Jesus and Mo: it’s time to pick a horse

By Lawyers’ Secular Society Secretary Charlie Klendjian (H/T Old Holborn for the link)

A few weeks ago I appeared on the BBC1 programme The Big Questions to discuss, well, a big question: “Should human rights always outweigh religious rights?” You can watch it on YouTube here.

I very much enjoyed the experience, and not just because of the limitless KitKats the production company generously laid on. What I haven’t found so enjoyable, though, is subsequent events.

On the programme were two friends of mine, Chris Moos and Abhishek Phadnis of the LSE Students Union Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society. They were on the programme because they had recently got into trouble with their university for the hideous crime of…wearing “Jesus and Mo” t-shirts at the LSE Freshers’ Fair in October of last year.

The LSS fully and unequivocally supported Chris and Abhishek and we condemned the LSE’s disgraceful reaction to such a harmless act (see herehere and here). I’m pleased to report that Chris and Abhishek did eventually receive something resembling an apology from the LSE but unfortunately this was only after my student friends had formally instructed a Matrix QC and Leigh Day solicitors to help them. You can read Chris and Abhishek’s joint statements about what happened at Freshers’ Fair here (day 1) and here(day 2); you can read Abhishek’s fantastic blog post about it here; and you can read their joint statement in response to what they see as LSE’s “half-apology” here.

The Big Questions showed the t-shirts Chris and Abhishek were wearing, though they didn’t show any close-ups. Sitting next to me on the programme was Maajid Nawaz, who is the Liberal Democrat prospective parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn and the co-founder and chair of the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank. Nawaz made it very clear on the programme that he, as a Muslim, had no objection to the t-shirts.

Shortly after the programme went out Nawaz tweeted a picture of one of the Jesus and Mo cartoons from the t-shirts – the same picture at the top of this blog post – saying:

“This Jesus & Mo @JandMo cartoon is not offensive&I’m sure God is greater than to feel threatened by it الله أكبر منه”.

And then things got crazy: there were death threats against Nawaz and a petition calling for his de-selection as a PPC.

So far, so bad.

Then things got crazier.

Last week two of our flagship news programmes, Channel 4 News and BBC’s Newsnight, in covering Nawaz’s plight, refused to show the cartoon he had tweeted. Displaying an inexplicable impatience to get into the Easter spirit in January, Channel 4 News decided to use what looked like a “black egg” to cover the image of Mohammed:

J and Mo.jpg censored

Newsnight didn’t even do that; they just avoided it completely. As the eccentric Christian blogger “Archbishop Cranmer” put it, this is how Newsnight depicted the cartoon:

Jesus and Mo BBC

In censoring themselves Channel 4 News and Newsnight not only failed in their task of reporting the news to their viewers – to enable their viewers to form their own opinion about the cartoon – but they also reinforced the very religious taboo that Nawaz had received death threats for challenging and which had landed Chris and Abhishek in hot water with the Libyan School of Economics – sorry, the London School of Economics. As Nawaz tweeted:

“Thank you @Channel4News you just pushed us liberal Muslims further into a ditch #LynchMobFreeZone #TeamNawaz”.

I am appalled at the treatment of Nawaz and I am appalled at the editorial decisions ofChannel 4 News and Newsnight to censor the Jesus and Mo cartoon. Religious censorship is bad even on a good day, but when it prevents discussion of the actual news item at hand it becomes surreal.

It’s high time we all faced up to a very unsettling reality here: sharia law is alive and kicking in the United Kingdom in 2014, and so is its deadly blasphemy code. After Nawaz had tweeted the picture Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadhan Foundation referred to him as “Gustake Rasool”, which means “Defamer of Prophets”. This is a religious and legal charge punishable by a death sentence in Pakistan. Nawaz travels regularly to Pakistan and has family there. Shafiq also tweeted that:

“We will notify all muslim organisations in the UK of his despicable behaviour and also notify Islamic countries”.

It’s tempting to think this is a difficult legal or moral conundrum. It isn’t. There are difficult legal and moral issues out there but this is not one of them. The question before us is very simple: do we have the right to depict Mohammed? It’s a simple question and so it deserves a simple answer. The answer is either yes or no. My answer is yes. If your answer is “yes, but”, then sorry that’s just not good enough. If you have to pause for thought before answering the question then you’ve probably already decided the answer is no.

