Muslim fundamentalists in London have threatened to behead a fellow British Muslim after he posted an innocuous image of Mohammed and Jesus on his Twitter account.
The death threats against Maajid Nawaz, a Liberal Democrat Party candidate for British Parliament, add to a growing number of cases in which Islamists are using intimidation tactics to restrict the free speech rights of fellow Muslims in Europe. (Efforts to silence non-Muslims are well documented.)
Nawaz—a former member of the Islamist revolutionary group Hizb ut-Tahrir and co-founder of the Quilliam Foundation, a London-based counter-extremism think-tank—on January 12 posted on Twitter a cartoon of Mohammed and Jesus greeting one another ("Hey" and "How ya doin'?") with the caption: "This Jesus & Mo @JandMo cartoon is not offensive&I'm sure God is greater than to feel threatened by it الله أكبر منه".
Nawaz's tweet followed a BBC Big Questions program in which the "Jesus and Mo" cartoons, which have been around since 2005, were discussed and Nawaz was included as a studio guest.
Nawaz, who is also author of the book "Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism," said he posted the image to trigger a debate among Muslims about what should and should not be acceptable within Islam.
Not in the mood for debate, furious Muslims responded by bullying and issuing threats of violence—including beheading—and also launched a petition (it quickly garnered more than 20,000 signatures) to have Nawaz deselected as a candidate for parliament.
Labour Party Councilor Yaqub Hanif of Luton, a town situated 50 km (30 miles) north of London and known as the Islamic extremist capital of Britain, said the depictions of Mohammed were "totally unacceptable" to Muslims and called on Nawaz to step down.
"It's appalling that this guy is a parliamentary candidate because this behavior is not conducive to being an MP," Hanif said in an interview with the International Business Times. "If you want to be an MP then you must respect all faiths. He's not doing that."
A counter-petition has now been set up (it has only 8,000 signatures) calling on the Liberal Democrats to give Nawaz their full support. The petition states:
"Islamists and political opponents have mounted a campaign against Maajid Nawaz, resulting in numerous threats to his life. We note that this campaign, rather than being based on legitimate concerns of Muslims, is a political campaign which is being spear-headed by a group of Muslim reactionaries with a track record of promoting extremism. They are seeking to use Muslim communities in order to whip up hatred against a liberal and secular Muslims. We are concerned that this campaign will also be used by anti-Muslim extremists as evidence of Muslim intolerance and incompatibility with liberal values which could, in turn, fuel anti-Muslim bigotry."
The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, has expressed his support for Nawaz. "We simply cannot tolerate anyone in a free country—where we have to protect free speech, even if that free speech might cause offense to others—being subject to death threats and them and their family being put under extraordinary pressure to recant what they said," Clegg said.
Muslims eventually retaliated by rescinding the Quilliam Foundation's nomination for the annual British Muslim Awards, held in Manchester on January 30. Quilliam had been listed in the "Spirit of Britain" award category, but a statement on the awards' Facebook page reads: "In light of recent activity, the British Muslim Awards, after careful consideration, have come to the decision that it can no longer promote the Quilliam Foundation as a finalist, and thus its nomination has been removed with immediate effect."
More worrisome for the principle of free speech is that British mainstream media have censored reporting of the Jesus & Mo cartoon controversy.
For example, Channel 4 News blacked out a cartoon image of the Prophet Mohammed during a news broadcast on January 28 in order not to cause offense to Muslim viewers. In an open letter to the editor of Channel 4, the National Secular Society wrote that by "making this decision you have effectively taken a side in a debate where a Muslim man has suffered violent death threats after he explicitly said he did not find the cartoons offensive. You have taken the side of the reactionaries—the side of people who bully and violently threaten Muslims, such as Mr. Nawaz, online."
"By redacting the picture of 'Mo,' you have contributed to a climate of censorship brought on by the unreasonable and reactionary views of some religious extremists. Rather than defending free expression, one of the most precious pillars of our liberal democratic society, you have chosen instead to listen to extremists and patronize British Muslims by assuming they will take offense at an irreverent and satirical cartoon. By taking the decision you did, not only did you betray the fundamental journalistic principle of free speech, but you have become complicit in a trend that seeks to insidiously stereotype all Muslim people as reacting in one uniform way (generally presented as overly sensitive and potentially violent)."
In an article entitled, "Why I'm speaking up for Islam against the loudmouths who have hijacked it" (published by The Guardian newspaper on January 28), Nawaz defended his decision to tweet the image of Jesus and Mo.
"My intention was to carve out a space to be heard without constantly fearing the blasphemy charge, on pain of death," Nawaz wrote. "Modern Islamist attempts to impose theocratic orthodoxy on us will be resisted."
Others are not so sure. In an essay entitled, "Publish and be Damned," Abhishek Phadnis, a free speech activist at the London School of Economics, writes:
"The media's vaunted concern for minority welfare is at odds with its indifference to the minority within Islam that is trying to reform its orthodoxy's disgraceful attitude to blasphemy—a minority that is gravely endangered and in need of friends. Theirs is a spirited rear-guard against a gigantic global power of untold wealth and influence (namely Islamism, or the "loudmouths who have hijacked" Islam, as Maajid Nawaz puts it) which has a wretched record on freedom of expression, and every intention of exporting it."
"Since 1988, it has suborned the murder of foreign cartoonists, translators, artists, publishers and filmmakers who have offended its sensibilities, and has blighted the life and career of our most gifted contemporary novelist [Salman Rushdie]. Its blasphemy code has been visited upon Western universities, publishers, magazines, museums, art galleries, television productions, operas, independent cartoonists, artists and filmmakers and even Wikipedia, and it has sought to sabotage the economies and wreck the diplomatic missions of democracies that refuse to implement that code."
"It is a damning indictment of the press's confusion that every publication has ended up on the wrong side of its own politics in this matter," Phadnis concludes.
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.