As those of you who follow me on Twitter (@GleamingRazor) will be aware the last few days have been rather eventful to say the least. I’ve become enmeshed in a more peaceful (no arson or killings reported as yet), localised version of the 2006 Danish cartoon controversy. Thus far for the most it’s been played out online on social media but as mainstream media outlets pick up on the story and with some Muslims planning to raise the issue in mosques at Friday prayers later this week it may well assume much greater proportions depending upon the response of local communities.
In brief the controversy centers upon the tweeting of an image from the online “Jesus and Mo” (@JandMo) comic series. 10 days ago Maajid Nawaz, the Liberal Democrat party parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn constituency decided to publish an image from the aforementioned series on his twitter account. The particular picture, eponymously titled “Jesus and Mo” , depicted the two Prophets (peace be upon them) as comical caricatures of themselves greeting the reader with “Hey” and “How ya doin’?” (presumably in some sort of comical American accent) respectively. The tweet contained a short comment from Mr Nawaz asserting that the image was not offensive and that God was above feeling threatened by it. Last week whilst browsing Mr Nawaz’s timeline I noticed the offending tweet and forwarded a screen shot of it on to a prominent northern based Muslim activist with a rapidly growing media profile. The rest as they say is history. The resulting ebullient debate has seen a hastily convened alliance of far-right sympathisers, ex-Muslims, athiests/humanists along with a few so-called ‘cultural Muslims’ mobilise in support of Mr Nawaz’s “right to free speech” against a growing number of Muslims expressing their distaste/disgust at the seemingly offensive and insensitive nature of Mr Nawaz’s act and his subsequent refusal to back down or apologise. An online petition launched four days ago, calling on the Liberal Democrat party to withdraw Maajid’s candidacy, has at the time of writing gathered some 16,000 signatures with a counter petition calling upon the party to come out in his support garnering less than 5,000. A handful of threatening tweets have been sent to Mr Nawaz as a result of this controversy with these being roundly condemned by activists on both sides although it would be remiss not to mention that Mr Nawaz has accused his lead antagonist of inciting his murder – a charge which the individual concerned strenuously denies.
I think the clearest way to expound my views on this controversy would be to list below the arguments of the pro-Nawaz camp (#TeamNawaz), individually deconstruct them before summarising the reasons why I believe the removal of Mr Nawaz as PPC for Hampstead and Kilburn is the right course of action and in the interests of good community relations. In summary the arguments in favour of Mr Nawaz’s actions and his continuance as a PPC for the Lib Dems are:
(i) The image is not offensive.
(ii) Any sanction against him wound be a curtailment of his right to free speech and an imposition of Shariah law by stealth.
(iii) Muslims need to stop being offended.
Mr Nawaz has repeatedly asserted that the image is not offensive. Well needless to say many, many Muslims would beg to differ and the reasons are manifold. First off Sunni Islam forbids ANY depiction of the Prophets (peace be upon them). Whilst Shi’ism permits it they are only ever drawn in a manner befitting their status as revered messengers of God. The obvious purpose of depicting them in the comical manner of “Jesus and Mo” is to vitiate that very same aura of respect and to reduce them to objects of laughter and ridicule. Furthermore Mr Nawaz’s offending tweet contained a link to the infamous comic series’ author; even a brief perusal of said publication quickly dispels any doubt as to it’s purpose and should the opinion of an “Islamist” not be good enough in this respect then I refer you to perhaps the best description of its contents emanating as it does from the Council of Ex-Muslims (assuming the comments on the site are authentic): “Blaspheming, heretical, filthy Hell fodder.” Coming from someone raised in a Muslim household and who spent 14 years engaged in Islamic activism the idea that he couldn’t anticipate the widespread offense disseminating such an image (along with a link to the twitter account of the associated comic series’ author) could cause is incredulous. Whether he personally thinks it is inoffensive is largely irrelevant; the point is that someone who is running for public office must be seen to be receptive and sensitive to the views and sentiments of all segments of the community they seek to represent. Recently we witnessed the suspension by UKIP of one of their councillors who publically opined that the flooding witnessed in some parts of the UK over the past month was the result of divine displeasure over the legalisation of gay marriage. One wonders as to where the public outpouring of support was for Councillor David Silvester from the same liberals (with a lower case ‘l’) currently expressing outrage over the campaign to deselect Mr Nawaz.
The case of the UKIP councillor conveniently provides a bridge to the next argument in the #TeamNawaz arsenal and one which is frequently employed in right wing circles namely that Muslims are attempting to impose and enforce their values and religious laws upon Britain. The reality is that even if this were the case there would still be nothing to worry about as it is not just British law that provides for freedom of speech and expression but also European human rights legislation. These rights are regarded as sacrosanct and non-negotiable by every Member of Parliament across the entire political spectrum as well as by the overwhelming majority of British society. Whether 5% of the population (and I doubt it’s even that) would prefer blasphemy against Islam and the publication of sacrilegious images banned by law is neither here nor there but does provide some with a useful smokescreen with which to obfuscate the real issue – the unseemly conduct of a prospective member of parliament. The law of the land is made by Parliament and as such there is precious little chance of Shariah law being introduced any time soon – no matter how loud the clamour from a tiny subset of the Muslim community (itself only 5% of the entire population). Muslims as a whole are not calling for the curtailment of freedom of speech – even though many of us do not agree with the concept in an unrestricted sense – rather we are calling for those who would seek to represent us to conduct themselves in manner that engenders confidence in them and their political agenda. Again returning to the case of the unfortunate Mr Silvester it is worth noting that UKIP party leader Nigel Farage stated that the reason for his suspension was not his “strong Baptist view of the world” which he was entitled to but rather his defiance of a request not to give further media interviews. In other words while he respected his right to a viewpoint that millions might find offensive if he was going to represent the political party then he’d best advised to keep it to himself and not seek confrontation.
