Liberals of all parties should support Maajid Nawaz in the face of death threats

Genuine liberals should support liberal Muslims like Maajid Nawaz against the literalists who would murder people over cartoons.

Maajid Nawaz, the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, has received death threats after tweeting a ‘Jesus and Mo’ cartoon.

Nawaz provoked anger from some after making a point online that his faith (and the God he believes in) is strong enough to withstand the light mockery of a cartoon.

Even more depressingly, several individuals have now launched a campaign to have Nawaz de-selected as a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate.

The campaign has been led by Muhammad Shafiq, a Liberal Democrat party member, and Respect MP George Galloway, who made the bold claim that because of Nawaz’s tweet “no Muslim will ever vote Liberal Democrat” (the same George Galloway who supports Bashar al Assad – “the last Arab leader” – whose regime has murdered over 300 Palestinians).

Nawaz’s tweet has resulted in him receiving death threats, quite possibly because of Shafiq’s repeated use of the term ‘Gustagh-e-Rasool’ to describe Nawaz, which translates as ‘enemy of the prophet’ (indeed, Shafiq’s own background warrants research: he is the founder of the Ramadhan Foundation, which has defended the hate preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi as a “man of moderation”).

For his part, Nawaz has responded to the brouhaha of a cartoon gracefully:

“Some are angry that I didn’t find an innocuous cartoon on the BBC as offensive and repeated my view that – as a Muslim – it wasn’t offensive to me on here. Others are angry that I am being censored and silenced. Please let’s all calm down.”

Considering blasphemy laws should be anathema to any liberal, one would expect the Liberal Democrats to side unreservedly with Maajid in this row – a representative of liberal Islam who, like the vast majority of Muslims, doesn’t fly into a murderous rage at the site of, as he correctly calls it, an innocuous cartoon.

The notion of ‘offence’ is deeply subjective, too. While the pious may feel offended by those who reject the divine, there are plenty of things in religion which non-believers are themselves entitled to find offensive (our lack of belief is also ‘deeply held’, you may be surprised to learn). Better, then, for the state to stay out of such matters unless violence is being directly incited (which appears to be the case here, but against Nawaz).

Unfortunately, the Lib Dems have come out with a typically weak response to the controversy. Rather than supporting Maajid Nawaz’s right to tweet what he likes about the religion he follows (or any religion, for that matter), they have issued a statement urging parliamentary candidates to “be sensitive to cultural and religious feelings”.

“The Liberal Democrats are a party of respect, tolerance and individual liberty. We fundamentally believe in freedom of expression and as such defend Maajid’s right to express his views. But as a party we urge all candidates to be sensitive to cultural and religious feelings and to conduct debate without causing gratuitous or unnecessary offence.”

The implication here is that Nawaz set out to cause “gratuitous” or “unnecessary” offence. No mention of the fact that whether it is right to be ‘sensitive’ about cultural and religious feelings is surely dependent upon the nature of those feelings (should we be ‘sensitive’ about the homophobia of some evangelical Christians, for example?)

The right to criticise – and yes, mock – a body of ideas (which is what religion ultimately is) is one of the fundamental principles which liberal society is built upon. Anti-Muslim bigotry this is not (Nawaz is himself a Muslim).

In many parts of the world, religion has great power over a large number of people, and once upon a time the same was true in Britain. Satire, not unlike the Jesus and Mo cartoons, was one of the levers British secularists used to push back the frontiers of religion – laughter being one of the most powerful weapons against unsmiling authority.

Take away the right to mock authority, textual authority in this instance, and everything else is detail – including the rights of Muslims to satirise and ridicule undemocratic clerics and extremists. Without the freedom to mock religious authority, many of the values liberals hold dear – gay rights, women’s sexual liberation; not to mention the right to reject religion completely – would simply not exist.

The idea that people can be completely sheltered from hurt feelings is not only an absurdity but an impossibility in a free society. Any genuine liberal should recognise this, and should throw their support behind liberal Muslims like Maajid Nawaz against a minority of literalists who threaten to murder people over cartoons.

You can sign the petition supporting Maajid Nawaz here.

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