Tweeting Mohammad

The Mohammad cartoon controversy has resurfaced over the past week with a flutter over a tweet.

The British press appears to have come down on the side of Maajid Nawaz. Newspaper articles, opinion pieces and television chat shows have defended his right to share a cartoon depicting Jesus and Mohammad. But they have also ceded the moral high ground to his opponents — Islamist extremists — by declining to publish a copy of the cartoon that has led to death threats and calls for Nawaz to be blacklisted by the Liberal Democratic Party for Islamophobia.

What we are seeing in the British media — newspapers and television (this has not been a problem for radio) — in the Jesus and Mo controversy is a replay of past disputes over Danish and French cartoons. Freedom of speech and courage in the face of religious intolerance is championed by the press — up to a point.

The point appears to be whether being courageous could get you killed or even worse, earn the displeasure of the bien pensant chattering classes.

The Telegraph gives a good overview of the affair.

A Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate has received death threats after posting a cartoon image of Jesus and the Prophet Mohammed on Twitter. Muslim politician Maajid Nawaz tweeted a picture of a t-shirt with a crudely-drawn cartoon entitled ‘Jesus and Mo’ which he describes as an “innocuous” and inoffensive.

However the image has caused fury among some members of the Islamic community who believe images of the prophet Muhammed are forbidden. More than 7,000 people have now signed a petition calling for the Liberal Democrats to suspend Mr Nawaz. Some have even suggested a fatwa should be placed on him while others have threatened they would be “glad to cut your neck off”.

The Guardian summarized Nawaz’s motives in this subtitle to their story:

Lib Dem candidate says he aimed to defend his religion ‘against those who have hijacked it because they shout the loudest’

It explained:

The row blew up after Nawaz took part in a BBC debate where two students were wearing t-shirts depicting a stick figures of stick figure of Jesus saying “Hi” to a stick figure called Mo, who replied: “How you doin’?”

The politician, who is founder of the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremist think-tank, tweeted what he believes is a “bland” image and stated that “as a Muslim, I did not feel threatened by it. My God is greater than that”.

Both stories are sympathetic and are topped by striking photos of Nawaz, who is  running to be an MP for Hampstead and Kilburn. But neither article reproduces the cartoon that has led to the threats against his life. In their defence, it could be argued that a photo of Nawaz, rather than the offending cartoon was more appropriate as the article focused on the politician’s travails over the cartoon, not on the cartoon itself. A weak argument but an argument none the less.

Television was not blessed with this excuse. During the debate on The Big Questions which sparked the row, the BBC declined to show members of the audience who were wearing “Jesus and Mo” t-shirts. This censorship, avoidance, prudence (take your pick) led Nawaz to tweet a photo of the cartoon — leading to twitter threats to cut off his head.

Newsnight discussed the controversy over censorship, but decided not to show a copy of the cartoon. Newswatch also discussed the “Jesus and Mo” controversy, noting that complaints had been raised by viewers over its failure to show the cartoon. But Newswatch also declined to show the cartoon. Zero for three for the BBC.

The best (from a cognoscenti  of hypocrisy’s point of view) was Channel 4′s handling of the subject. It broadcast the cartoon, sans Mo. This prompted the popular British blogger, Archbishop Cranmer to write:

[This] censoring images of Mohammed establishes a narrow Sunni-sharia compliance: it is, effectively, a blasphemy code adopted by the state broadcasters.

The columnist for The Times, Janice Turner, excoriated the BBC and Channel 4 in an excellent piece entitled “Show us Jesus & Mo. It’s the price of freedom”. It was:

hard to watch Wednesday’s Newsnight without concluding that Britain has become a very strange place. We saw an artist so frightened for his life that his face and even his voice were disguised. We saw his hand sketching the Christian prophet in a crown of thorns, but forbidden to draw the Muslim one. An 11-minute film debated a drawing at the heart of a national controversy but at no point could we see it.

Turner further reported:

When challenged, Newsnight’s editor, Ian Katz, said that there was “no clear journalistic case to use” the cartoon, and that “describing” it was sufficient. (TV news will get a whole lot cheaper if we needn’t send a camera crew to war-ravaged Damascus: let’s just have it described by Jeremy Bowen.) Any depiction of Muhammad, Katz argued, “causes great offence to many, not just extremists” and to run it would be “journalistic machismo”.

She aptly summarized the journalistic and moral issues at play.

Mr Nawaz’s frustration is understandable. In banning the image, the BBC cast him as the faux-Muslim, his opponents as the rational, majority voice that must be heeded.

