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Maajid Nawaz and cartoon politics


28 January 2014

A few days ago I was asked to sign a petition to defend Maajid Nawaz from the risk of de-selection as the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn. Until then I was unaware of any attemps to de-select him.

After signing the petition, I tweeted it, which led to various Twitter conversations about the issue, which I see as entirely one of freedom of speech.

In turn that led to BBC Radio London phoning me on the morning of Monday 27 January to ask me to participate in a telephone phone-in programme. Shortly after my radio appearance, Paul Goodman, the editor of Conservative Home asked me to write a piece for that website.

I wrote it the same evening and it was published on the morning of 28 January. It is reproduced below.

Mohammed Amin: Maajid Nawaz and cartoon politics

Mohammed Amin is Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum. He is writing in a personal capacity.

That great inspirer of many Conservatives (about what not to believe) Karl Marx said that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce.

I hope that is what we are now seeing with the way some Muslims react to some cartoons. Unlike the Danish cartoons of 2005, so far there have been no riots, either here or elsewhere. However endless numbers of tweets have been despatched into the ether.

Who is Maajid Nawaz?

Maajid is a Muslim Briton of Pakistani ethnicity who grew up in Southend and became a religiously motivated extremist in Hizb ut Tahrir, eventually spending four years in Egyptian prisons. His autobiography, “Radical: My journey from Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening” is a compelling read; my review rates it highly.

After release, Maajid co-founded the anti-radicalisation think tank Quilliam along with Ed Husain, and is now its Director. In July 2013 he was selected as the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate to stand for Hampstead and Kilburn; a seat that was a three way marginal in 2010.

What cartoons?

Jesus and Mo is a cartoon series that has been running since late 2005. In October 2013 at the London School of Economics freshers’ fair, two atheist students wearing Jesus and Mo cartoons on their tee shirts were ordered by security personnel to cover up or leave the fair. After the subsequent threat of a lawsuit, the LSE apologised for this action.

On 12 January the BBC programme “The Big Questions” topic was “Should human rights always outweigh religious rights?” There were two students in the audience wearing a Jesus and Mo cartoon on their tee shirts; the BBC carefully avoided showing any close up of those tee shirts.

Afterwards, Maajid and others issued various tweets about the BBC’s decision not to show the tee shirts close up. One in particular read as follows: “This Jesus & Mo @JandMo cartoon is not offensive & I’m sure God is greater than to feel threatened by it.” Maajid also attached a picture of the cartoon. The original tweet and cartoon can be seen at this link.

What happened next?

Maajid suffered a hail of abuse on Twitter, which included death threats. I have looked at some of the tweets and in many cases the writers appear to be trying to stay inside UK law by hinting at the appropriateness of death rather than calling for Maajid to be killed in plain English. There is no point in my seeking to itemise the most serious tweets.

I personally only became aware of the issue on 20 January when I signed and then tweeted a petition calling upon Nick Clegg to support Maajid which at the time of writing had just over 6,500 signatories.

There is also a petition calling for Nick Clegg to remove Maajid as PPC for Hampstead and Kilburn which at the time of writing had about 20,600 signatories.

Why so much fuss?

Muslims believe in the third commandment (Exodus 20:4-6) in quite a strong form. Almost all Muslims avoid creating representations of God, and most avoid creating representations of the prophet Muhammad or any other prophets, although there are some old paintings which show Muhammad in an appropriately respectful manner.

Since Muslims generally avoid creating representations of Muhammad, they understandably feel queasy when others do, with the level of concern varying with the content. In 2005 when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published various cartoons of Muhammad, I looked at them on the internet and found them offensive. (However I did not regard them as a reason for rioting, either here or elsewhere, let alone the attempts to murder the cartoonist.)

In Maajid’s case, I believe two factors have stoked the ire of certain people:

  1. Some Muslims are vehemently opposed to the message of Quilliam that extremists such as Al Qaeda draw inspiration from an (incorrect) interpretation of Islam. Accordingly they welcome any opportunity to attack Maajid who is Quilliam’s director.
  2. Internal politics within the Liberal Democrat Party, with some Muslims simply not wanting Maajid to be their candidate, partly due to factor (1).

What are the policy implications?

If Maajid has sufficiently upset a large number of Muslims in Hampstead and Kilburn, or more significantly in the rest of the country, that could be a reason for Nick Clegg to remove Maajid as a Lib Dem candidate. Conversely, Maajid may have drawn a large number of liberals towards him by taking a rational approach to this cartoon and by keeping calm under the pressure.

Either way, Maajid’s value (positive or negative) as a Lib Dem candidate is a matter for his party and not something that the Conservative Party should get involved with.

As I wrote in my piece “Blasphemy should remain decriminalised” our country abolished the law of blasphemy in 2008. Incidents such as this one show why it should stay off the statute book, as we would otherwise regularly be plagued with attempts to use blasphemy law to stifle free speech.

The police and the Crown Prosecution Service should throw the book at anyone within the jurisdiction who has made death threats, either express or implied, against Maajid. The only test should be whether there is sufficient evidence to underpin a successful prosecution. Any threat maker who is employed by the public sector should be sacked for misconduct if at all possible.


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