In support of Maajid Nawaz

J and MoThe LSS is very concerned about the reaction towards Maajid Nawaz after he tweeted a “Jesus and Mo” cartoon (the same cartoon on this post).

Nawaz is the Liberal Democrat Prospective Parliamentary Candidate (PPC) for Hampstead and Kilburn and the co-founder and chair of the anti-extremism think tank Quilliam Foundation.

Nawaz’s tweet followed the BBC’s Big Questions programme on 12 January 2014. Nawaz was a front row guest on the programme, as was LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian. Jesus and Mo cartoons were discussed and shown on the programme (you can watch the programme here).

Following Nawaz’s tweet Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadhan Foundation, Muslim commentator Mo Ansar and Bradford Respect MP George Galloway all condemned his action and there was a petition from “S A” calling on Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg to deselect him as PPC. The LSS is very grateful to Chris Moos of the LSE Students Union Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society for setting up a counter-petition in support of Nawaz here.

The LSS was particularly troubled by the language used by Mohammed Shafiq. Shafiq referred to Nawaz as “Gustake Rasool” which the LSS understands means “Defamer of Prophets”, a religious and legal charge punishable by a death sentence in Pakistan. Nawaz travels regularly to Pakistan and has family there. Shafiq also tweeted that “We will notify all muslim organisations in the UK of his despicable behaviour and also notify Islamic countries”. There have been a number of explicit death threats against Nawaz too (see here).

The Lib Dems have released the following statement:

“The Liberal Democrats are a party of respect, tolerance and individual liberty. We fundamentally believe in freedom of expression and as such defend Maajid’s right to express his views. But as a party we urge all candidates to be sensitive to cultural and religious feelings and to conduct debate without causing gratuitous or unnecessary offence.”

Following these events Nawaz has now issued the following statement:

“I have been inundated by the insult taken among some quarters by my lack of offence at a cartoon that I did not draw, and by others who are angry because they feel that I have been censored.

My view, that as a Muslim I was not offended by this cartoon, originally featured on a BBC programme without advanced knowledge that I would be shown the image. I then posted this to my social media in order to clarify my view, which was by now televised, that as a Muslim I was not offended.

But moderate language and a respect for others’ opinions is at the heart of both Liberalism and my understanding of what Prophet Muhammad (صلّى الله عليه وسلّم) teaches us. I wish to take this opportunity to re-assert that although I do not agree with those who have interpreted my comments in a way that I did not intend – and although I continue to hold to my belief in both Islam and freedom of speech – I respect the right of all those who have taken offence to express themselves peacefully.

I do regret if, in expressing my own views, I have caused inadvertent offence to any side in this debate.

In conclusion, I bid you all salam (peace) and request that we all allow ourselves to put this unfortunate incident behind us.”

Commenting, LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian said:

“The LSS fully supports Maajid’s right to tweet a Jesus and Mo cartoon and we feel no need to qualify that support with the word ‘but’.

“We stand with Maajid and we are dismayed at the reaction to such a harmless act, and in particular we are appalled at the explicit death threats against him.

“For the LSS the issue of offence is irrelevant to a discussion of free speech. The question here is whether someone has the right to post the cartoon. It’s an embarrassingly simple question deserving of an embarrassingly simple answer. The answer is ‘yes, because it does not infringe anyone else’s rights’. This is GCSE-level morality and human rights, if that.

“We haven’t had blasphemy laws in the UK since 2008 and we don’t miss them. We don’t want them back – not today, not tomorrow, not ever. And nor do we want an unwritten, de facto blasphemy law in its place. The LSS opposes all blasphemy laws anywhere in the world. Anyone who thinks freedom of expression should be limited on the grounds of offence or disagreement fails with flying colours to understand the function and importance of free speech, and consequently they also fail to understand the very essence of freedom itself.

“It’s not for Maajid to justify what he did; it’s for others to justify why he shouldn’t have done it. The burden of proof is squarely on their shoulders. So far the only ‘reason’ delivered up is that some people didn’t like the cartoon. The solution to that is mercifully simple: don’t look at it.

“Holding religious ideas to account and challenging them – no matter how sacred some people might consider those ideas – goes to the very heart of secularism. Once we accept that certain discussions are beyond limits on the basis some people might be ‘offended’, we open the door to limitless harm. We enter a chaotic marketplace where the only currencies are intimidation and fear. We enter a competition where the winning prize is how offended someone claims to be. We want to live in a democracy, not a madhouse.

“The LSS is also very disappointed at the apparent inability and unwillingness of the Lib Dems to support Maajid unequivocally on this, and instead to hedge their bets by referring to the need for ‘sensitivity to cultural and religious feelings’, however that is defined, and the need not to cause ‘gratuitous and unnecessary offence’, again, however that is defined. It’s not at all clear to the LSS why Maajid, who is a proud Muslim – or anyone else for that matter – should not tweet this cartoon.

“It is precisely this kind of invertebrate reluctance to challenge taboos or to defend free expression wholeheartedly and enthusiastically which emboldens those who seek to limit free expression and open inquiry, which discourages people from speaking honestly and openly, and which effectively blames people who suffer adverse consequences when merely exercising their fundamental, lawful rights. The Lib Dems’ puppy-eyed appeal for ‘sensitivity’ and the supposed need not to cause offence will sadly be to the detriment of other liberal and secular Muslims like Maajid who already face tremendous difficulties in speaking out and challenging ideas which are often seen as unchallengeable. It will also discourage many non-Muslims from speaking freely. This is all very damaging to the smooth running of a democracy whose population is composed of citizens of all faiths and none.

“We pass no judgement whatsoever on Maajid’s decision to apologise. That is his right. We simply observe that there is nothing for him to apologise for, that those who were offended by this cartoon had no legitimate grievance and ought to grow a thicker skin or look away rather than throw childish tantrums or seek his physical demise, and that Maajid’s apology, coming after days of sustained pressure and death threats, illustrates just how difficult it is to challenge religious ideas. The LSS thanks Maajid wholeheartedly for his defence of free expression. We recognise his courage in taking the discussion this far and for highlighting how free expression, and free conscience of the individual, is sadly often forced to play second fiddle to external religious demands.

“We urge anyone who values free expression – Muslim or non-Muslim, religious or non-religious – to show their support for Maajid by signing the petition, by tweeting with the hashtag #TeamNawaz, or in any other way they feel will be helpful.

We also hope the residents of Hampstead and Kilburn will realise just how lucky they are to have such a fine PPC who is something of an endangered species in the public arena today: someone who is willing in the face of intimidation to take a noble stand for free expression, which is the building block on which all other freedoms precariously rest – and that includes religious freedom.”

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