Freedom & Liberty

Isolating Dissent: Maajid Nawaz and the ‘Jesus and Mo’ controversy

This is a cross-post from Jacobinism

[This is an extract from towards the end of the post. Please read in full here.]

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 all 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 “work…to 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.

Sarah adds: Jacobin refers to a Guardian piece by Nawaz Hanif.  I left this comment:

Are the allegations against the Islam Channel untrue – or unimportant?

Is The Islam Channel Being Defamed?

It was deleted.