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

By Paul Connolly

Published 24/04/2015

Security officers escort released hostages after they stormed a kosher market to end a hostage situation, Paris, Friday, Jan. 9, 2015. Explosions and gunshots were heard as police forces stormed a kosher grocery in Paris where a gunman was holding at least five people hostage. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
Security officers escort released hostages after they stormed a kosher market to end a hostage situation, Paris, Friday, Jan. 9, 2015. Explosions and gunshots were heard as police forces stormed a kosher grocery in Paris where a gunman was holding at least five people hostage. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 09: People are led away from the scene as Police mobilize with reports of a hostage situation at Port de Vincennes on January 9, 2015 in Paris, France. According to reports at least five people have been taken hostage in a kosher deli in the Port de Vincennes area of Paris. A huge manhunt for the two suspected gunmen in Wednesday's deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine has entered its third day. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 09: Police are mobilized with reports of a hostage situation at Port de Vincennes on January 9, 2015 in Paris, France. According to reports at least five people have been taken hostage in a kosher deli in the Port de Vincennes area of Paris. A huge manhunt for the two suspected gunmen in Wednesday's deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine has entered its third day. (Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)
Said and Cherif Kouachi "are ready for martyrdom", police sources claim (Judicial Police of Paris/PA)
Police officers stop a car at a check point on January 9, 2015 outside Longpont, France. A huge manhunt for the two suspected gunmen in Wednesday's deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine has entered its third day. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
Ambulances arrive in Dammartin-en-Goele, northeast Paris, as part of an operation to seize two heavily armed suspects, Friday, Jan. 9, 2015. French security forces swarmed a small industrial town northeast of Paris Friday in an operation to capture a pair of heavily armed suspects in the deadly storming of a satirical newspaper. Shots were fired as the brothers stole a car in the early morning hours, said a French security official, who could not immediately confirm reports of hostages taken or deaths later in the day in the town of Dammartin-en-Goele, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of Paris. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)
Ambulances gather in the street outside the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo's office, in Paris, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Masked gunmen stormed the offices of a French satirical newspaper Wednesday, killing at least 11 people before escaping, police and a witness said. The weekly has previously drawn condemnation from Muslims. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 08: People lay flowers and candles at the Place de la Republique at midday in solidarity with victims of yesterday's terrorist attack on January 8, 2015 in Paris, France. Twelve people were killed including two police officers as two gunmen opened fire at the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo on January 7. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
An injured person is transported to an ambulance after a shooting, at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo's office, in Paris, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Masked gunmen stormed the offices of a French satirical newspaper Wednesday, killing at least 11 people before escaping, police and a witness said. The weekly has previously drawn condemnation from Muslims. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
Mourners hold signs depicting victim's eyes during a rally in support of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly newspaper that fell victim to an terrorist attack, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015, at Union Square in New York. French officials say 12 people were killed when masked gunmen stormed the Paris offices of the periodical that had caricatured the Prophet Muhammad. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Mourners gather during a rally in support of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly newspaper that fell victim to an terrorist attack, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015, at Union Square in New York. French officials say 12 people were killed when masked gunmen stormed the Paris offices of the periodical that had caricatured the Prophet Muhammad. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Mourners attend a rally in support of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly newspaper that fell victim to an terrorist attack, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015, at Union Square in New York. French officials say 12 people were killed when masked gunmen stormed the Paris offices of the periodical that had caricatured the Prophet Muhammad. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
A candle is lit near a paper with the written words "I am Charlie" in french at a vigil in front of the French Embassy following the terrorist attack in Paris on January 7, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. Twelve people were killed including two police officers as two gunmen opened fire at the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 07: A woman holds a candle during a gathering at the Place de la Republique (Republic square) in support of the victims after the terrorist attack earlier today on January 7, 2015 in Paris, France. Twelve people were killed including two police officers as two gunmen opened fire at the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. (Photo by Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 07: People hold pens aloft during a vigil in Trafalgar Square for victims of the terrorist attack in Paris on January 7, 2015 in London, United Kingdom. Twelve people were killed including two police officers as two gunmen opened fire at the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. (Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images)
