On Monday evening, Newsnight convened a panel of Muslims to discuss a short film on the topic of "who speaks for Muslims", made by Quilliam Foundation's Maajid Nawaz. The panel included the journalist Mehdi Hasan and the Muslim commentator Mo Ansar and was chaired, (although arguably not much!) by Jeremy Paxman.
The film itself featured a number of voices which Nawaz argued were marginalised by the Muslim community and served to illustrate his point, on the backdrop of his tweet of a Jesus and Mo cartoon, that Muslims need to be more inclusive and attentive to minority voices.
So, what would I have added to the discussion if I had been present? Probably not much given its shambolic nature, but here are a few points I was hoping to make:
1) Was the cartoon Maajid tweeted offensive?
The simple answer is, yes, to many Muslims it was, for the simple reason that Islamic art, at least in its Sunni variant, traditionally prohibits pictorial representations of prophets. Even among Muslims who do represent prophets, the images are of the sacred variant - in other words, they are reverential, respectful. If you don't want to take my word for it, then just read on:
"Islamic visual arts are decorative, colourful, and, in the case of religious art, non-representational. The Koran regulated every detail of the lives of the Faithful but gave few precise rules for the arts apart from banning the production of cult images."
And yes, that's from The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms, that typically 'islamist' source.
Ah, but it wasn't Islamic art now was it, it was atheist "art"? Well you'd be right to point that out. The anonymous author of the Jesus and Mo series himself says:
"I think it's important to remind people of a religious persuasion who might be upset or offended by Jesus and Mo that it is not for them. They are not the intended audience, so to complain that they find it hurtful or offensive is irrelevant. Why are they looking at it?"
Why indeed! Hold on, they're looking at it because Maajid - the establishment's go to person on Muslim issues - tweeted it. When he says "as a Muslim, I did not feel threatened by it", what he's actually saying is "I, as a 'moderate Muslim', don't take offence, so neither should others", thus casting the insidious shadow of 'extremist' doubt over those who did feel offence.
Let's be clear - Maajid is entitled not to adhere to the predominant view among Muslims on the pictorial representation of prophets and the even more widespread view that intentionally deriding images of anyone's sacred symbols is offensive, but you can't feign naivety over people's upset. I mean, that's the actual point of the cartoons - to ridicule believers.
Maajid's defence is that he wants us all to become a little thicker skinned, to counter the 'blasphemy' culture and all that jazz which quite incidentally I'm sure, makes for enticing sound bites for potential funders. But given prior reactions to the posting of other religious 'satirical' cartoons - think Denmark 2005 - global protests - what exactly was the strategy here? Light the tinderbox and then reveal you are in possession of an ideological fire truck? I'm not sure how effective a tactic that truly is.
Violent reactions (of which on this occasion it should be pointed out, there were none) are unacceptable, but so surely is seeking to provoke them in order to prove a point. Meaningful change is the type of gradualist work undertaken by activists on the ground who seek to change mentalities with, not against the community.
Thankfully the reaction among British Muslims was meek to say the least. Well, if you consider over 22,000 signatures opposing Nawaz meek. Perhaps not meek then - maybe more like, moderate? Surely Maajid should be proud, Muslims, displeased with the behaviour of a prospective MP, started a petition (how civilised!) calling for an investigation by the Lib Dems into his behaviour. Judging by their response you'd think Britain's most 'obscurantist' Muslims might not actually be in need of mass surveillance and ideological re-alignment - they seem to have this democracy business pretty much figured out.
2) But why should the majority of the British public have to respect the religious eccentricities of Muslims?
Well ironically enough, Maajid's report was all about the importance of tolerance and respecting the voice of different minorities within the Muslim minority (gay, ex-muslim, feminist). Presumably that extends to minorities within a majority as well? Or it is only Muslims who should feel compelled to respect minorities in their midst?
No, that doesn't mean censorship, it means treading lightly around people's sacred symbols.
Are some people still going to be offended? Probably. Does that mean we shouldn't show images of the Prophet? No, it simply means those who use offensive images to further an extremist anti-religious agenda should be outed for their deliberate provocation, not heralded as martyrs of free speech.
The Jesus and Mo series existed long before Maajid decided to tweet about it. It became an issue because:
a) Maajid describes himself as Muslim so there was some expectation among Muslims that he would not deliberately trample all over Muslim sensibilities
b) while Muslims could and did ignore the Jesus and Mo series while it remained in a 'look if you want, don't if you don't' corner of the internet, they could no longer ignore it when one of the most prominent Muslim figures in the UK tweeted it and proclaimed the rest of us were loons for being upset by it. Cheers Maajid.
c) finally, although Maajid likes to reiterate the fact the particular cartoon he tweeted is fairly innocuous (and as far as religious satire goes, it is!), it is not a stand alone image. It is a part of a series intentionally created to mock, demean and belittle the faith of Christians and Muslims. Surprisingly - or not perhaps, many faithful interpret the images as they were intended. Don't take my word for it, here's the author of Jesus and Mo: "I have to admit that the potential offense of an imagined religious reader also adds an element of humor - of a childish, sniggering variety."
And while I'm here, there is something quite sinister about depicting Prophet Mohamed with a hooked nose and a uni brow - playing on Arab racial stereotypes? How hilarious.
