Jesus and Mo: it’s time to pick a horse

J and MoBy LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian *

A few weeks ago I appeared on the BBC1 programme The Big Questions to discuss, well, a big question: “Should human rights always outweigh religious rights?” You can watch it on YouTube here.

I very much enjoyed the experience, and not just because of the limitless KitKats the production company generously laid on. What I haven’t found so enjoyable, though, is subsequent events.

On the programme were two friends of mine, Chris Moos and Abhishek Phadnis of the LSE Students Union Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society. They were on the programme because they had recently got into trouble with their university for the hideous crime of…wearing “Jesus and Mo” t-shirts at the LSE Freshers’ Fair in October of last year.

The LSS fully and unequivocally supported Chris and Abhishek and we condemned the LSE’s disgraceful reaction to such a harmless act (see here, here and here). I’m pleased to report that Chris and Abhishek did eventually receive something resembling an apology from the LSE but unfortunately this was only after my student friends had formally instructed a Matrix QC and Leigh Day solicitors to help them. You can read Chris and Abhishek’s joint statements about what happened at Freshers’ Fair here (day 1) and here (day 2); you can read Abhishek’s fantastic blog post about it here; and you can read their joint statement in response to what they see as LSE’s “half-apology” here.

The Big Questions showed the t-shirts Chris and Abhishek were wearing, though they didn’t show any close-ups. Sitting next to me on the programme was Maajid Nawaz, who is the Liberal Democrat prospective parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn and the co-founder and chair of the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank. Nawaz made it very clear on the programme that he, as a Muslim, had no objection to the t-shirts.

Shortly after the programme went out Nawaz tweeted a picture of one of the Jesus and Mo cartoons from the t-shirts – the same picture at the top of this blog post – saying:

“This Jesus & Mo @JandMo cartoon is not offensive&I’m sure God is greater than to feel threatened by it الله أكبر منه”.

And then things got crazy: there were death threats against Nawaz and a petition calling for his de-selection as a PPC.

So far, so bad.

Then things got crazier.

Last week two of our flagship news programmes, Channel 4 News and BBC’s Newsnight, in covering Nawaz’s plight, refused to show the cartoon he had tweeted. Displaying an inexplicable impatience to get into the Easter spirit in January, Channel 4 News decided to use what looked like a “black egg” to cover the image of Mohammed:

J and Mo.jpg censored

Newsnight didn’t even do that; they just avoided it completely. As the eccentric Christian blogger “Archbishop Cranmer” put it, this is how Newsnight depicted the cartoon:

Jesus and Mo BBC

In censoring themselves Channel 4 News and Newsnight not only failed in their task of reporting the news to their viewers – to enable their viewers to form their own opinion about the cartoon – but they also reinforced the very religious taboo that Nawaz had received death threats for challenging and which had landed Chris and Abhishek in hot water with the Libyan School of Economics – sorry, the London School of Economics. As Nawaz tweeted:

“Thank you @Channel4News you just pushed us liberal Muslims further into a ditch #LynchMobFreeZone #TeamNawaz”.

I am appalled at the treatment of Nawaz and I am appalled at the editorial decisions of Channel 4 News and Newsnight to censor the Jesus and Mo cartoon. Religious censorship is bad even on a good day, but when it prevents discussion of the actual news item at hand it becomes surreal.

It’s high time we all faced up to a very unsettling reality here: sharia law is alive and kicking in the United Kingdom in 2014, and so is its deadly blasphemy code. After Nawaz had tweeted the picture Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadhan Foundation referred to him as “Gustake Rasool”, which means “Defamer of Prophets”. This is 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”.

It’s tempting to think this is a difficult legal or moral conundrum. It isn’t. There are difficult legal and moral issues out there but this is not one of them. The question before us is very simple: do we have the right to depict Mohammed? It’s a simple question and so it deserves a simple answer. The answer is either yes or no. My answer is yes. If your answer is “yes, but”, then sorry that’s just not good enough. If you have to pause for thought before answering the question then you’ve probably already decided the answer is no.

