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What I Might Have Said If I Had Been on Newsnight...

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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.‎