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'
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?