“Oh but we have to be respectful because depiction of the prophet Mohammed is forbidden in Islam and so it’s offensive to Muslims”, I hear you say, clutching your dusty GCSE Religious Studies certificate proudly (I have an ‘A’ grade myself; it was one of my favourite subjects).

You’re wrong.

Point 1: there is a history within some strands of Islam of depicting Mohammed.

Point 2: all Muslims are individuals. Some of them will find a depiction of Mohammed offensive and some won’t. Why are you more concerned about the Muslims that want to enforce blasphemy codes rather than those challenging them, often at great risk? In choosing to instinctively sympathise with those seeking to enforce blasphemy codes you make it even harder for liberal and secular Muslims to rise up. As Nawaz says, you push them “further into a ditch.” You side with the oppressor rather than the victim. Think about that, carefully.

Point 3: notice how you just belittled all Muslims as unhinged individuals with hair-trigger tempers who cannot handle their ideas being challenged – in this case a picture of a man with a beard. Which other group of people would you treat like that? Is that showing “respect” towards Muslims? Or is it showing disrespect? Or is it possibly even de-humanising them?

Point 4: if someone is offended, so what? Do you know how offended some men (and women) were at the idea of women having the vote in this country? Do you know how offended some white people were at the idea of racial equality in the US and South Africa? Do you know how offended some Christians were at the Life of Brian and the work of the wonderfully irreverent late comedian Dave Allen (Allen also received death threats, incidentally)? Do you know how offended some religious people are at the idea of gay couples marrying? Challenging power always offends those who hold the power, or those who benefit from the power, that’s being challenged.

Point 5: this isn’t just about a cartoon, or Maajid Nawaz, or LSE students. It’s about our democracy asserting the vital principle that no idea is beyond challenge, criticism or even ridicule. Free speech and free expression are our safety mechanisms; without it there is no limit to harm.

Point 6: if you say we should censor these images out of “respect”, is that really the right word? Or when you say “respect” do you really mean “fear”? As I have said before, if you’re scared about something then for goodness sake just say you’re scared. There’s no shame in that whatsoever. But there is shame in saying you respect something when actually you don’t respect it, or when you’re scared of it.

You might be thinking to yourself, “Ok, so what can I do?” Well here’s the good news. The solution is simple. You just have to be honest when talking about religion, and in particular Islam. And when I say honest, I mean ruthlessly honest. If you find the enforcement of sharia law in the UK abhorrent, please say so. If you find the willingness of 18 out of 56 UK mosques to conduct child marriages abhorrent, please say so. If you find the al-Madinah school in Derby abhorrent, please say so. If you find gender segregation in UK universitiesabhorrent, please say so. And if you find the imposition of Islamic blasphemy codes byChannel 4 News and Newsnight abhorrent, please say so.

Don’t think you can straddle both sides of the Jesus and Mo argument, arguing in one breath how free speech and free expression are important but in another breath how we have to be “respectful” and not cause offence, like a Hollywood stuntman expertly riding two horses. At some point those horses will go their separate ways. Pick a horse now – while you still have something of a choice.

The events of the last few weeks have demonstrated something that secularists are only too aware of: the urgent need for absolute honesty when it comes to discussing religion. After we had finished filming The Big Questions a gentleman from the audience came up to speak to me. It’s fair to say we were on different sides of the debate. When I told him I was a secularist he remarked dismissively and mockingly, and almost salivating at his own quick wit, “well I suppose someone has to be”.

Yes, he’s bloody right.

Someone has to be.


Views expressed are not necessarily those of the LSS.

You can sign a petition in support of Maajid Nawaz here.

Chris Moos and Abhishek Phadis have been jointly short-listed for the National Secular Society’s “Secularist of the Year” award. More details here.

20 responses to “Jesus and Mo: it’s time to pick a horse

  1. I must confess I never thought I would be on the same side of an argument (any argument) with a Muslim Liberal Democrat (well with any Liberal Democrat) – but I am in this case.