How can moderate Muslims be expected to speak out, if they are cast as apostates by national TV? Those who have not yet made up their minds will see angry offence as the default position. They hear it proclaimed by the deceptively reasonable Mohammed Shafiq, the Lib Dem, whose Ramadhan Foundation hosts homophobic speakers, and that hot-air balloon Mo Ansar, who argues that gender-divided public meetings are just like BBQs where guys cluster around the grill while wives chat with the kids. No biggie.

The BBC and Channel 4 are guilty of cant and hypocrisy. They are daring when it is safe to be daring, but cowards when it comes to militant Islam. Are the Guardian and Telegraph guilty of cant as well? They preach freedom of speech, but by refusing to show the Jesus and Mo cartoon are they not also ceding the moral high ground to the enemies of free speech?

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  • Robert

    I believe you meant the word “weak” in the following sentence “A week argument but an argument none the less.”

    • George Conger

      Quite right … fixed. Perils of voice dictation software …

  • wlinden

    Cut his NECK off?

  • Darren Blair

    This is sounding to me like yet another round of the Striesand Effect at work – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streisand_effect .

    The more the media hypes the story, the more people who will be trying to track everything down anyway.

  • Y. A. Warren

    I wish that all three religions that claim Abraham as a patriarch would have heeded the exhortation not to make graven images of “God.” That being said, since Jesus had flesh and Mohammed had flesh, it is easy to succumb to the temptation to depict them as flesh, no matter how erroneous these depictions.

    Maybe it’s time we all admit we’ve been wrong about what we depict as “God” and stop taunting each other, like little children.

    • axelbeingcivil

      I think I’m glad to shrug and agree with some of your notions but the point of contention here is that people are saying that others who do not share their beliefs CANNOT do so.

      I believe in their right to not depict their prophets as much as I do my own to sketch them as offensively or inoffensively as I like.

      • Y. A. Warren

        …as long as you are willing to take the very human consequences of exercising your rights.

        • axelbeingcivil

          If that means people being upset and saying how much they disagree, then, sure, by all means. They’re allowed to do so all they want.

          If that means issuing death threats, assaulting me, etc., then that is not okay.

          • Y. A. Warren

            Assault and death threats are against the law, unlike freedom of speech. for one to publicly assault or make death threats is opening them up to criminal charges, and providing witnesses. The question is whether witnesses have the desire to stand with you.

          • axelbeingcivil

            Your response has come across as little more than a veiled threat.

          • Y. A. Warren

            A threat of what and from whom?

          • axelbeingcivil

            When someone says that they support the ability to exercise one’s free speech, responding with “Well, as long as you don’t mind that bad things might happen to you, wink wink, nudge nudge” comes across like a mobster saying “Awfully nice place you have here. Shame if something were to happen to it.”

          • Y. A. Warren

            I simply observe that actions have consequences; I don’t create or impose the consequences. Even if I wanted to, which I don’t, I’m not that powerful.

          • axelbeingcivil

            When your response to someone saying that they endorse the exercise of free speech is to remind them that doing so will potentially put their life at risk, so as to discourage them from exercising this right, in a manner such as this? It definitely comes across as a veiled threat. You, yourself, don’t have to be doing the threatening for it to do so.

          • Y. A. Warren

            Whatever…

  • Donalbain

    The t shirts WERE shown on the Big Questions show.

  • guest

    I think there’s another arguement to be made which is that if showing the cartoons causes people to be killed, as the Danish cartoons have, it’s better not to show them unless it’s really necessary. Yes, that curtails our freedom of expression a bit, but is freedom of expression really worth losing innocent lives for? Would the BBC be a responsible broadcast if it showed these images knowing that doing so could trigger widespread riots and lead to people being killed? If there’s a madman with a gun pointed at a load of hostages, you don’t poke him with a stick.
    It’s not like people can’t find the Jesus and Mo cartoons if they want to. And a million other images of Muhammed, on google.

    • John Pack Lambert

      The argument that “showing the cartoon causes people to be killed” is hogwash. A whole book was written explaining that the killings were not a direct result of the cartoon. No mob veto. Show the cartoons.

  • John Pack Lambert

    In this context calling the cartoon “crudely-drawn” was a horrible choice of words. The center of the killings that resulted from the Danish cartoons was the insertion by those attacking them of another cartoon, which was crude and worse, among the actual cartoons to make them look worse. Crude is not a good word to use in this context unless you mean it in the sense it is normally used.

  • John Pack Lambert

    To refer to Jesus as “The Christian prophet” is as much a show of Britain having been Islamized in its dialogue, as avoiding a depiction of Mohammad. Jesus is not “the Christian prophet”, he is God made flesh to Christians. There is only one Christ, but there are hundreds of prophets.


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