Those pesky Jesus and Mo cartoons: the wishy-washy liberal defence

By LSS member Sadikur Rahman *

Those cartoons just won’t go away, and for good reason.

They have almost become a barometer of either how far we have come in defending freedom of speech or more accurately how much further we have yet to go, especially in dealing with Muslim groups who seem to take so much offence so easily. It’s also a lesson for those illiberal liberals who feel uncomfortable in defending free speech, as demonstrated by the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg’s woolly-mouthed defence of his party’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, Maajid Nawaz. It wasn’t nearly as strong as it should have been.

Maajid Nawaz was incredibly brave in posting the cartoon in a tweet. He must have known that he would get into a lot of trouble and risk his safety. Who are these people who organised and signed a petition of 20,000 people in such quick time? I suspect a lot of gullible people have been told to believe they should be offended, whether in fact they were or not. It seems that every time something critical is said of Islam a very organised campaign quickly springs into action.

No-one should be afraid of posting these pictures. Unfortunately, we all do censor ourselves in many ways when it comes to Islam. Not because we are afraid of causing offence as Nick Clegg and others seem to think we are, or we should be, but for fear of the violent threats and other repercussions. It’s important to recognise this distinction, because it lies at the heart of this debate.

Most people, especially politicians, don’t ordinarily worry about causing offence; after all they are there to make unpleasant choices and decisions that lots of people will disagree with. Similarly, artists don’t generally worry about causing offence, since their art is more important than the reaction to it. Often they deliberately set out to offend. But they will stop themselves if they fear for their safety. In fact most reasonable people will censor themselves because they don’t want to be hurt. This is the real danger here. Real anger should be directed at those who threaten physical harm to someone just because of something they have said or tweeted, rather than ask people to be “culturally sensitive”. If the reaction by the politicians and media is always one of “don’t cause offence and you won’t be threatened”, then that is a crushing defeat for free speech. Those making the threats will be emboldened and strengthened knowing that they have been successful in stifling free speech, and they will feel that the establishment also supports their stance.

For me, all this goes back to the way politicians and the media reacted to the Satanic Verses controversy back in 1989. It was then that mistakes were made in not confronting forcefully enough those who wanted the book banned, and who instead blamed Salman Rushdie for having written the book. It’s always better to nip a problem in the bud before it gets too big. I like to think that had politicians and the media been more supportive of Salman Rushdie then, and insisted that books/words/pictures/art cannot be banned just because it causes offence, we would not be in the untenable situation we are in today. The groups and people who protested against Rushdie were at the time in their infancy and had not developed the power base and tactics they now use. But because of the weak reaction they were met with, they gained strength from our failure to defend basic freedom of speech, which means they have now become powerful reactionary forces in the UK.

The only way to defeat this is to carry on publishing these cartoons and make those who get offended realise that nothing will come of their threats and protests. Hopefully, after a while they will stop and get a life. I fully support the LSS position that we should defend freedom of speech with no “buts”.

* Sadikur Rahman was an LSS member from May 2013 to Jul 2015

Views expressed are not necessarily those of the LSS

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