting an august academic institution that itself suffered terrorist incidents on campus on several occasions.

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