Comparing the former PM to Jesus and Mohammed misses the point
Naz Shah, the Labour MP for Bradford West, is an unusual choice for shadow minister of ‘community cohesion’. The MP is no stranger to controversy, having campaigned for George Galloway in 2012 — a seat that she would later go on to take herself — and making some suspect statements about Israel, suggesting that the nation should relocate to the US to save the superpower “some pocket money”.
Her stance on these issues should give context to her comments on the government’s proposed bill criminalising the vandalism of public statues. Her argument is that if the British government recognises the “emotional harm” caused by vandalism against statues of Winston Churchill and Oliver Cromwell, religious figures deserve equal protection — specifically, the religious figures of the Islamic religion.
There are “other figures that many people in modern Britain hold close to their hearts”, Shah said, listing Jesus, Mohammed, and Moses, among others. “When bigots and racists defame, slander or abuse our prophet, peace be upon him, just like some people do the likes of Churchill, the emotional harm caused upon our hearts is unbearable,” she told Parliament.
Given Islam’s prohibition on depicting its prophet, it would be facetious to suggest that there would ever be a statue of Mohammed in the manner of, say, Winston Churchill.
Some would wonder how necessary it is to legislate against an action that the vast majority of people are scared to do anyway for fear of retribution. The implication, therefore, is clear – Shah is trying to equate the statue culture war to blasphemy laws.
But there are also the broader flaws in Shah’s thinking about community cohesion. As she concluded her speech to Parliament, she asked: “When striking the careful balance to protect such emotional harms, can there and should there be a hierarchy of sentiments?”
The answer is simple: yes, all nations value some sentiments above others. That is what makes them nations, rather than separate individuals or groups living parallel lives in the same space.
Churchill is undoubtably more important to the British than the prophet Mohammed. Churchill is credited with saving Britain from Nazi occupation in the Second World War, whereas — to an increasingly unreligious country — the prophet Mohammed is one holy man among many. One is central to the British nation, and one is not.
Iconic, even mythological personalities are part of all national stories, which bind people together alongside other shared institutions: sports teams, cuisines, and even political arrangements. Certain intellectuals may try to complicate such matters, but modern Britain has pretty clear symbols of national pride — and Churchill is among the most popular. Comparing him to religious characters like Mohammed or Moses simply does not fit.