    Muslims do not regard Mohammed as God – so even the rule that one must not show an image of God (a rule that some Churches have and others do not – for example Roman Catholics believe the rule against “graven images” is about WORSHIPPING images of FALSE Gods – having a representation of the real one is O.K.) does not apply (as Mohammed is not God – Mohammed was a man, nothing more).

    And even if Mohamed was regarded as God by Muslims (which he is not) the only just sanction for showing a representation of God (assuming that a Church forbids this) would be to say “well you can not be a member of our Church then”.

    No one (not a Calvinist, not an Orthodox Jew, and not a Muslim) is allowed to use FORCE in matters of religion – especially when the people wearing the shirts were not even members of their Church).

    A similar case for Orthodox Jews might be a shirt with Joshua sacking cities and murdering women and children (which he did) and saying “Joshua was a bad man – do not follow his religion!”.

    Orthodox Jews might object to such a shirt – but they would have no right to use force (or get other people to use force) to stop people wearing such shirts.

    By the way – I think the wearers of these shirts “wimped out” (as the modern way of speaking has it). As the shirts do not show Mohammed as a bad man (which he was) or depict any of his evil actions.

  2. Much as I support the views declared so confidently and robustly in this article, I feel obligated to point something out (something I frequently do point out); then idea of censorship to avoid offending people is nothing new, and has been part of our legal code for a very long time. We have laws against something called “obscenity”, and the justification for them is that things adjudged “obscene”… offend someone.

    Want to put a picture of a big spunky cock on the telly? A picture of somebody defecating? The words, “Fuck shit cunt bollocks”? Fine, doesn’t bother me. But Channel 4 News, or any other broadcaster would not do it, because it would “offend” viewers. That is the only reason.

    So, a liberal such as myself might bemoan the censorship- or self censorship- of Mo cartoons. But it is entirely compatible with previous legal and social precedent. How can one defend the right to offend muslims, but not to offend society matrons by saying, I dunno, “cunt”?

    Also, Mary Whitehouse. Serially terminally offended. Member of weird (Christian) sect.

    Nothing new, this.

  3. I dunno. The obscenities you refer to could be said to offend common decency, with ‘common’ being the operative word. The offence allegedly caused (I think it is manufactured rather than real) by the pic of Mr Mo is not ‘common’, it is peculiar to one religious sect whose views in very many areas are fundamentally different from, and indeed incompatible with, the views common to the indigenous people of these islands.
    If I were to find myself in a land where I was routinely and deeply offended by the actions of the natives, I think I would find it so unpleasant that I would find somewhere else to live. That is the obvious solution here.

    I don’t want to go into a blow-by blow analysis of Mr Kersey’s article, but I do find it odd that his ‘Point 1′ and Point 2’ etc concern themselves with the feelings of the Muslims. Who cares what they feel? If they don’t like it, they know what the answer is. I am not advocating being deliberately offensive to anybody, but if you live in a country that enjoys free speech, you are going to hear things that you don’t like of that you find offensive. Tough.

    There was a similar furore over an episode of ‘South Park’ which showed, or tried to show, Mohammed. The studio capitulated after receiving threats from Muslims (I don’t recall the exact sequence of events) and blocked it. The argument, predictably, was that the creators of South Park were putting lives at risk by their irresponsible actions. If that is indeed the truth, the threat is only going to get worse over time, not better, and in my view, a few lives lost now would be far preferable to mass slaughter later on. Just like Hitler and the Nazis really. Each minor capitulation will only make the final reckoning more lethal.

    Talking of South Park, many people find it offensive (myself included on occasion), and with good reason. The solution of course is not to watch it. Even though it grosses me out occasionally, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

  4. Hugo-

    The problem is, “common decency” itself refers to an imaginary construct of some decent, right thinking person who will be offended; which is exactly the same assumption made in this situation. It is not just that some muslims would be themselves offended; it is that it is not “common decency” to offend muslims.

    In the same way that while “nigger” would only specifically offend a black person, others would be offended at the use of it, simply because it is rude to black people, and it is not common decency to be rude to black people (or any other minority) under the current dispensation.

