The Blog

It's Time to Stick Our Necks Out for Maajid Nawaz and Freedom of Speech

Almost every day, among my friends, on the streets or tubes, or on television, I hear someone take the name of Jesus Christ in vain, turning his name into a swear word. I don't like it. I'd rather they didn't do it. But do I threaten to cut their heads off, or even stage an angry demonstration or organise a petition? Of course not.

I am not a Liberal Democrat. I am a Conservative. And I'm not a Muslim. I'm a Christian. But if I were a resident of Hampstead and Kilburn, I would have a serious dilemma. I might - just might - consider voting Liberal Democrat in that constituency, for the first and probably only time in my life. There are moments when one has to put principles, values and country before party and creed. Standing up for our beliefs in response to the hounding of Maajid Nawaz may be one such moment.

I don't live in Hampstead and Kilburn, so I don't have to make that choice. But I do have a choice as to whether to stay out of this row, or to speak up. I choose to speak up.

Let's be clear about a few key points.

First, I understand that depicting the prophet Mohammed is forbidden in Islam and that such depictions are offensive to Muslims.

Second, as far as I can see at no point did Maajid promote or endorse the cartoon.

Third, all of us see and hear things almost every day which could be insulting or offensive to us.

And fourth, the cartoon itself, even though it includes a depiction of a character called 'Mo' which one assumes to be the prophet, is a completely innocuous illustration. Unlike some cartoons, which have been gratuitously offensive, this one could, arguably, be seen to be promoting inter-religious dialogue. Jesus says "Hi" to Mo. Mo replies: "How you doin'?" I think it's good that they're talking to each other in such a friendly way.

Furthermore, and I can't think of another occasion when I have said this, for once I agree with Richard Dawkins, who tweeted: "If you find a cartoon offensive, you're free to refrain from looking at it."

Maajid tweeted the cartoon, saying that as a Muslim he did not feel threatened by the cartoon. This was in response to a televised audience debate on the BBC, in which a Muslim woman said she felt threatened by two atheists wearing T-shirts with the cartoon.

In response, a group of Islamists, including some who call themselves Liberal Democrats, have organised a petition calling for Maajid's deselection as Lib Dem candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn. Just how they define the words 'liberal' and 'democracy' is a question they need to answer. Worse, some senior figures in the party were seen to give this nonsense the time of day. There was talk of meetings with the leadership to discuss the issue. Furthermore, Maajid has faced death threats, including calls for his beheading, and warnings that all Islamic nations will be informed. Maajid's organisation, the counter-extremism think tank Quilliam Foundation, works in Pakistan, for example, and one can only presume the dangers for their staff will have now increased.

Some have blamed Maajid for putting his life and those of others in danger, by tweeting the cartoon. But this is absurd, warped, Orwellian double-speak. It is those who have made the threats who are endangering others.

I do not believe one should go around gratuitously offending other religions. And, where people are genuinely 'threatened', we have legislation to protect them. Incitement to violence is, rightly, criminal. There are debates to be had about 'hate speech' and the extent to which it can be defined and the law can be applied, and some good thinking is available in the UN's Rabat Plan of Action, and we must all work to counter hate speech. But this cartoon falls into neither category.

Almost every day, among my friends, on the streets or tubes, or on television, I hear someone take the name of Jesus Christ in vain, turning his name into a swear word. I don't like it. I'd rather they didn't do it. But do I threaten to cut their heads off, or even stage an angry demonstration or organise a petition? Of course not.

Sometimes even worse things are said, or done, or shown on television, which are offensive. The most a Christian would do is write a letter to the Daily Telegraph, and most of us don't even bother with that.

And sometimes, harmless jokes are told. Make a joke about a Catholic, and people laugh. Make a joke about an evangelical Christian, and people will laugh. Christians have a rich variety of jokes about themselves.

Furthermore, if we're taking things literally, Christians could be offended by Muslims' depiction of Jesus as a teacher and prophet, for we believe he is more than that and that he is the Son of God. But we don't impose our beliefs on others, and we respect the right of others to depict Jesus in the way they understand him. So why should a group of extremist Muslims hold us all to ransom over a harmless cartoon?

The BBC refused to show the cartoon. Channel 4 blacked out the cartoon. Why? Fear.

This has to stop. We have to stand up and be counted. A good start would be to read, and share widely, Maajid's courageous article in the Guardian today, and Nick Cohen's excellent piece at the weekend.

I just have a very simple view. I believe in freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all. Where Muslims are being persecuted, discriminated or massacred, as they are in Burma, I'll speak for them. Where Muslim sects whom some other Muslims don't like, such as the Ahmadiyya or Shia, are persecuted, as they are in Indonesia or Pakistan, I'll speak for them. When Christians are being persecuted or slaughtered, as they are in much of the world, I'll speak for them. When an atheist is jailed, as has happened to my friend Alex Aan in Indonesia, I'll speak for him. When Buddhists, Bahais or others face discrimination, I'll speak for them. When a Muslim chooses to say that a cartoon of Jesus and Mohammed isn't offensive, and faces death threats as a result, I'll speak for him. Simple.

I've been reading recently about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Corrie Ten Boom and Fr Maximilian Kolbe, Christians who stood up against Hitler in different ways, protected Jews, and paid the ultimate price for freedom: imprisonment, and in the case of Bonhoeffer and Kolbe, death. Fr Kolbe offered himself in place of a Jew who was due to be executed.

If these threats against Maajid Nawaz are real, we ought to stand with him in the way Bonhoeffer, Ten Boom and Kolbe stood with the Jews against the Nazis. Perhaps we should even consider offering ourselves in his place, as Fr Kolbe did. To say to the extremists, if you want a head, take mine, not his. To say to them that freedom of conscience and expression is too important for us to stay silent. To say to them that freedom of conscience is worth paying the ultimate price. At the very least, politicians and public figures should speak out, loud and clear, not necessarily offering their heads literally, but being willing to pay the political cost for truth and freedom. It's time to put our necks on the line for what we believe.

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