Video footage appears to show two gunmen shooting a policeman on the footpath outside the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo
Stephane Charbonnier also known as Charb , the publishing director of the satyric weekly Charlie Hebdo, displays the front page of the newspaper as he poses for photographers in Paris. Masked gunmen shouting Allahu akbar! stormed the Paris offices of a satirical newspaper Wednesday Jan.7, 2015, killing 12 people including Charb, before escaping. It was France's deadliest terror attack in at least two decades. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)
Charlie Hebdo bloodbath: An injured person is evacuated outside the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo's office in Paris following a shooting at the French satirical newspaper. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
French soldiers patrols next to the Eiffel Tower after a shooting at a French satirical newspaper, in Paris, France, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. France reinforced security at houses of worship, stores, media offices and transportation after masked gunmen stormed the offices of a French satirical newspaper Wednesday, killing at least 11 people before escaping, police and a witness said. The weekly has previously drawn condemnation from Muslims. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
Forensic officers at the scene at a police station on Montrose Street in Clydebank, Scotland, where a woman apparently set herself on fire.
Screen grabbed image taken from Instagram of posts featuring #JeSuisCharlie as social media users showed their support for satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo following today's bloody attack in France.
People stand outside the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo's office after a shooting, in Paris, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Masked gunmen stormed the offices of a French satirical newspaper Wednesday, killing at least 11 people before escaping, police and a witness said. The weekly has previously drawn condemnation from Muslims. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
Police officers arrive at the scene after gunmen stormed a French newspaper, killing at least 12 peoplet, in Paris, France, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Masked gunmen stormed the offices of a French satirical newspaper Wednesday, killing at least 11 people before escaping, police and a witness said. The weekly has previously drawn condemnation from Muslims. (AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere)
A man lights a candle during a demonstration in solidarity with those killed in an attack at the Paris offices of the weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Kosovo capital Pristina, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Masked gunmen stormed the the satirical newspaper methodically killing at least 12 people Wednesday, including the editor, before escaping in a car. It was France's deadliest postwar terrorist attack. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)
Said Kouachi (left) and Cherif Kouachi, the two prime suspects in the Paris terror attack
The two gunmen brandishing assault rifles on a Paris street after their attack on the magazine offices
People gather at Union Square in reaction to the terrorist attack on French newspaper Charlie Hebdo on January 07, 2015 in New York City. Twelve people were killed, including two police officers, after gunmen opened fire at the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. (Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images)
People gather at Union Square in reaction to the terrorist attack on French newspaper Charlie Hebdo on January 07, 2015 in New York City. Twelve people were killed, including two police officers, after gunmen opened fire at the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. (Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images)
People hold a vigil at the Place de la Republique (Republic Square) for victims of the terrorist attack, on January 7, 2015 in Paris, France. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
People gather around candles and pens at the Place de la Republique (Republic square) in support of the victims after the terrorist attack earlier today on January 7, 2015 in Paris, France. (Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)
People hold up pens and posters reading 'I am Charlie' in French as they take part in a vigil of people, including many who were French, to show solidarity with those killed in an attack at the Paris offices of weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, in Trafalgar Square, London, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Masked gunmen stormed the Paris offices of a weekly newspaper that caricatured the Prophet Muhammad, methodically killing 12 people Wednesday, including the editor, before escaping in a car. It was France's deadliest postwar terrorist attack. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
A French soldier patrols at the Montparnasse railway station in Paris, France, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. France reinforced security at houses of worship, stores, media offices and transportation after masked gunmen stormed the offices of a French satirical newspaper Wednesday, killing at least 11 people before escaping, police and a witness said. The weekly has previously drawn condemnation from Muslims. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
French forensic experts and Police officers examine evidence outside the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo's office, in Paris, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Masked gunmen stormed the offices of a French satirical newspaper Wednesday, killing at least 12 people before escaping, police and a witness said. The weekly has previously drawn condemnation from Muslims. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
Forensic experts examine the car believed to have been used as the escape vehicle by gunmen who attacked the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo's office, in Paris, France, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Masked gunmen stormed the offices of a French satirical newspaper Wednesday, killing at least 11 people before escaping, police and a witness said. The weekly has previously drawn condemnation from Muslims. (AP Photo)
