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Independent confirmation of Birtwistle’s stance on Maajid Nawaz

A few days ago we heard reports of a letter allegedly sent by Burnley MP Gordon Birtwistle to a constituent who had asked for his views on Maajid Nawaz.

Dear Shoib,

Reaction Muslim Action

I can confirm I find the actions of Maajid Nawaz completely unacceptable and an insult to people from all religions. The Liberal Democrats should condemn his actions, deselect him and cancel his membership. If asked I will pass my views on to the leadership.

Yours sincerely,

Gordon Birtwistle

A statement given to the Lancashire Telegraph would seem to confirm beyond reasonable doubt that this letter was genuine rather than (as many suspected) a forgery.* It is utterly disgraceful that an MP should make an official recommendation that Nawaz be expelled from the party.  Even a criminal conviction does not lead to automatic expulsion.

Here’s an extract from the Lancashire Telegraph’s report:

In a statement, Mr Nawaz said he posted the image as he supported the principle of freedom of speech and he wasn’t offended by it. But Mr Birtwistle has called for him to be kicked out of the party after he was approached by several of his constituents, who had concerns about the cartoon.

He said: “I’m in favour of people having free speech, but if they decide that free speech allows them to abuse other people and other communities when they’re a Lib Dem candidate, it then puts me in the same team as them, and I don’t want that person in my team. To me, that’s not acceptable from a Lib Dem parliamentary candidate.”

Maajid Nawaz was not abusing ‘other people and other communities’ in posting that cartoon. It seems unlikely that he upset ‘a large majority of people in the community’, although possible that he upset some in the Muslim community.  Perhaps socially conservative Birtwistle really does react indignantly to religious satire. But he presumably also has an eye to 2015. Although Muslims make up only a small proportion of Burnley’s population, Birtwistle might assume that they will be far more alert to this issue than his non-Muslim constituents, and that an emphatic response might help save his marginal seat from Labour.

Not that it’s particularly helpful, of course, to think in terms of some monolithic ‘Muslim community’ when Nawaz is himself a Muslim and Birtwistle is not.  When non-Muslims side with the most intolerant Muslim voices they let down liberal Muslims and may also help fuel just the kind of anti-Muslim bigotry they (presumably) wish to counter.  It’s certainly not helpful to those who are trying to call attention to the genuine problem of anti-Muslim prejudice to imply that sharing an image of Jesus and Mo means you are abusing Muslims.  Frivolous accusations of Islamophobia are a dangerous liability.  They chill free speech – but also stoke resentment.

Maajid Nawaz has not of course been deselected or disciplined – but the response from the Lib Dem leadership was tepid.

“But we simply cannot tolerate anyone in a free country – where we have to protect free speech, even if that free speech might cause offence to others – being subject to death threats and them and their family being put under extraordinary pressure to recant what they said.

“Having said that, I would be the first to say that when you are dealing with issues of religion and deeply held faith, you have got to express yourself moderately and sensitively and with respect one to the other.

“That is the corollary of freedom of speech, it is also the freedom to deploy that freedom of speech in a sensitive and moderate way. That’s why Maajid has been right to express and acknowledge regret at some of the ways he has responded in the debate.”

Support for freedom of speech seemed swamped here by anxious comments about sensitivities.

If the Lib Dems are serious about freedom of speech then they need to respond to Birtwistle’s letter. It is a condition of Liberal Democrat party membership that one should not bring the party into disrepute.  Surely if anything brings the Lib Dems into disrepute it is not Nawaz linking to a piece of satire to make a serious point, but Birtwistle’s grotesque and illiberal suggestion that Nawaz – or anyone – should forfeit their membership for doing so.  It is positively surreal that he should have asserted such a thing in an official letter.

* Given that Birtwistle hasn’t denied writing the letter and has followed up the statements it contains with further quotes given to the Lancashire Telegraph (which also reports that he has called for Nawaaz to be kicked out of the party) the suggestion that the letter was a fake, which at first seemed plausible, now seems improbable.  If Birtwistle or anyone else can confirm that it is a fake, the post will of course be updated to reflect that.