So, I might try and convince (myself) that, during an odds-&-sods-ish week-or-two with much moving about, I decided to sit back, arms folded, and wait to see how reaction evolved. I occasionally watch The Big Questions (despite an instinctive aversion to its host) and had seen some of the program in er-hem question; and, wondering how supposed adults can (affect to) feel so threatened by a… four panel black-and-white (digitally?-)etched cartoon, was not displeased when Maajid Nawaz declared that he did not find it offensive. As refreshing as the London School of Economics’s re-think of its stance on free expression last year. But then I am not offended by anybody wearing Jesus and Mo T-shirts.
But this unthreatening, harmless statement landed a subsequently tweeting Nawaz in a spot of (potentially deadly) bother. Did he say that he didn’t find it offensive? Or did he say that nobody should be offended by it? If the latter, then the worst that could rationally be levelled at him (by any sofa-slothed, caffeine-imbibing, dressing gowned, blocked blogger) might be something like “Who are you to tell me what I should and shouldn’t be offended by?” Whereas the response “You should be offended!” amounts to some bigoted zealotry. But, as sure as humans are humans, one bigoted zealot obliged… with an attempt to have Nawaz removed as a prospective Liberal Democrat candidate.
The following weekend, (the National Secular Society’s ‘Secularist of the Year’-nominated) Nick Cohen was, as usual, cogency on a stick. And later (having dragged myself off the sofa, gotten dressed and switched to tea), when browsing the comment thread under his post, I attempted to respond to a (non-rhetorical?) question on the J&M T-shirts, ‘… where can I buy one[sic]’. The (presumably Ts&Cs-contravening) link in my first attempted response – ‘Here’ – floundered, so I spent a bit more time reading round, including the wording of the zealously bigoted petition, and re-attempted with the following:
‘Guess that question is unanswerable here, if it means supplying a link to where one can be bought. So, navigate yourself to the excellent Jesus and Mo site, and go from there; and also take in the latest cartoon on this very matter.
And for anyone who hasn’t already seen the Shafiq-instigated petition, consider the language in the ‘Background’ information:
‘We agree with the principles of respect and tolerance. Maajid Nawaz is free to express himself however he wishes. The point of contention is not his right to express himself nor is it the purpose of this petition to restrict anybody’s right to do so.
Rather, the purpose is to highlight to the Liberal Democrats that by choosing to exercise that right in an irresponsible, inconsiderate and flagrant manner, Maajid Nawaz, as a representative of the Liberal Democrats, has caused immense offence and disrespect to the religious beliefs and sentiments of all those signing this petition.’
Aside from the painful hypocrisy, it reads as though it is only deemed offensive because Nawaz is a Liberal Democrat…? There is multi-layered irony here. Wonder how many “but”s Clegg will utter with this one.’
However, as soon as I tried to post, comments on this thread were closed (albeit temporarily; whereas that under the article on Blair’s latest covetous bid for an absolving Nobel Peace Prize remained open). Well, the world hardly needs another commenter on a newspaper article thread. But I read that quote from the petition blurb again… confused by its strange logic: that Nawaz has caused immense offence and disrespect… because he himself (declared that he himself) did not find the cartoon offensive. The “You should be offended!” line.
Anyway, perhaps just as well it wasn’t posted, what with my now seemingly unjustified swipe at Clegg the Confused… who, it turns out, displayed some liberal mettle having come down on the side of the counter-petition, even though it apparently sought and garnered far fewer signatories (drawing concerned comment elsewhere).
However, this has continued as news – of a kind: on account of our news providers veering under the influence of Shafiq’s illiberal assault on democracy, it has morphed into news of the news. Deciding either they and/or the should-be-offended need protection, we were not able to see the cartoon basis of the story: Channel 4 News censored the thing, bizarrely depicting Mohamed/Muhammad as an elliptical obscurant; and Newsnight continued in its recent ‘don’t-go-there’ avoidance and didn’t show the thing at all. Kenan Malik has astutely pilloried the abject absurdity at play, which effectively results in the irony of more people viewing J&M.