    Broadly speaking, the person whose sensibilities must not be offended is a decent person of the Establishment. They used to be primarily concerned with tits and bums and sex and bodily functions, and the words that describe them; despite such language being commonplace outside their class in everyday discourse. “So, I said to the fucker, I’ve fucking ‘ad it with you, and I twatted the cunt” etc. Nowadays, that Establishment is less concerned with those things (though it is on the rise again) and more concerned with sensitivity to particular minorities; and so now “common decency” extends to that subject matter.

    It is the same justification.

  5. It’s not the ‘Establishment’ I was talking about. It’s the ordinary man on the Clapham omnibus. There is a (very) broad agreement in this country among the indigenous population as to what is acceptable and what is not, although there are many manufactured grievances among special-interest groups.. The Muslim perspective is quite different and indeed alien
    , to the extent that there can be no meeting of the minds. Something has to give. And it’s not going to be Muslim sensibilities.

    From an objective mathematical point of view, this country (UK) will have a Muslim population majority in a very short time (a few decades). We can either face up to this problem or just pretend it doesn’t exist.

  6. I’m with you there Hugo. Ian’s being too cerebral again.

    Sadly, there’ll be no government of ours willing to face up to the ‘Muslim Problem’. They wont even admit there’s a problem let alone look for a solution. And why should they, when they know the more ordinary chap, that one seen in English streets, seems to rather enjoy being pissed upon.

    What comes first though, a Muslim takeover, or an economic collapse of such magnitude that chaos reigns throughout the land? I’ll wager the collapse. After that, the man in the street will be so angry he might just take his country back from the shite politicians that he trusted too much by hanging a few.

    2-1 on The Collapse.
    5-1 against The Muslim Takeover.
    50- against Stretched Politicians.

    Any takers out there? Name your stake.

  7. gerrydorrian66

    Great post! You’re absolutely right about siding with the abuser. If those same programs sided with wife-beaters or drunk drivers against their victims there would be an outcry. So we shouldn’t be siding with jihadis who want to cancel our hard-won freedoms against liberal Muslims who use and celebrate those freedoms.

  8. Liam Pickering

    What does the law say, exactly? If death threats were issued, those responsible should be arrested and tried for “inciting hatred” or “inciting violence”. I fear IanB is right: the idea of the right not to be offended has been part of British law for a while. Shouting about it now is a bit like kicking the door after the horse has bolted. Not that there’s anything wrong with kicking and screaming.

  9. Hugo-

    It’s the ordinary man on the Clapham omnibus.

    The problem is, the man on the Clapham omnibus is a very specific construction- he is a petit bourgeois, on his way from his home in the (at the time) nice suburb of Clapham to his job in the City. He is not Everyman. He is not the man on the building site or in the pub or working on the docks. He’s a man with internalised Establishment attitudes like, in the USA, the man in the grey flannel suit.

    So he’s an appeal to an idealised, “nice” Englishman. The 1930s man on the Clapham omnibus would be offended by coarseness. The modern man on the Clapham omnibus is offended by racism, islamophobia, homopobia, and so on.

  10. Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that nowadays, the man on the Clapham omnibus has become the woman on the Islington omnibus.

  11. Or on an Islington bicycle, come to think of it.

  12. And you once accused me of being vexatious! I don’t think Lord Denning was referring to the ‘petit-bourgeoisie’ when he coined that phrase and you know it!

    Liam Pickering asks what the law says. Well, I once sold an Aston Martin to a dentist in Bristol, and he got his gardener to drive me to the station to catch the next train home.
    At one point he took a short cut the wrong way up a one-way street, which I remarked upon, and he said ‘It’s ok, this is the Muslim area, nobody enforces the law around here’.

    There’s your answer – a cliche I know – one law for them, another for us.

    This process began in 1973 or 1974 when crash helmets were made compulsory for motorcyclists. Sikhs were exempted. There was a retired maths teacher name of Fred Hill, whom everybody sadly seems to have forgotten today, who refused to wear a helmet while riding his Honda 90 on the perfectly good grounds that the law should apply equally to all. He was, predictably, labelled a ‘racist’ (whatever that means, Ian!), he was fined repeatedly and jailed repeatedly for refusing to pay the fines. Ultimately he died of a heart attack in Pentonville prison one cold February day.

