27/02/2014 10:46 GMT | Updated 29/04/2014 06:59 BST

Return of Blasphemy in Britain?

Prior to the start of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, it was good see an array of global authors protesting against Russia's blasphemy laws but it is important to note that the danger of blasphemy remains in Britain...

Prior to the start of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, it was good see an array of global authors protesting against Russia's blasphemy laws but it is important to note that the danger of blasphemy remains in Britain. Despite the repeal of the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel in 2008, we may be witnessing a concerted attempt to reintroduce it though the back door. The key protagonists are Islamists incensed by the portrayal of their prophet in cartoon form - of Jesus and Mo fame - and they appear to be making gains. Last October, at the LSE's Freshers' Fair, two students were forced to remove their Jesus and Mo t-shirts as both LSE management and the Students Union argued this constituted 'harassment' of Muslim (but not Christian) students.

Recently, we have had threats against Quilliam Foundation member and Liberal Democratic parliamentary candidate Maajid Nawaz for his tweeting of a Jesus and Mo cartoon, and a concerted attempt by Islamists in the LDP to have him de-selected. To their credit, the Lib Dem leadership refused to be bullied by such blatant intimidation. The episode does, however, beg the question as to why thoroughly illiberal, undemocratic people are allowed to become members of the Lib Dems.

But, sadly, Channel 4 News abandoned its commitment to freedom of expression by blotting out the image of 'Mo' in its otherwise very good coverage of the controversy. For a channel that prides itself on the daring nature of its coverage, this act of censorship was abject cowardice on the pretext of not causing offence. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson 'Taking offence is now the first refuge of the censor'. They need to be reminded of Rowan Atkinson's principled stance on censorship: 'The freedom to criticise ideas, any ideas - even if they are sincerely held beliefs - is one of the fundamental freedoms of society ... the right to offend is far more important than any right not to be offended'.

But this country has a history of selective self-censorship by the media - the most graphic example was the refusal by any mainstream media outlet to publish or show the Danish cartoons when the controversy exploded in 2005. The offence taken by some people is clearly given more serious consideration than offence taken by others.

When Monty Python's Life of Brian came out in 1979, many town councils banned it on the grounds that it was offensive to Christians and was in breach of the law on blasphemy. Nevertheless, the film was shown widely and became the fourth highest grossing film of that year in the UK - by this success the reactionary blasphemy law was robustly challenged. There is, however, a striking and troubling difference between now and then: whereas in 1979, opposition to what was deemed blasphemous was peaceful; nowadays it is much more menacing as violence and threat of violence are de rigueur.

Though Islamists are the major culprits, they are by no means alone as evidenced by the infamous case of the play Behzti when hundreds of Sikhs - who found it offensive - smashed the Birmingham Rep in December 2004. The result was complete victory for the violent censors as the play was pulled. Recently, a local authority in Belfast banned a play (The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged)) by the Reduced Shakespeare Company on the grounds of it being blasphemous. After much protest, including by Amnesty International, the threat of censorship was thankfully lifted. Intererstingly and revealingly, Amnesty has made no such intervention regarding the Jesus of Mo cartoons. Perhaps they can provide an explanation for this double standard.

The latest example of censorship is that of South Bank University removing posters advertising the Atheist Society's posters for being - you guessed it - 'offensive'. The poster depicts Michelangelo's famous 'Creation of Adam' fresco from the Sistine Chapel but with the character of god replaced with the satirical online deity the 'Flying Spaghetti Monster'.

Given the depths to which we have plunged, it is saddening, but not altogether surprising, when Michael Palin laments 'Religion is more difficult to talk about. I don't think we could do Life of Brian any more. A parody of Islam would be even harder'. I hope he is wrong but it will require courage and determination on the part of the artistic community - and academia and the mainstream media will need to offer unflinching support.

The resisting of censorship by recourse to offence or threat of violence is surely a prize of the highest order for a civilised society - a cursory glance at the myriad countries and societies where freedom of expression is so thoroughly curtailed (witness the pulping of Penguin India's book on Hinduism) or proscribed should be enough for doubters to stiffen their resolve. And it needs reminding that this means granting of freedom of views one does not like or even passionately opposes as in the timeless remark attributed to Voltaire 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it'.

When Life of Brian was banned in Norway, an effective marketing opportunity presented itself to the Pythons: 'So funny it was banned in Norway!' Perhaps the makers of Jesus and Mo can follow suit by marketing their cartoon strip with the slogan 'So funny it was banned by the LSE and Channel 4 News!' As Mark Twain quipped 'Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand'.

Rumy Hasan will be taking part in a debate at the LSE on 'Freedom to Offend: Academia, Human Rights and Social Progress' on 4th March at 6pm