Religious Freedom Needs Free Speech

A t-shirt is not usually newsworthy. When it depicts The Prophet Mohammed saying "How ya doing?" from the Jesus and Mo cartoon it has legs. When the story has intrigue, personal rivalry, politics and religion thrown in it runs and runs.

A t-shirt is not usually newsworthy. When it depicts The Prophet Mohammed saying "How ya doing?" from the Jesus and Mo cartoon it has legs. When the story has intrigue, personal rivalry, politics and religion thrown in it runs and runs.

The Jesus and Mo t-shirt hit the news this autumn when two LSE students of the atheist, secular and humanist society wore them; they were ejected from the student fair where university societies try to attract new members. Their appeal against being marched out escorted by security was upheld with an apology given. Hurt sensibilities did not trump their freedom of speech, a no brainer conclusion to reach at a top English University which had to think about whether free debate should be tolerated on campus.

In this new year the same two students, Chris Moos and Abhishek Phadnis, appeared on BBC's The Big Question to discuss the t-shirts. Taking part was Maajid Nawaz of The Quilliam anti-extremist think tank who stated he personally felt as a Muslim the t-shirt did not offend him or challenge his religion. The BBC however chose not to show the t-shirt. So Nawaz on twitter showed his followers what the t-shirt looks like to say this does not offend me, explaining why here.

Muslim commentator Mo Ansar, from the "When Tommy Met Mo" BBC documentary (where Nawaz made Ansar look like he was unsure If a Muslim should be against Sharia punishments, like cutting off hands, without first checking with a theologian) urged people to sign a petition to have Nawaz deselected as a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate - though with fine double speak stressed he did not want him deselected.

Mo Shafiq of the Ramadan Foundation tweeted that he would ensure the Islamic world would know what Nawaz had done though he stressed he did not want him killed, but meant he wanted to reduce funding for an anti-extremist think tank in the Islamic world. He also used the expression "Ghustaki Rasool these Quilliam people" which means "defamer of the prophet." Ghustaki Rasool is a crime in Pakistan, where Nawaz has family and travels to, carrying the death penalty (capital punishment has a moratorium, but death for Ghustaki Rasool remains on the statute books). Accused of seeking self-publicity by critics they sure showed Nawaz this would not work by then publicising his name far and wide in the media.

The Liberal Democrat Party went one better than the critics, and defended Nawaz by not actually doing so initially. They stated Nawaz was at liberty to tweet on subjects as he wished, but all parliamentary candidates should be mindful not to cause offence or give the impression of disrespect. Such was the robust defence by the party while their candidate received death threats; it took Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime minister, about a week to respond death threats were unacceptable to a parliamentary candidate making a point. The attitude before was he can do it, but really no one should if it might offend someone - more fool him trying to engage with people about his faith being greater than a t-shirt. It was left to independent voices within the party to say from the beginning that death threats and alleging blasphemy as a reason to be deselected had no place in a liberal democratic country.

Regarding being liberal Mo Shafiq, who is denouncing Nawaz as a defamer of the prophet in the entire Islamic world, is on the Ethnic Minority committee of the Liberal Democrats (EMLD). He stressed on The Daily Politics Show that Nawaz could lose them seats if he remains a candidate. You really could not make this up, as Shafiq answered the party was a broad church when asked if he was really a liberal by presenter Andrew O'Neil.

This Sunday gone, as Nick Clegg defended Nawaz, the EMLD responded that Shafiq's deselection call was him acting in a personal capacity and nothing to do with them as they called for the Liberal Democrat party to allow behind the scenes talks to find an amicable solution.

Cartoons in Denmark several years back showed why this whole farce matters in the UK; where one of the leading campaigners against those cartoons has had a change of heart recently. Let alone sentences for blasphemy in Islamic countries as Benedict Rogers mentioned on The Huffington Post here. Fears over violence and intimidation mean people carefully commenting on the Jesus and Mo t-shirt have not included a photo as they would rather have a quiet life by not showing it. The creator allows free use asking only for a link back to his site. Copyright is not the reason for not reproducing.

Then there is the historical legacy of depicting The Prophet, a Shia tradition of doing so. Wahhabi and Salafi Islamic traditions prohibiting depictions should not take precedence or be claimed to represent all Islamic thinking. In the 7th Century The Prophet was depicted on coinage in Persia. Theological pluralism on idolatry and blasphemy matters in a nuanced debate. That is difficult when no less a divisive figure George Galloway declares no Muslim will ever vote Liberal Democrat unless Nawaz is ditched for being provocative. As showing a cartoon saying "How ya Doing?" is of course.

Fundamentalists win by showing their passion with threats and bloody reprisal and we lose saying back we want peace, you draw the line in the sand for us. Why risk your safety and sanity over what is just a t-shirt? That is how we lose what once we took for granted, how hard earned liberties are pushed away as we cower behind the line. Satire ends when those lampooned have the last laugh; our right to dissent removed because it is blasphemy. You are offended you cannot impose a blasphemy law on others? You do not deserve to be taken seriously.

If we end up caricaturing all Muslims as reactionary emotional children that need to grow up in a modern mature pluralistic liberal democracy, we ignore Muslims challenging such stereotypes. Secular Muslims are drowned out for saying a t-shirt is the least of their concerns for what really offends them is death threats and encouragement to defame a living person as not being the right kind of Muslim.

Based on offence people are using their democratic right to express a grievance to promote a social blasphemy rule and a back door religious test for wanna be parliamentarians to be the "right" sort of Muslim. Nawaz has apologised while the police warned him not to take part in The Daily Politics on the BBC this past Friday. I am not ok with this, and I am glad while waiting to submit this article Nick Cohen and Sunny Hundal articulated the situation Nawaz finds himself in is unacceptable.

This is the United Kingdom, mother of all parliaments and citadel of free speech. If you want to benefit from religious freedom you need free speech - they are hand in glove. Or else you end up with neither. Muslims and non Muslims will be the worse off without them.

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