Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Isolating Dissent

Maajid Nawaz and the 'Jesus & Mo' Controversy

The most recent controversy over an image depicting the Prophet Muhammad has differed from its predecessors in one important respect. In this instance it was not the artist who was targeted - it was a Muslim who shared the image (above) on twitter. So while the vicious Islamic backlash was reminiscent of those that followed the publication of the Danish cartoons in 2005 or the Innocence of Muslims video in 2012, the complexion of the rage was different. As was the complexion of the hesitancy displayed by the British media in covering the story.

Maajid Nawaz is an ex-member of the extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. Now he runs the counter-extremism think tank Quilliam, which he founded in 2007 with fellow former Hizb member Ed Husain. He is also a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for the Liberal Democrats in Hampstead and Kilburn. The image he tweeted is taken from the online satirical comic strip Jesus and Mo and, as far as I can tell, Nawaz posted it for two reasons.

  • As a point of liberal principle he objected to the treatment of two LSE students who were told to cover their Jesus and Mo t-shirts or face ejection from their Freshers' Fair.
  • As a reminder of the plurality of views amongst Muslims on matters like these. This was mainly for the benefit of those who use a literalist interpretation of Islam's texts to justify the stigmatisation of all Muslims as indiscriminately backward and savage.

Two of the self-appointed leaders of the Muslim community, however, announced with predictable solipsism that Nawaz's tweet was all about them. It was, they claimed, a deliberate act of self-serving provocation for the benefit of the liberal, secular Establishment with whom Nawaz sought to ingratiate himself. A petition, started by Mohammed Shafiq of The Ramadan Foundation and enthusiastically promoted by vapid media personality Mohammed Ansar, was posted online calling on the Liberal Democrats to deselect Nawaz as a PPC.

Since Nawaz is a Muslim of Pakistani heritage, their complaint could not be framed as one of racism or even 'Islamophobia'. Nor could it easily be framed as one of free expression, since the cartoonist's right to draw the cartoon - which has been freely available online since it first appeared in November 2005 - was not at issue. So instead the case made by the petition was that Nawaz had engaged in behaviour unbefitting a PPC (Shafiq is also - improbably - a member of the Liberal Democrats).

But the sheer venom of the campaign against Maajid Nawaz, and the inflammatory language used by its leaders, speaks to an even more prosaic reason for the outrage: personal animosity. Mohammed Shafiq and the thousands of Muslims who signed his petition share a visceral dislike of Nawaz which long predates this outcry. Nawaz's crime is that he is a secularist who - as I have explained previously - refuses to abide by the identitarian rules of the multicultural game. In other words, this is less a theological quarrel than a political one.

In the eyes of Shafiq and his supporters, Nawaz is something worse than a white racist; he's a traitor to the 'Muslim Community'. It is to this community's tribal values - apparently defined by reactionaries like Shafiq - that he is expected to show loyalty, and not to his own freedom of conscience. He is - to use an epithet appropriated by cultural chauvinists - "an Uncle Tom".

When Nawaz tweeted the cartoon, his enemies immediately saw an opportunity to remind him and anyone else listening that it was the traditionalist, totalitarian tendency which spoke for Muslims, and not the moderate secularists. So, with a demagogue's cynicism and ruthless dishonesty, Mohammed Shafiq set about drumming up a pogrom.

The Urdu phrase "Ghustaki Rasool" translates as "Defamer of the Prophet" - a religious charge tantamount to apostasy and punishable by death in Pakistan, where Nawaz travels to work and where he has family. In a sinister echo of the Danish cartoons controversy, Shafiq then declared his intention to "notify Islamic countries" of Nawaz's crime (which knocks apart the idea that this was simply a provincial question of whether of not Nawaz had contravened the Liberal Democrats' code of conduct).

Not content with the available facts, Shafiq circulated the additional rumour that Nawaz had tweeted a link to the Jesus and Mo website. It would hardly make any difference if he had but, as it happens, this is simply false. Shafiq also alleged that the Jesus and Mo series depicted the two protagonists having sex. This is also false, and a homophobic dogwhistle into the bargain.

Nawaz began receiving anonymous phone calls and death threats, some of which were so lurid and elaborate they're better described as torture fantasies. All very regrettable, Shafiq explained when called upon to account for himself, but Maajid Nawaz ought to have known better. Like Rushdie before him, Nawaz had brought this on himself.

Shaken by the ferocity of the backlash from his co-religionists, Nawaz responded with a calm OpEd piece in the Guardian in which he used his prophet's egalitarian legacy to make the following appeal for tolerance:
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.
This didn't go down at all well at the 5Pillarz website ("What are Muslims thinking?"). In response its editor Roshan M Salih (who moonlights as a documentarian for the Iranian theocracy's propaganda channel Press TV) demeaned himself more than his subject when he denounced Nawaz in racialized language as "a sellout and a coconut".