3) Is this really all about cartoons? Actually no! The ever perceptive author of the Jesus and Mo cartoons himself responded on this issue by saying: "It shows that the whole business is not about the comic, but rather a personal attack on Maajid Nawaz".
A personal attack on Maajid? That sounds terrible. Why would people want to personally attack Maajid. Well, despite his gleaming reputation as the bulwark against the hoard of barbarians (or the modern variant, the "islamists"), many within the Muslim community regard the Quilliam Foundation (QF) and Maajid in particular with some suspicion.
For one thing, an oft-repeated critique is that he has retained the Manichean outlook developed during his time in the radical group Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Maajid has a nasty little habit of smearing his critiques as 'islamists' and suggesting all those who object to the QF's undertakings are closet Al Qaida groupies. Needless to say this has irked quite a few people. Not least those individuals his organisation flagged up as allegedly sharing the ideology of terrorists in a secret memo to the Home Office. The list included the terrifying anti-war campaigner Salma Yaqoob.
And that's not all people are angered about. QF has consistently advised the government in a manner which has increased surveillance and suspicion of Muslims despite very little evidence to suggest their 'conveyor belt' theory is actually in any way credible. According to the author and Guardian journalist Dr Nafeez Ahmed:
"Government advisers, counter-extremism officials, and (current and former) civil servants confirm that the UK government's counter-terrorism strategy is failing to tackle the danger of violent extremism; rather, it is exacerbating the threat of domestic terrorism. These officials attribute the failure to a "fundamentally flawed" approach to counter-terrorism strategy inspired by a UK anti-extremism think tank, the Quilliam Foundation."
On the contrary, there is evidence to suggest QF's work is not merely flawed but negatively impacting our ability to actually tackle terrorism.
To realise just how flawed, take the example of STREET, a south London organisation engaging alienated young Muslims which was listed as 'extremist' by the QF in 2010. One counter radicalization expert has said that if STREET had been operational today "the Woolwich incident could have been averted."
A recent Demos report shows that although many Muslims share similar concerns over the plight of occupied or war-stricken peoples, they do not condone the tactics used by terrorists. Placing such individuals on the same risk list as those who believe in the use of violence is frankly a gross mischaracterisation of people's outlook and a huge waste of government time and energy on individuals who do not actually pose a threat. But don't take my word for it. One former senior OSCT director responsible for Prevent has gone on record saying. "I and other counter-terrorism experts were telling the coalition cabinet that non-violent extremism is not a factor in the real threat."
People's antagonism towards Maajid isn't actually about him being the alleged beacon of liberal tolerance, in an ocean of hate-filled bigotry, as he and his minions like to claim. Muslims don't dislike Maajid because he supports gay rights or free speech. They might disagree with him on issues, but the visceral reaction he engenders has little to do with his personal outlook and everything to do with his think tank's extremely poor engagement with the community it ought to be supporting in eradicating violent elements which, Gallup polls indicate, worry Muslims even more than they worry the broader public.
And the list of grievances wouldn't be complete if I failed to mention Maajid's new BFF, Tommy (not really ex-EDL) Robinson - having tried his hand at reforming Islamic extremists, Maajid extended his skills to the far-right, establishing a working relationship with the most extreme face of islamophobic rhetoric in the UK. Having smugly announced that Tommy was reformed (wow, that was quick!), Tommy almost immediately slipped back into his old habits, joining the murky network of islamophobes the "SION Presidents Council" (that's the catchy "Stop Islamization of Nations" to you and me) alongside the anti-Muslim propagandists Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller who just this summer, the home secretary had banned from entering the UK.
If this wasn't enough to ruffle a few feathers, in Monday's film, his linking of Muslim feminists to ex-Muslims as different examples of "progressive" voices within the community has done a huge disservice to Muslim feminists who struggle as it is to be recognised as speaking from within. Now we're being put in the same boat as those who campaign against the faith! How helpful is that to our efforts at working for gender equality within our community.
In the film, Namazie from the Council of ex-Muslims, claimed that emphasising Islam as one's main or only identity was "part and parcel of the effort to hand them over to the islamists" which sounds like a conspiracy if I ever heard one. And why would it be problematic for people to define themselves first and foremost as "Muslim"? A poll of Muslim Londoners by Gallup found that while most (69%) strongly identified with their faith, a majority (57%) also strongly identified with their country and that Muslim Londoners are just as likely as the British public overall to condemn terrorist attacks on civilians. Why are islamophobes like Namazie being given a platform to espouse erroneous and stigmatising nonsense under the guise of, according to Maajid's introduction, giving a voice to an "increasing number of Muslims using their faith identity to advance a progressive agenda." What is progressive exactly about stigmatising those who identify first and foremost with their religious identity as somehow 'extreme'? By that token surely the Pope, Dalai Lama and Chief Rabbi are all 'extremists'!
Are there issues of intolerance within the Muslim community? Certainly there are. Do I think the Council of ex-Muslims are part of the solution. I should hope it is fairly obvious that they can't be. Unless your proposed solution, which presumably is theirs, is a mass exodus from the faith.
Far more insulting than any tweet is the inclusion of the ex-council of Muslims as part of a package on progressive Muslims.
The Muslim community is far from perfect, but our misrepresentation as squabbling men who need reforming through those who have themselves rejected the faith is palpably absurd. Who speaks for Muslims? How about the myriad Muslims doing the hard graft on the ground.
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