Online Only: The Price Paid for Criticising Islam

Imagine it: A woman, who happens to be a Muslim, goes to the police to complain that she has received threatening messages on Facebook (including pictures which clearly identify her) and these threats are based on the fact that she is a Muslim — she’s being threatened because she is a Muslim. Now imagine that the police tell her that they would approach the antagonist but it might make him “angrier”. 

Now imagine that she is told “well, as a Muslim you must expect this kind of thing; just keep your Muslimness to yourself and you’ll have no problem”. 

Finally, let’s imagine that the person behind the threats is a “pro-democracy” campaigner and former Liberal Democrat councillor. The Muslim woman complains to the Liberal Democrats in Cambridge (where the “pro-democracy” campaigner held his seat), and its chair Spencer Hagard tells her that an inquiry in to the matter has “significantly increased my previously high esteem for him”. 

Do you think this would happen?

Change the details a bit and you have the disgraceful treatment of the brave Sudanese ex-Muslim and campaigner Nahla Mahmoud.

Nahla is a 26 year old Sudanese student who came to Britain in 2010 to escape what she describes as the “hell” of living as an atheist woman in an Islamic state. Following an appearance on Channel 4’s 4Thought programme, where she described her shock at discovering the proliferation of Islamic sharia law here in the UK, Nahla was threatened and her family abused. The response she received to her complaints would demonstrate to Nahla what I and many others have long known: if you criticise Islam, you’ve got to be prepared for the fall-out. 

It was in January of this year that the remarks about Nahla first began to appear online. Mr Salah Al-Bandar, director of the Sudan Civic Foundation, posted an article in Arabic on the Sudanese Online website — a site widely read both in Sudan and among its diaspora — denouncing Nahla as a “kafira” who had started a “battle against Islam and the beliefs of the people”. He went on to say he would “never have any mercy on her here”. Anyone who knows anything about this kind of Islamist ideology knows that this constitutes a threat; in most Islamic states, insulting Islam carries the death penalty. This did not end with words; Nahla’s brother in Sudan has been physically attacked, and her mother threatened. 

This situation is dire enough, and Nahla’s story is rightly receiving coverage but what is not being discussed as it should be is the response, or lack of it, from the police and the Liberal Democrats. 

Let’s start with the Lib Dems. Following a complaint to the chair of Cambridge branch of the party, an investigation was undertaken. Mr Al-Bandar received a letter requesting his side of the story, which he promptly supplied. In it, he argued that he had been fighting such behaviour (i.e. threats) throughout his political life; he wrote at length about his history of support for women’s rights, freedom of thought, and “empowering disadvantaged communities”. On the screen-shots containing his threats to Nahla, he had nothing to say except “that it bears no relation to the truth”. He did not explain how the Facebook postings came in to being. He simply repeated “I am wonderful” and this was deemed to be enough. Not only enough, but according to Hagard, Al Bandar was now even more wonderful than previously thought. Nahla was dismissed. 

With support from the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain Nahla also took her complaint to the police. The investigation has since been closed; it is unclear why. They did offer to speak to Mr Al-Bandar but with a warned Nahla that “you may just make him angrier”. Would the police give the same response to a woman complaining of Islamophobic threats? I very much doubt it. On the question of whether threats to an ex-Muslim constitute a hate crime, the police told Nahla that this was a “grey area” and thus best left alone. 

As someone who has also received threats for my criticisms of Islam, and had my complaints dismissed — “what did you expect?” — I am fully aware of the prevalence of such responses. A friend recently suggested to me that the police are in effect enforcing sharia law by stealth. This is no as ridiculous as it sounds. In Islamic societies, insults to Islam can result in death. One way or another, one is highly likely to be severely punished. The police in this case gave a strong message to Nahla, and to anyone else who might be tempted to commit the heinous offence of criticising or dismissing the religion of Islam: you’ll be punished, we won’t help, and you probably deserve it anyway.

I have written before on the impossible position of the police on issues such as these. Individual officers are in a lose-lose situation and must worry about vexatious and bogus accusations of racism. These accusations work — they have the desired effect and we routinely read of people losing their livelihoods for any perceived sleight on Islam. Look at the dinner lady sacked for almost accidentally serving pork to a child, or the headmaster in Bradford forced from his job for wanting pupils to learn English. Add to this the numerous arrests for offensive Tweets, Facebook messages, and of an 85 year old for shouting outside a mosque and the message is crystal clear: sharia is here and you must obey. If you don’t, and you suffer because of it, you have only yourself to blame. 

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