    All of which went unreported in the press. How many people of the calibre of Fred Hill do we have today to fight the Muslim iniquity?

  13. None of this-

    -mentions Denning. Regardless, it describes a particular stereotype of the petit bourgeois, which is why it is Clapham, which back then particularly was a dormitory suburb for that class.

    I repeat; it has become these days “common decency” to not offend the sensibilities of minorities. The imaginary “decent man” thus incorporates that value. Effectively, a person complaing today that he’s restrained from offending muslims is the equivalent of somebody in the 19th century (during the first “PC” cultural revolution) complaining that he’s no longer allowed to call a cunt a cunt. He can complain all he likes about liberty, but polite society has turned against him.

    As such, he can conform, or be slung off the Clapham omnibus.

  14. labelled a ‘racist’ (whatever that means, Ian!),

    It means an attitude to race or ethnicity that offends the sensibilities of the woman on the Islington omnibus.

  15. Now you’re talking us all into a intellectual vacuum. There’s no time left for verbal diarrhoea. We’ve already suffered from far too much suffocating graduate genius.

    You’re trying to sound super-clever whilst dodging the real issue which is: There’s a four hundred ton train of unknown origin on the track doing a hundred mph. It’s heading in our direction. Many of us are straddling the track in cars with engines that have run out of fuel. No mater how smart the words are strung together talking is not going to help one iota.

    So what do you intend actually ‘doing’ to save our cars… let alone those you hold most dear and who remain trapped?

    The government says that we’re not aloud to destroy the train because no one knows who it belongs to… they say. And, to destroy it would be politically incorrect; against the law as of last Friday, or was it Thursday?

    For once, maybe you clever guys should be thinking about those who’ve been left straddling the track and not those who’ve set the four hundred ton monster in motion.

    Forget the fucking omnibus you two and offer a viable solution. You do own one I assume?

    Just saying…

  16. You’re not going to figure out a solution until you get to grips with how that train started rolling a long, long time ago, when the Establishment got the idea that it was their duty to moderate the private, social and civil spheres.

    On behalf of the mythical Omnibus Man.

  17. You’re wrong old chap. We must destroy the train no matter when it started rolling or who started it rolling. If we don’t, it will surely destroy all of us.

    It’s a war situation. Dunkirk all over again if you like. If you accept that a train is heading our way then it must be stopped – one way or another.

    Sometimes that’s how it is. I don’t know who determined it so but it is so. I’m a hundred percent certain that something heavy is coming down the track however and I suspect you are too.

  18. Ian – who bloody cares if it was Denning or not?! As for ‘common decency’, perhaps I should have said ‘common sensibilities’. For example, it would be unacceptable (sadly) to the average Joe (is that better?) for a woman to walk down the street topless. Arms, legs, face, no problem. A Muslim would be offended by all of the above, believing, as some do, that women were sent by Satan to tempt men. Likewise enjoying a pint in a pub is a perfectly acceptable British pastime. Not to a Muslim though. And so on. You have driven me to state the bleedin’ obvious because of your vexatious arguments about buses!

    Racist; – “It means an attitude to race or ethnicity that offends the sensibilities of the woman on the Islington omnibus.”
    That’s not what you said last time – you equated it with racial prejudice, which is not the same thing!

    Getting back to the topic under discussion – the issue, as are so many, is one of mathematics as much as anything else. The Muslim birth rate is growing exponentially, whereas the indigenous white birth rate is running at something like 1.7. It needs to be a bit over 2 to maintain a stable population. The ‘white’ population – the ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’ if you like, is fast becoming an endangered species, and being replaced by Muslims with a completely alien culture. If things continue as they are, we will soon be a Muslim country. In order to prevent this happening, something has to change, and fast. But what?

    I have long felt that the solution, somehow, will have something to do with pigs. They are the one thing Muslims are terrified of.

  19. An economic collapse may have its good side – as well as its utterly terrible side.

    An economic collapse may transform politics – thus leading to a different situation in other matters.

  20. Hugo – just a small point – it isn’t my article, but Charlie Klendjian’s. I found it sufficiently interesting to think we should reblog it for comment.