A Politician, a Tweet, and a Question of Freedom

by Tom Rogan
A cartoon of Mohammed whips up a firestorm in England.

Across the pond, a storm of controversy has engulfed a Liberal Democratic parliamentary candidate. Thousands are demanding Maajid Nawaz’s deselection as a candidate for office. Others are threatening his murder.

What invited such a firestorm?

The tweeting of a cartoon. Of Jesus and the Prophet Mohammed.

It’s easy to roll one’s eyes, but this is a defining moment for British democracy. If Nawaz is forced into the wilderness, if British society allows subjective political censorship to ruin him, the home of parliaments will have rendered itself a house of cards.

Regrettably, the trends have long been clear.

Led by celebrities who demand positive publicity and absolute privacy, and supported by judges who assume global supremacy in their rulings, free speech in Britain already faces major problems.

Still, because of the specific character of this particular controversy — speech on a political issue of public concern — what’s happening to Nawaz is especially concerning.

This isn’t just about extremists. Censorship in Britain finds sympathy from a broad array of interests. There’s the British political class that, traditionally sympathetic to mild authoritarianism, has come to regard political correctness as the price of a 21st-century news cycle. In the same vein, there’s the mainstream of British sentiment that sees no merit in discord — “keep quiet and carry on” being the unfortunate companion to the mantra “keep calm and carry on.”

Then there’s the British Muslim community. Here we see a divide of three general perspectives. There are those Muslims who, like Nawaz, see merit in vigorous debate. Then there are those Muslims who care greatly for the U.K. and its values but also see Nawaz-style actions as deliberate, personal affronts. And then there are those Muslims, including some in public office, who believe that their own emotions must define society’s rules. While many British Muslims have contributed greatly to an economically and socially richer Britain, some Muslim citizens have retrenched into a theological absolutism that will not tolerate insult. Facing a man like Nawaz, an extremist turned moderate, they have found the perfect enemy — one they are desperate to destroy. Supporting this final group, political opportunists such as Britain’s oily prostitute for extremism, George Galloway, are always close at hand.

And so, from this blending a casual consensus has emerged: “Only a bigot would tweet a picture of Mohammed, and only a masochist would talk freely about political Islam.”

Yet, as with any democracy, Britain’s democracy cannot ultimately coexist with such self-censorship. Indeed, the very presence of a “controversy” proves the social importance of what Nawaz has done. After all, Nawaz sent out his tweet only after attending a BBC TV debate in which the editors refused to broadcast images of participants who were wearing the cartoon on their shirts. Equally telling has been the pathetic reaction of the British government. Faced with a man suffering direct threats for his free speech, what did it do? Instead of offering protection and unqualified support, the police advised Nawaz to go into hiding.

In this case, a solitary cartoon carries profound importance. In the confluence of authoritarianism and disinterest, Britain has found itself on the cusp of an unholy union with political extremism. The choice at hand could not be clearer or more consequential. In this moment, the British people must decide what they value more: a society that protects free speech as a bedrock principle or a society in which free speech is further imprisoned by fear.

Tom Rogan is a blogger based in Washington, D.C., and a contributor to TheWeek.com and the Guardian.