Meet the latest victim of the "Cartoon Wars": Maajid Nawaz, head of the counter-extremism Quilliam Foundation and prospective parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrat party. He was on a BBC program discussing free speech and the right to offend, when two students from a London Atheists and Secular Society were present. They were wearing T-shirts with a cartoon strip on them called "Jesus and Mo." The wearing of such T-shirts has become a matter of principle for them since students manning the stall of the Atheists and Secularists society at the London School of Economics freshers' fair last October were asked either to cover their T-shirts up or be physically removed. No prizes for guessing who complained about the T-shirts, but it was not the LSE Christian Society.
This local infringement on freedom of speech caused some embarrassment for the LSE, and the debate over the dreaded T-shirts of hate rumbled on until December when the university authorities apologized for becoming the blasphemy fashion police.
But as everybody who remembers the Danish cartoons affair will remember, these things are never contained. Indeed so fevered is this debate that there are endless Hydra-headed spin-offs each time the cartoon wars crops up. Each time someone tries to chop its metaphorical head off, another cartoon affair pops up somewhere else.
In any event, this time the spin-off was the BBC Sunday morning discussion show on which the students turned up, again with their T-shirts. The BBC refused to show the T-shirts and some artful filming protected the audience from the full horror of having to see a stick-figure called "Mo" saying "How ya doin?" to Jesus, who is saying "Hey."
This "Jesus and Mo" image, featured on t-shirts and in comic strips, is the source of controversy at the BBC and the London School of Economics. (Image source: jesusandmo.net)
During the debate, a number of Muslims pointed out how offensive they found this outrageous image, and how against the feelings of all Muslims it was. And Nawaz was the only one to point out that he, as a Muslim, did not find this offensive at all. Rightly amazed at the BBC's genuflection to a new blasphemy law, when the program had finished, he sent the cartoon out to his twitter followers with a message saying that he thought his God was bigger than to find offense at something like this.
Cue the latest deluge of utter souped-up outrage. Prominent "moderate Muslims" immediately started to pass word around that a great offense had been committed. All around one could hear the sound of old scores being settled. One such figure – who runs an outfit called the "Ramadhan Foundation" announced that he was going to notify not just all Muslim groups but also Islamic countries of the "offense." Subsequently Nawaz began to receive serious death-threats. So serious have they become, in fact, that the UK police appear to have advised him to keep his head down and not make public appearances for a while.
Then emerged the backlash to the backlash. The same figures who had appeared to organize (in the words of one BBC journalist) a lynch-mob against Nawaz complained that they themselves had also been subject to death threats. In some instances this may be true. Two of those who whipped up outrage against Nawaz for tweeting out the cartoon of "Jesus and Mo" were recently on a hit-list of British targets issued by the terrorist group Al-Shabaab. Their offense, in the eyes of Al-Shabaab, was that they had spoken out against the decapitation of Drummer Lee Rigby by two jihadist maniacs in London last year.
All of which is certainly a new riff, but it is on an old tune. Round and round we go in the cartoon wars. And all the time, the underlying problem goes unaddressed. When Nawaz and I debated whether Islam is a "religion of peace" in New York, the scales-falling-from-eyes moment from the audience occurred when it became clear that everybody on all sides of the debate – Muslim and non-Muslim, believers that Islam is a religion of peace and those who believe that it is not – were all the subject to some degree of threat to their lives.
It is the same in the latest round of the cartoon wars. Nawaz rightly said he was not offended by a cartoon. But a bunch of individuals thought he should be and helped whip up a storm against him. In their defense, they then pointed out that their lives were in danger too. All of which reminds us, is anyone ever going to concentrate on what the problem is here?