Belfast university Charlie Hebdo conference to go ahead despite concerns for reputation

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By Émer O’Toole, News Editor


Queen’s University in Belfast has said a conference to discuss the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders in France will now go ahead following a risk assessment.

When news of the cancellation broke last month, it was revealed that the University’s vice-chancellor, Patrick Johnston, cancelled the event last month because of the security risk and concerns for the university’s reputation.

This decision was significantly criticised by journalists’, poets, academics and intellectuals who were due to attend the conference in June.

However, on 1 May Queen’s said that following the completion of a risk assessment, the event would now take place as scheduled.

The University insisted the issue was not related to “academic freedom” when it announced that the risk assessment had been completed and the event would now go ahead.

A spokeswoman said: “Following the completion of a comprehensive risk assessment, undertaken in line with approved protocols, the university is pleased to confirm that the Charlie Hebdo Research Symposium, organised by the Institute for Collaborative Research in the Humanities, has been approved.”

Several Belfast-based writers claimed the university was worried about deterring prospective students and jeopardising potential investment from parts of the Islamic world, especially the oil-rich Gulf states.

Robert McLiam Wilson, a Paris-based, Belfast-born novelist who writes for Charlie Hebdo, said he was “delighted and pretty proud” that the university “have done the hardest thing there is to do, they changed their minds.”

The author of Ripley Bogle and Eureka Street, described the University’s decision to cancel last month as “not cowardice or surrender but part of one long defeat in an unfought war.”

McLiam Wilson has also written a television documentary on paramilitary punishment attacks in Belfast and recently recorded an essay for Radio 4 about his love for Paris in the aftermath of the attack by two gunmen on the Charlie Hebdo offices in January, in which 12 people were killed.

Max Silverman, professor of Modern French Studies at the University of Leeds, is due to speak at the event.

The academic, who had been critical of the original decision to cancel, welcomed the change of stance.

He said: “I am delighted that Queen’s has given the go-ahead to a symposium on the Charlie Hebdo affair in Paris.”

“It is important that events like this are discussed openly and also that universities maintain the principle of freedom of speech as far as possible.”

Nearly five months after the attack, Charlie Hebdo remains a source of controversy.

Last month, 26 writers including Joyce Carol Oates and Michael Ondaatje joined a protest against giving the magazine a freedom of expression award.

Novelist Salman Rushdie defended international writers’ organisation PEN for presenting its Free Expression Courage award to the French magazine and criticised writers who objected to it of racism.

“The Charlie Hebdo artists were executed in cold blood for drawing satirical cartoons, which is an entirely legitimate activity.

It is quite right that PEN should honour their sacrifice and condemn their murder.”

“This issue has nothing to do with an oppressed and disadvantaged minority. It has everything to do with the battle against fanatical Islam, which is highly organised, well-funded and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, into a cowed silence.”document.currentScript.parentNode.insertBefore(s, document.currentScript);