Free Speech, Offence, and Maajid Nawaz

Maajid Nawaz, the author of Radical and the Liberal Democrat Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, has been at the centre of a controversy this week, after he tweeted a image from the satirical Jesus and Mo cartoon series.  Maajid had been a guest on the BBC’s The Big Questions debate show, where the illustration had been discussed.  He made the point that as a liberal Muslim, he found nothing offensive about the cartoon.

Cue an angry social media backlash.  Many people tweeted their condemnations and threats over what they perceived as a blasphemy.

Having scrolled Maajid’s Twitter timeline to view some of the angry responses, I think it is worth noting that most of the responses appear to be from individuals, rather than anyone in a position of authority such as a religious or community leader.  Though I think one naysayer may be a Labour Party Councillor in Luton.

A petition has been posted on Change.org, demanding the Liberal Democrats strip Nawaz of his parliamentary candidacy.  It is incredibly ironic that members of an organisation that has liberalism at its core are seeking to stamp out a clear example of someone exercising their right to free expression.  In fact, it borders on the ridiculous.

The text that accompanies the petition vexes me a great deal.

3. Was is right that the play Behzti was cancelled due to the sensitivities in the Sikh community?

The person who launched the petition (the initianonymous ‘S A‘) cites the Behzti case approvingly. In his view, the fact that this play was rightly cancelled because it offended Sikh sensibilities.  Ergo, Muslim sensibilities should be taken into account, and Nawaz should be censured.

I take the opposing view:  During the Behzti affair, a socially conservative minority were able to shut down diverse voices from within their community by citing ‘offence’ and threatening violence.  That is precisely what is now happening to Maajid Nawaz.

This furore is a good example of people using ‘offence’ as a political weapon.  Maajid is a former Islamist radical but subsequently the founder of the Quilliam Foundation, which vociferously opposes militant Islam.  As such he has made many ideological enemies.  Its clear that in the current debate, old relgious dogmas are being cynically deployed to attack a political opponent.  Those who weild this weapon claim the mantel of piousness, but in fact they are diluting and demeaning their faith to score cheap political points.  Far right groups like the the BNP and EDL will point to this controversy as evidence that Muslims are uniformly intolerant and unenlightened.

Political selections, sanctions and resignations

I confess while blogging the above I accidentally signed the petition I was condemning!  It is an all-too-convenient one-click process.  So to mitigate this mistake, I sought out the counter-petition (InstaCounterSpeech FTW!) and signed that too.

However, now I am regretting both (virtual) signatures.  Both petitions call for the Liberal Democrat Party to bring disciplinary procedures against someone.  This is incredibly illiberal.  While Maajid Naawaz has a right to free expression, his political opponents enjoy that right too.  Liberal Democrat member Mohammed Shafiq may be utterly misguided in his campaign to have Naawaz de-selected, but at least availing himself of legitimate democratic processes.  Its wrong to call, as the counter-petition does, for disciplinary action to be brought against him.

The end result of my regrettable double-signature is that the Change.org algorithms think I am an enthusiast for this kind of parochial politics.  I’ve just been sent another petition, calling for UKIP Councillor David Sylvester to resign.  Mr Sylvester recently made the incoherent claim that homosexuality causes flooding!  However, I do not believe that his constituents need to demand his early resignation.  Surely the ballot box is the perfect opportunity to ensure that offensive people do not retain elected office.  Offended residents of Henley on Thames should campaign against David Sylvester at the next local election, using his words against him.  I do not doubt they will be successful in oustering him from his council seat.  In the same way, ‘SA’ and Mohammed Shafiq should campaign against Nawaz’s election in 2015, drawing voters’ attention to his offensive tweets.  Let the  residents of Hampstead & Kilburn decide Maajid’s political fate.

Update

On the Daily Telegraph blog, Tom Chivers says he won’t reproduce the Jesus and Mo cartoon because he desires a quiet life. I think that misses the point. It’s incredibly easy and trivial for white guys like Tom or me to republish pictures that might be blasphemous to Islam. We can do so with near impunity. It’s not controversial.

It bears repeating: The problem with ‘offence’ and ‘blasphemy’ is that it suppresses the dissenting voices from
within a community. Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti; Maajid Nawaz; Salman Rushdie, &ct. Minorities within minorities.

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