Then Nawaz Hanif replied to Nawaz's piece with a particularly spiteful post in the Guardian. Hanif declared himself uninterested in the matter of offence and instead offered his readers ad hominems, innuendo and a portrait of Nawaz as a vain self-promoter and a traitor:
The Quilliam Foundation has a reputation for secretly smearing pluralist Muslim organisations. In 2010 it prepared a list for security officials, linking peaceful groups such as the Muslim Safety Forum, which works with the police to improve community relations, the Islamic Human Rights Commission, and even the Islam Channel, a TV broadcaster, to the ideology of terrorists. The idea that Quilliam's founder will be regarded as a saviour of Muslims in Britain is therefore laughable.
What's laughable - not to mention revealing of Hanif's own regressive relio-political views - is the idea that the Islam Channel, the Khomeinist IHRC or the Muslim Safety Forum, co-founded by a fanatic named Azad Ali (now vice-chair of Unite Against Fascism), are best described as "pluralist" or among those who " improve community relations". (Notice, by the way, the slipperiness of the formulation "Nawaz has a reputation for...")

Much is made by both men of the unrepresentative nature of Nawaz's views amongst Muslims. To be sure, the petition posted in his support has received far fewer signatories than the one denouncing him. And it would be safe to assume, I think, that a good number of signatories to the former would be ex-Muslims and non-Muslims.

But so what? The argument being thrashed out here is one of ideas and it is intra-religious as well as secular. The value of dissent in any such battle depends only on the worth of the arguments, not their popularity. How else do societies evolve and progress without dissidents courageous enough to attack religious and political orthodoxy?

The controversy over the Jesus and Mo cartoon is part of a struggle within Islam for the right of individuals to unchain themselves from a traditionalist, authoritarian Islamic identity and to embrace liberty, equality and modernity. There are secularist Muslims across Britain and Europe and the Islamic world who agree with Nawaz. They share his anti-totalitarian, universalist impulse and they are tired of being told that political and religious reactionaries like Ansar and Shafiq speak for them. Many others who would like to voice their support are unable to do so due to the penalties dissent may incur. The smaller they are in number, the greater their persecution, the more they require our support.

But the significance of this aspect of the debate seemed to get lost in the confused coverage of the row by much of the media. On the one hand, Shafiq's campaign was robustly challenged, on television and radio and in print. But not one OpEd piece defending Nawaz's right to share the cartoon, nor one television report covering the controversy, actually accompanied their story with a picture of the cartoon in question.

Jesus and Mo's anonymous cartoonist had the honesty to admit he feared for his life, which is why when he appeared on Newsnight, he asked for his name to be withheld, for his face to be fogged and for his voice to be disguised. Newsnight's editor Ian Katz was perhaps rather less forthcoming when asked to justify his refusal to use the image at the centre of their story:

Katz went on to accuse his critics of "journalistic machismo" and "liberal virility", thereby casting himself as the reasonable-minded party. But if it is tolerant and responsible for Newsnight to censor the cartoon, the clear implication is that Maajid Nawaz behaved intolerantly and irresponsibly when he tweeted it. By affecting a position of spurious neutrality, the media establishment has taken a de facto position alongside the religious reactionaries calling for Nawaz's head and left him looking dangerously isolated.

This message was not lost on Nawaz. After Channel 4 News obscured Mohammad's face in their report while leaving Jesus's face exposed (irrespective of the offence such a decision might cause Christians), he tweeted:

It's interesting to note that secular and progressive Muslims also seem to be those who complain least about 'Islamophobia'. What really drives them to distraction is the refusal of Western relativists to offer them support in their own confrontations with the Islamic far-right. Meanwhile those identitarians who complain most often and most noisily about 'Islamophobia' are often the same people doing their utmost to confirm the bigot's view that all Muslims are childish and intolerant. Not only do they behave in a childish and intolerant way, but they insist that it is they who really represent Islam.

And yet, perversely, we insist on indulging these tantrums. Shafiq and Ansar have made themselves look petty, vindictive and ridiculous in the eyes of many, but they have every reason to feel pleased with themselves. Maajid Nawaz will not be deselected as PPC but nor does it look like Mohammed Shafiq will face any disciplinary action from his party for his cynical incitement of violence.

Nawaz has been advised by the police to keep a low profile. Moderate Muslims have been put on notice: step out of line and you could be next. And the absurd and infantilising idea that these pictures pose an objective danger, due to the peculiar power they hold over Muslim men and women, has been reinforced by the media's complicity in their unnecessary censorship.

It is astonishing how quickly a deeply-entrenched taboo can collapse in a free society once it has been violated. Had the reporting of the Jesus and Mo row been universally accompanied by the cartoon in question (as it would have been in any other context), it would have demonstrated at a stroke how stupid the debate about Islam has become. Shafiq and Ansar understand this perfectly, which is precisely why they have kicked up such a racket over such an innocuous image. If sharing a gently satirical comic strip can attract such outrage, vituperation and hatred, what are the chances of a genuinely provocative, transgressive and iconoclastic satire of Islamic beliefs and ideas emerging?

The internalised fear of violent reprisal is an effective tool, and explains the uniformity of self-censorship right across a media establishment not known for its tactful avoidance of sensationalism. But religious zealots know they are aiming at a soft target. Ian Katz and others like him genuinely do seem to be embarrassed to take their own side in this quarrel.

This is not simply an error, but a betrayal. A betrayal of the need to defend free conscience, expression and inquiry from religious obscurantists, and a betrayal of Muslim dissidents, like Maajid Nawaz, who believe in these principles and are fighting to uphold them.

Note: In light of the above, I will now be blogging under my own name and photograph. My blogger profile can be found here.