The Big Questions – revisited

I was a panellist at the Big Questions when the ‘Jesus and Mo’ T-shirts were sported by the students from the LSE. I find the provocation of the t-shirts problematic but I do not believe they should be prohibited. Regardless of what Maajid Nawaz’s original intention in reposting the cartoons on twitter, I do not think it is possible to have a conversation about freedom of speech under the threat of violence and I support Maajid’s right to post whatever he likes within the law (accepting that individuals in the public eye must accept that being in that position comes with certain considerations). I also share Tell Mama’s concerns about the impact of this episode on Islamophobia and anti-Islamic rhetoric.

During the show, I was not asked my opinion about the t-shirts, I was only interesting enough to comment about circumcision. Perhaps Jews have been the minority for so long, and subject to ridicule so regularly in our history we have become inured to frequent offensive portrayals of our faith, that our opinion when it comes to Christianity and Islam is not that interesting; the t-shirts do not provoke our religion. Moreover, as a general rule, we have a thick skin and are the first to poke fun at ourselves. After all, when it comes to the Priest, the Imam and the Rabbi jokes, it’s nearly always the Rabbi who gets the punchline. Which is not, by the way, an invitation to think you can tell the same jokes just because some of your best friends are Jewish. All that said, one panellist commented to me after the show that religions need to work together to protect their interests; I realise followers of religion may feel concerned when it’s not their own religion under the microscope but I’m sorry to disappoint that I won’t just stand in solidarity because ‘faith’ is involved.

Since the show aired I’ve followed the arguments on twitter and in the press between Maajid Nawaz and his supporters and his opponents. Maajid posted one of the cartoons on twitter, a response to the fact that there was not a clear view of the t-shirts themselves when the show aired. As a result he has been threatened with all manner of things from a petition for an investigation by his political party (the Liberal Democrats), accusations of ignorance, labelling as a blasphemer in an Islamic jurisprudential sense, and murder. His supporters have rallied round and launched their own petition to save his position as prospective parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats and have found backing from the high priest of atheism, Richard Dawkins.

I have to admit, I was slightly apprehensive about the LSE students and the LSE Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society, along with the Lawyers’ Secular Society and Maajid being somewhat opportunistic in the way they engaged social media (though truthfully I do not think it was in some conspiratorially planned way). And the tenor of some of the comments directed towards some of the other panellists on the show veered close to mockery and felt rather removed from constructive and civil discourse. I even commented as much on my blog. I wrote:

“But, I do have an anxiety about the way in which public discourse and the t-shirts themselves seek to provoke conflict. I wonder what is actually at the heart of this debate in which the two sides back off into their corners? I am not convinced that it is really about secularism or freedom of speech or in fact religious doctrine. And in fact, the debate about the veil and the t-shirts have a number of similarities – they’re about clothing, about belief, identity and are at the nexus between one’s self and the outside world (and making statements about that world).”

However, the truth is, I can rise above the mocking tone. I’ve heard worse in the playground and, whilst I don’t think it really gets to the heart of the debate and can lead to more extreme positions, you know what – I can go home to my family, my community and my friends where I am loved and respected and forget about my work and religious views being made the butt of jokes on national television.

The problem is, as I’ve discovered in thinking about whether to comment at all on the furore, that threats of violence and death can have a dangerously cooling effect on one’s willingness to make public comments. Maajid might not have reckoned on the scale of response even whilst he sought to push an agenda, but as a result of his treatment I realised I was thinking twice about saying anything at all. And that really gets to the heart of the matter for me. It’s exceptionally difficult to have a conversation about freedom of speech and its limits (either due to voluntary civility or legal restriction – both of which have their place) in the context of fear and threat of violence.

Finally, of the articles which I’ve read that take into account a wider context, the Tell Mama website is absolutely the calmest and most reflective – taking into account both the right to freedom of speech, the importance of context and the concern for anti-Muslim rhetoric and Islamophobia.

I hope the threats, which were condemned by some on either side of the debate, are no longer (or were never) credible and hope that we can indeed (in the words of Tell Mama’s post) ‘move on’ to more constructive discourse about the place of religion in public.

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