This controversy has been raging for over a week now. I had been inclined to let it pass by without comment, but what it reveals about the state of the freedom of speech in Britain, and the prospects for large-scale reform of Islam, can’t be ignored.
Maajid Nawaz is a politician in Britain and a leader of the Quilliam Foundation, an influential moderate Muslim organization. He shot to prominence recently by, in Quilliam’s own jihad-tinged words, “having facilitated the decapitation of the EDL” by inducing Tommy Robinson to quit that organization. By winning over Tommy, Nawaz won international renown as a Muslim reformer, and has only burnished those credentials in light of the recent controversy, which began when Nawaz tweeted out the above cartoon of Jesus saying “Hey” and Muhammad responding “How you doin’,” from the satirical Jesus and Mo comic strip. His point was that it didn’t offend him, and wasn’t offensive.
Other Muslims, however, disagreed. Nawaz, as he explains in this Guardian piece, has received death threats and calls for his removal as a Liberal Democratic parliamentary candidate. Muslims have denounced him for promoting “Islamophobia,” and the British media has responded with its usual craven capitulation, with Channel 4 News blacking out the “Mo” cartoon in a story about the controversy.
All this has made Maajid Nawaz even more of a hero than he already was among Britain’s liberal intelligentsia, which styles itself a champion of the freedom of speech even as it gets more used to kowtowing to Islamic supremacists every day. However, for Nawaz himself, it also represents an important, and possibly disastrous defeat. For Nawaz is just as energetic a purveyor of the “Islamophobia” myth as his frenzied detractors are. At the press conference with Robinson, one of the Quilliam officials vociferously denounced Pamela Geller and me as “Islamophobes,” and Nawaz and his Quilliam partner Usama Hasan have followed this up with me on Twitter several times — even quite recently — by attacking me with all the arrogance, rudeness, condescension, unwillingness to discuss on rational terms or debate, and personal insults that I have come to expect and experienced many times from Islamic supremacists with ties to jihad terror groups.
Nawaz’s attacks on me on Twitter were not the first time I had been attacked by someone from the Quilliam Foundation. In fact, at the time of its founding, its founder Ed Husain went out of his way to launch a gratuitous attack on Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ibn Warraq and me. At that time I had been quite interested to determine whether Quilliam was really the sincere reformist organization it claimed to be — but this unexpected and unwarranted attack made me doubt it immediately. I know Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Ibn Warraq. I know their work quite well. I know that neither is a “racist, bigoted Islamophobe,” just as I know that I myself am not one either. I know that they’re deeply concerned about how Islamic jihadists use the texts and teachings of Islam to justify violence and supremacism, as I am, and want to preserve Western pluralistic societies with their freedom of speech and equality of rights for all people, as I do.
It seemed to me then that if Quilliam were really sincere in wanting Islamic reform, it would not have counted Hirsi Ali, Ibn Warraq and me as enemies, but as allies — just as now I believe that if Usama Hasan and Maajid Nawaz were sincere about Islamic reform, they would not count Pamela Geller and me as enemies, but as allies. This is not about personalities. It is because none of us — Ayaan, Ibn Warraq, Pamela, or I — have ever taken a stand for anything except freedom of speech and universally accepted principles of human rights, much as the Leftist/Islamic supremacist libel machine works 24 hours a day, seven days a week to try to establish otherwise.
However, I suspect that I know what Maajid Nawaz was trying to do by pre-emptively denouncing us as “Islamophobic” before we had said a public word about Tommy Robinson’s turn: he was trying to signal to Muslims in Britain that he was genuine, not an MI5 plant, not a sellout, but someone whom they could trust. In other words, Nawaz threw us to the wolves to show his Islamic bona fides, even though we both support genuine reform in Islam, just as Marxist antisemite British ex-Muslim Maryam Namazie and the Council of Ex-Muslims in Britain threw us to the wolves to show their Leftist bona fides, even though we share their belief in one law for all with no special rights for special classes.