“Oh but we have to be respectful because depiction of the prophet Mohammed is forbidden in Islam and so it’s offensive to Muslims”, I hear you say, clutching your dusty GCSE Religious Studies certificate proudly (I have an ‘A’ grade myself; it was one of my favourite subjects).

You’re wrong.

Point 1: there is a history within some strands of Islam of depicting Mohammed.

Point 2: all Muslims are individuals. Some of them will find a depiction of Mohammed offensive and some won’t. Why are you more concerned about the Muslims that want to enforce blasphemy codes rather than those challenging them, often at great risk? In choosing to instinctively sympathise with those seeking to enforce blasphemy codes you make it even harder for liberal and secular Muslims to rise up. As Nawaz says, you push them “further into a ditch.” You side with the oppressor rather than the victim. Think about that, carefully.

Point 3: notice how you just belittled all Muslims as unhinged individuals with hair-trigger tempers who cannot handle their ideas being challenged – in this case a picture of a man with a beard. Which other group of people would you treat like that? Is that showing “respect” towards Muslims? Or is it showing disrespect? Or is it possibly even de-humanising them?

Point 4: if someone is offended, so what? Do you know how offended some men (and women) were at the idea of women having the vote in this country? Do you know how offended some white people were at the idea of racial equality in the US and South Africa? Do you know how offended some Christians were at the Life of Brian and the work of the wonderfully irreverent late comedian Dave Allen (Allen also received death threats, incidentally)? Do you know how offended some religious people are at the idea of gay couples marrying? Challenging power always offends those who hold the power, or those who benefit from the power, that’s being challenged.

Point 5: this isn’t just about a cartoon, or Maajid Nawaz, or LSE students. It’s about our democracy asserting the vital principle that no idea is beyond challenge, criticism or even ridicule. Free speech and free expression are our safety mechanisms; without it there is no limit to harm.

Point 6: if you say we should censor these images out of “respect”, is that really the right word? Or when you say “respect” do you really mean “fear”? As I have said before, if you’re scared about something then for goodness sake just say you’re scared. There’s no shame in that whatsoever. But there is shame in saying you respect something when actually you don’t respect it, or when you’re scared of it.

You might be thinking to yourself, “Ok, so what can I do?” Well here’s the good news. The solution is simple. You just have to be honest when talking about religion, and in particular Islam. And when I say honest, I mean ruthlessly honest. If you find the enforcement of sharia law in the UK abhorrent, please say so. If you find the willingness of 18 out of 56 UK mosques to conduct child marriages abhorrent, please say so. If you find the al-Madinah school in Derby abhorrent, please say so. If you find gender segregation in UK universities abhorrent, please say so. And if you find the imposition of Islamic blasphemy codes by Channel 4 News and Newsnight abhorrent, please say so.

Don’t think you can straddle both sides of the Jesus and Mo argument, arguing in one breath how free speech and free expression are important but in another breath how we have to be “respectful” and not cause offence, like a Hollywood stuntman expertly riding two horses. At some point those horses will go their separate ways. Pick a horse now – while you still have something of a choice.

The events of the last few weeks have demonstrated something that secularists are only too aware of: the urgent need for absolute honesty when it comes to discussing religion. After we had finished filming The Big Questions a gentleman from the audience came up to speak to me. It’s fair to say we were on different sides of the debate. When I told him I was a secularist he remarked dismissively and mockingly, and almost salivating at his own quick wit, “well I suppose someone has to be”.

Yes, he’s bloody right.

Someone has to be.

You can sign a petition in support of Maajid Nawaz here.

Chris Moos and Abhishek Phadis have been jointly short-listed for the National Secular Society’s “Secularist of the Year” award. More details here.

* Charlie Klendjian was LSS Secretary and an LSS member from Oct 2012 to Aug 2015

Views expressed are not necessarily those of the LSS.

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