So, another week or more off the pace, why bother opining on this now? Well, just last weekend it was still providing relevant fodder for columnists, such as Archie Bland in The Independent on Sunday, with an article worth turning attention to.
Blandly headed, ‘Is it my right to offend you?’, the piece was ironically by-lined with:
‘… In a civilised society, we need to know how to express views without censorship’
adjacent to a censored photograph of Chris Moos and Abhishek Phadnis, the J&M T-shirt-sporting LSE students who shared The Big Questions studio with Nawaz. By extension, then, Bland (or TIoS‘s editor: ‘It will not have escaped you that this piece is also unaccompanied by the cartoon – the editor’s decision, but one I agree with.’) either does not consider that we live in a civilised society; or we do, but are incapable of free expression in it, regardless. It is a difficult sentence to understand. But whatever it means, TIoS published a piece (partly) discussing censorship – and censored it.
There are many statements in this article which provoke a frown. For instance:
‘… Jesus and Mo, an online comic with an enthusiastic atheist following.’
Oh, so J&M only appeals to atheists, does it? I’d venture that such an unfounded assumption is no more valid than me suggesting that it is likely read enthusiastically by many religious people. Because it takes a humorous pop at religion it can only be appreciated by the areligious? Balderdash!
Bland then goes on to detail the T-shirts Moos and Phadnis were wearing on The Big Questions program, but which we can’t make out in the article photo… because it’s been censored! One was the “Hey” – “How ya doin’?” logo, as later tweeted by the un-offended Nawaz. The other wasn’t. Is there not contradiction in accompanying a censored visual image… with text describing the details of that being censored, thereby forming an image in the minds of those whose sensibilities the censorship is (supposedly) supposed to spare? Bland found this other T-shirt ‘wholly innocuous’ (immediately begging the question, ‘Why endorse your editor’s decision that it be censored, then?’). However, a lady who was sitting next to the T-shirt-wearers was not amused, reportedly complaining that the program’s producers should have warned participants that the T-shirts were to be worn. Uh? Did anybody reason that it would be equivalently appropriate to forewarn Moos and Phadnis they would be seated next to a niqab-clad lady? The issue of potential offence taken at her (one would prefer to think freely-chosen) garb is not considered. But if it is deemed offensive to declare offendedness at the niqab, what would be the reaction were someone to tweet that they did not find her attire offensive and disrespectful to others? After all, it is the visual at issue here.
Bland reports on others’ opinions, doing his damnedest not to write anything offensive, positioning himself on the fence from where he can equivocate see both sides of this argument. And in doing so apparently fails to see the irony that his pusillanimous agreement with his editor is not the ‘neutral position’, as spelled out to him by Moos and Phadnis. He is, in a supposedly civilised society, endorsing censorship (of a feckin’ cartoon!). He quotes George Galloway’s labelling of Nawaz as “rancid”, without wondering why? What is the motivation for such invective? Do Galloway and Nawaz have history? Objection to Nawaz’s anti-extremist campaigning or his rapprochement with the former leader of the EDL? Without fleshing out it gives an impression of Galloway as endorsing the bigotry of Shafiq, who bafflingly calls himself a Liberal Democrat. It would be interesting to consider whether this outspoken individual who indefatigably exercises the right to free expression endorses the censorship of Channel 4, Newsnight and TIoS, whether or not they act from desire to avoid offence, or from fear of reaction. Newsnight editor Ian Katz is quoted as saying ’… it’s a mainstream Muslim position to think it’s offensive.’ So? If mainstream, there’s nothing to fear, is there? The mainstream does not threaten violent reaction, or subvert democracy – that would, by definition, be extremist.
For the good of their party, Nawaz and Shafiq have ostensibly patched things up, leaving us to reflect not merely on who – like Chico Flores reacting to a top-of-the-head-brushing back-hand by rolling round and squealing as though he’d had his eyes gouged out – has most embarrassed himself, but on which of them has potentially caused the most damage.
Late in his piece, Bland offers up another strange statement:
‘But it is true to say… you better have a very good reason for defying their sensibilities.’
Is he giving us a warning? Is he saying, it will serve you right? Does he endorse the “You should be offended!” line? Can’t ask him because there is apparently no facility to freely express comment there.