But for Nawaz, it has not worked. It didn’t save him when he crossed the line here and tweeted out this innocuous cartoon of Muhammad. Islamic supremacists in Britain have been busy ever since then demonstrating the very, very hard road that sincere Islamic reformers will face in establishing Islam in Britain as genuinely pluralistic, open to criticism and open to the freedom of speech. It’s a particularly hard road because the British media is busy submitting to Islamic supremacist demands and blacking out the Muhammad cartoon instead of standing up for pluralism (which involves putting up with things that might offend) and the freedom of speech.
I wish Maajid Nawaz well, insofar as he really is sincere in wanting to travel down that hard road. Perhaps he will learn from this incident that denouncing and defaming people who would have been his allies in order to score points with those who would never have stood with him in the first place is ultimately self-defeating. At the same time, his repetition here of the familiar claim that Islamic jihadists have “hijacked” Islam, in defiance of the abundance of evidence that they win converts among peaceful Muslims by appealing to chapter and verse of the Qur’an and numerous incidents in the life of Muhammad as depicted in the earliest Muslim sources, strongly suggests that he isn’t really interested in Islamic reform anyway, but just in more deception. Nawaz could dispel that impression easily by publishing a detailed Qur’an-based refutation of the jihadist exegesis of the Muslim holy book — something putative Islamic reformers have never done. I eagerly await it.
“Why I’m speaking up for Islam against the loudmouths who have hijacked it,” by Maajid Nawaz in The Guardian, January 28:
Muslims are not one homogenous tribe requiring representation through a Citizen Khan-like community leader. Neither are we still colonial subjects who must speak through our Brown Sahibs. We Muslims are free. Our prophet left no heir. We have never had a pope or a clergy. We are commanded to worship God alone, and for our sins we are answerable to no one but Him.
The doors of Muslim ijtihad (religious reasoning) have always remained open, and modern Islamist attempts to impose theocratic orthodoxy on us will therefore be resisted. Unity in faith is theocracy; unity in politics is fascism.
On 12 January I participated in a BBC debate on human rights and religious rights. Two students were wearing T-shirts depicting a stick figure of Jesus saying “Hi” to a stick figure called Mo, who replied: “How you doin’?” Some Muslims, having just argued for their own right to veil, took issue with the students. I argued that just as Muslim women have the right to veil, atheists have the right to wear these T-shirts.
I am acutely aware of the populist sentiment in Britain that derides Muslims who seek special treatment for their sensibilities, so I tweeted the bland image and stated that, as a Muslim, I did not feel threatened by it. My God is greater than that.
By the time the week was up I had received death threats, the police were involved, and a petition set up by some conservative Muslims to have me dismissed as the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn had gained 20,000 signatures. Then a counter-petition went up in my support, and many liberals jumped to my defence. In other words, all hell broke loose. So why did I do it?
My intention was not to speak for any Muslim but myself – rather, it was to defend my religion from those who have hijacked it just because they shout the loudest. My intention was to carve out a space to be heard without constantly fearing the blasphemy charge, on pain of death. I did it for Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab who was assassinated by his bodyguard for calling for a review of Pakistan’s colonial-era blasphemy laws; for Malala Yusafzai, the schoolgirl shot in the head by the Taliban for wanting an education; and for Muhammad Asghar, a mentally ill British man sentenced to death for “blasphemy” last week in Pakistan.
My intention was to demonstrate that Muslims are able to see things we don’t like, yet remain calm and pluralist, and to demonstrate that there are Muslims who care more about the thousands of deaths in Iraq, Pakistan and Syria than we do about what a student is wearing. My intention was to highlight that Muslims can engage in politics without insisting that our own religious values must trump all others’ concerns, and to stand before the mob so that other liberal Muslim voices that are seldom heard, women’s and men’s, could come to the fore. And many such Muslim voices have been heard this last week.
However, in the final analysis, my intentions are irrelevant. What matters is this simple truth: I am free not to be offended by a cartoon I did not draw. If my prospective constituents do not like me not being offended, they are free not to vote for me. Other Muslims are free to be offended, and the rest of the country is free to ignore them. I will choose my policies based on my conscience. As such, I will continue to defend my prophet from those on the far right and Muslim extremes who present only a rigid, angry and irrational interpretation of my faith. I will stand for fairness, as Amnesty International once stood for me when I was a prisoner in Hosni Mubarak‘s Egypt. Because I believe that the difference between fairness and tribalism is the difference between choosing principles and choosing sides.