A bullet impact is seen in a window of a building next to the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo's office, in Paris, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Masked gunmen shouting "Allahu akbar!" stormed the Paris offices of a satirical newspaper Wednesday, killing at least 12 people, including the paper's editor, before escaping in a getaway car. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
People hug each other outside the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo's office, in Paris, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Masked gunmen stormed the offices of a French satirical newspaper Wednesday, killing at least 11 people before escaping, police and a witness said. The weekly has previously drawn condemnation from Muslims. (AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere)
French soldiers patrols at the Eiffel Tower after a shooting at a French satirical newspaper, in Paris, France, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. France reinforced security at houses of worship, stores, media offices and transportation after masked gunmen stormed the offices of a French satirical newspaper Wednesday, killing at least 11 people before escaping, police and a witness said. The weekly has previously drawn condemnation from Muslims. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
French President Francois Hollande, center, flanked with security forces gestures, as he arrives outside the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo's office, in Paris, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Masked gunmen stormed the offices of a French satirical newspaper Wednesday, killing at least 11 people before escaping, police and a witness said. The weekly has previously drawn condemnation from Muslims. (AP Photo/Remy De La Mauviniere)
PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 07: Signs saying 'Je suis Charlie' are held up as crowds gather at 'Place de la Republique' for a vigil following the terrorist attack earlier today on January 7, 2015 in Paris, France. Twelve people were killed, including two police officers, as two gunmen opened fire at the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. (Photo by Marc Piasecki/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 07: People hold signs saying 'Je suis Charlie' as crowds gather at 'Place de la Republique' for a vigil following the terrorist attack earlier today on January 7, 2015 in Paris, France. Twelve people were killed, including two police officers, as two gunmen opened fire at the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. (Photo by Marc Piasecki/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 07: People light candles on a Charlie Hebdo Magazine during a gathering of people showing their support for the victims of the terrorist attack at French magazine Charlie Hebdo, in front of the Consulate of France on January 7, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. Twelve people were killed, including two police officers, as two gunmen opened fire at the magazine offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 07: People hold pencils up during a gathering of people showing their support for the victims of the terrorist attack at French magazine Charlie Hebdo, in front of the Consulate of France on January 7, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. Twelve people were killed, including two police officers, as two gunmen opened fire at the magazine offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 07: People gather showing their support for the victims of the terrorist attack at French magazine Charlie Hebdo, in front of the Consulate of France on January 7, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. Twelve people were killed, including two police officers, as two gunmen opened fire at the magazine offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 07: Police officers evacuate dead bodies at the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Nicolas Appert street on January 7, 2015 in Paris, France. Armed gunmen stormed the offices leaving twelve dead, including two police officers, according to French officials. (Photo by Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 07: Ambulances and police officers gather in front of the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015 in Paris, France. Armed gunmen stormed the offices leaving twelve dead, including two police officers, according to French officials. (Photo by Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 07: Ambulances and police officers gather in front of the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015 in Paris, France. Armed gunmen stormed the offices leaving twelve dead, including two police officers, according to French officials. (Photo by Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 07: French Prime Minister Manuel Valls (C) arrives at the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015 in Paris, France. Armed gunmen stormed the offices leaving twelve dead, including two police officers, according to French officials. (Photo by Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 07: Ambulances and police officers gather in front of the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015 in Paris, France. Armed gunmen stormed the offices leaving twelve dead, including two police officers, according to French officials. (Photo by Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images)
French President Francois Hollande leaves the Elysee Palace after a shooting at a French satirical newspaper, in Paris, France, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Police official says 11 dead in shooting at French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
The scene in Paris, France, after ten people were shot dead in an attack at the offices of a French satirical magazine which angered some Muslims after publishing crude caricatures of Islam's Prophet Mohammed, according to reports. Pic Twitter/@Lestatmp

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.

Decision: Prof Patrick Johnston
Decision: Prof Patrick Johnston

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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