Maajid Nawaz and the right to laugh at Jesus and Muhammad

Michael Petrou on the tweet landed a British politician in hot water

Dave M. Benett/Getty Images

Maajid Nawaz spent ten years as a leading member of the Islamist extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group he joined while a young student in his native Britain. He was jailed for four years in Egypt because of his Hizb ut-Tahrir recruitment activities there. Upon his return to Britain, Nawaz renounced extremism and co-founded the Quilliam Foundation, a think tank dedicated to pluralism and democracy. You can read my interview with him here.

Nawaz is now the Liberal Democrats candidate in next year’s general election. He’s bright and articulate and the author of a compelling memoir. True, the same things could have been said about Michael Ignatieff, whose political career did not end well, but the road ahead for Nawaz’s new life in politics looked fairly clear.

Then Nawaz had the audacity to tweet a cartoon depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad. You might be able to guess what happened next: death threats, insults, and a petition signed by 20,000 people demanding that the Liberal Democrats drop him as their candidate.

The problems started earlier this month when Nawaz took part in a BBC televised debate. Two attending students wore t-shirts that reproduced a comic from the online “Jesus and Mo” series that depicts the holy men as roommates who platonically share a bed, discuss theology, and go to the pub. Some Muslim audience members were displeased. The BBC reportedly avoided filming the t-shirts.

Nawaz tweeted the comic with the message: “This is not offensive and I’m sure God is greater than to feel threatened by it.” Soon other Twitter users were threatening to cut off his head, or comparing his supposed offence to that of Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie, the target of a murderous fatwa by the late Iranian theocrat Ruhollah Khomenei.

The comparison to Rushdie is a stretch. A cartoon, however pithy, isn’t going to approach the depth of a Rushdie novel — then again, Khomenei didn’t read the book, so maybe that doesn’t matter. (I should confess that reading Midnight’s Children, an enjoyable experience, left me feeling intellectually punch-drunk, as if the author was toying with my imagination for his own amusement. Suffice to say I haven’t read Satanic Verses, though I should probably buy a copy just to piss off all the right people.) And besides, Nawaz didn’t even draw the damn thing. Nevertheless, Nawaz’s tweet has provoked a similar, if much more muted, assault on freedom of expression in the name of religion.

Liberal Democrats leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has stood by Nawaz — as have thousands of Britons who signed a petition supporting Nawaz and asking Clegg to do the same.

Nawaz himself originally pleaded for calm on all sides. Over the weekend, he declined comment, saying he had been advised to stay silent. But today he published a column in the Guardian explaining his decision to defend the t-shirt-wearing students and post the offending cartoon.

“Unity in faith is theocracy; unity in politics is fascism,” he writes.

“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.”

I hope he’s elected.