Lastly I turn my attention to the call for Muslims to stop being offended. For the sake of brevity I will restrict myself to saying that in a free society – which Britain is supposed to be – one is free to take offense as per their individual or collective inclination. It is not for anybody else to dictate or force upon another what he/she should or should not take offense at. Sure, Muslims as a collective do tend to take their religion more seriously than other religious groups but then that is perfectly acceptable in a pluralistic society. The handful of Muslims (and it is a handful) who go beyond peaceful discourse are duly dealt with by the police and the courts in the same manner as those small numbers from far right groups, animal rights group etc. are dealt with. The idea that the majority should force or coerce a minority to adopt their beliefs and mores runs contrary to the principles of the liberal secular state. So yes, while I do take offense at the image in question the reasons I want to see Mr Nawaz’s removal as a PPC go beyond the posting of a solitary picture.
So why should Mr Nawaz be deselected? For two reasons (I won’t be including his questionable dress sense). Firstly it doesn’t behove someone seeking election to public office to conduct themselves such a brash, provocative manner and it would be disastrous for community cohesion if politicians were allowed to engage in such execrable behaviour without oversight and with a sense of impunity. His conduct with respect to this affair has been less than exemplary and in the wider context of his Quilliam organisation’s attempts to dictate an agenda of Islamic reform upon the Muslim community the idea of having such a character in the nation’s legislature with direct access to the corridors of power is a prospect that many Muslims would find unsettling if not terrifying.
When Mr Nawaz originally tweeted the offending image it’s telling to note that he didn’t state (at least not initially at any rate) it’s supposed inoffensiveness was his personal opinion rather he stated it categorically as if it were a matter of received fact with no room for question or debate. When some Muslims – most of whom were not scimitar waving paid up members of Al Qaeda – decided to question him upon his provocative behaviour instead of constructively engaging with them his response was to tell people to “get the F off my timeline”, phraseology he employed repeatedly. As the controversy heightened and news of it spread he decided to elucidate his views on the matter in a series of short points entitled “A liberal Muslim’s response to fundamentalist attempts at censorship”. These aforementioned actions perfectly encapsulate the problem with Mr Nawaz and his Quilliam foundation; the mindset of “I will dictate to you what is acceptable Islam and what isn’t and should you happen to disagree then you’re a fundamentalist/extremist/Islamist” – with all the ramification such a categorisation entails.
Imagine the obloquy Mr Nawaz would have faced if he’d told, say a Labour MP, who disagreed with any given statement on his timeline to “get the F” off of it? Would that be regarded by any as acceptable behaviour from someone seeking election? If you are a public figure, an aspirant MP and the head of an organisation seeking to “inspire change” do you not think it reasonable that people have a right to view your Twitter timeline and robustly challenge your views? Do we not expect public officials to conduct themselves with a higher sense of decorum and civility or have standards been lowered to accommodate brown skinned “ex-extremists” who happen to be promoting a government approved version of Islam?
It is also worth noting that the vast majority of support being expressed for Mr Nawaz on social media via the #TeamNawaz hashtag emanates from atheists, far-right sympathisers and ex-Muslims – now that’s not to say that they aren’t entitled to their view – but you can understand the apprehension that many Muslims might feel about political parties touting a man with a self-declared agenda to reform Islam who seems to have the approval and backing of such factions?
As a so-called “Islamist” I actually don’t care much who is elected as MP for Hampstead and Kilburn constituency or any other constituency for that matter at least in respect of which party they happen to represent (possibly with the exception of the BNP). What does concern me is that the people who make the laws in this land, the laws that I am forced to abide by upon pain of prosecution, do not have an agenda of confrontation and provocation towards those of us who seek to live our lives according to orthodox Islamic norms and values. The rhetoric and behaviour of Mr Nawaz and his Quilliam foundation has been far from reassuring in that respect these past few years. From secret reports demonising mainstream Muslim groups and individuals, constant broadsides and invectives against prominent Muslim personalities and anyone else daring to disagree with their “reformed” version of Islam, cosying up to far right extremists who incessantly spout their bile and hatred towards Islam and the Muslim community and most recently suggesting that Muslim parents should be forbidden from circumcising their babies. Naturally all of this has caused a great deal of consternation and angst amongst a community already feeling demonised due to the actions of a tiny (and it really is a tiny) minority.
Most British Muslims – and that includes us “Islamists” – desire peaceful co-existence with all the other communities that comprise the rich mosaic that is 21st century (CE) Britain. Of course we reserve the right to speak out against the murderous foreign policies of successive governments – a sentiment that millions of non-Muslim British citizens share with us – as is our right under the law. Naturally we will disagree with many aspects of secular, liberal culture – including the right to mock and denigrate the Prophets of God (peace be upon them) – and where we disagree we will make our opinions known albeit in a peaceful manner. To do otherwise in the context of modern day Britain would be counterproductive and ultimately futile. What we ask from those who hold power in this nation is not to attempt to force their secular liberalist belief system upon us. The antics of Mr Nawaz and his Quilliam foundation far from promoting peace and cohesion are only serving to further alienate those Muslims most in need of guidance, both spiritually and worldly, and in doing so aiding the cause of the actual extremists – both Muslim and non-Muslim – who actively work to sow discord between communities and promote violent confrontation on our streets. For this reason and those I have cited above I urge Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrat leadership to act decisively and remove Mr Nawaz as their PPC for Hampstead and Kilburn.
Stop Press: Since I started writing this it has come to my attention that Mr Nawaz has “apologised” for any “inadvertent offence” he may have caused. The sneering tone of his “apology” could hardly be more obvious and I won’t dignify it with any other comment than that.