A couple of weeks ago journalists and politicians attempted to have a serious debate over a comic strip. Much ammunition was spent in the ensuing media trial of Maajid Nawaz who provoked the petition that prompted the debate. But frustratingly little of that discussion touched upon the motivating tension behind the issue. Tension derived from the controversial question of weather there is a need or democratic will to sign away certain individual rights to protect certain group rights here in the UK. Including and in particular the religious sensibilities at hand in this case.
The debate over group rights is contested, but what shouldn't be, is the fact that calling for instant and somewhat arbitrary retributive action against a single MP candidate, who has exercised a right afforded to everyone else, just isn't a convincing way to invite this debate into the public domain. Neither is it just or democratic.
They issue will remain controversial, but it certainly may be fair to invite the question into democratic conversation as the nation changes - to query if certain group identities might now need protecting by the curtailing of certain individual rights, such as those of Mr. Nawaz. It's a discussion that's been had in Canada, where the assignment of fishing rights to native ethnic groups and religious rights to particular immigrant groups has been very contentious.
Many assert that their existence creates different levels of citizenship and is ultimately divisive. The philosophical viability of group rights is sometimes rejected outright, because they are seen to utterly undermine the existence of essential universal and human rights. But supporters also argue that assigning group rights and protections in diverse democracies is essential to the survival of the distinct identities and cultures of minority groups, even if protections are only used temporarily.
I'm sure those who are really concerned with protecting religious traditionalists from cartoons are perusing the relevant lobbying or legislative pathways. But those who also lost their temper over the actions of one political figure have shown their increasing assertion of certain purported religious rights to be representative of what the opposition contends them to be - misappropriated as a tool to silence those who disagree.
A major argument advanced by those who attempted to have him ousted is that that many Muslims do not favour Mr. Nawaz or feel he is representative of them as a demographic group. This might be true; however, Mr. Nawaz's message is that Islam is a diverse group and is not always appreciated as such. He wouldn't claim for a moment to represent all British Muslims. He represents the change he and his organization wish to see and it is for the electorate of Hampstead and Kilburn to decide if they want him to represent them. The 20,000 signatures are entitled to be offended, but it certainly has not yet been decided by a court or in parliament that this 'offender' should suffer punitive measures for exercising his freedom of speech.
In terms of the Lib Dems, knowing what I do of Nawz's story, I would hazard a guess that it was an understanding of the importance of individual rights that led Mr. Nawaz towards his chosen party. To then the party being be so dilatory about upholding those very rights, rights they actually purport to embody, must have been despairing. Most worryingly of all, it signaled to the tiny minority who also threatened violence that their actions were productive.