Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Distortion, Dogma and Denial

Rowson, Monbiot and the Propaganda of Media Lens 

For those who don't know, Media Lens is an independent website run by two Davids, Cromwell and Edwards, ostensibly dedicated to identifying bias and distortion in reporting by 'The Mainstream Media'. As their use of this now-loaded term suggests, however, the site is less an impartial and fair-minded ombudsman than a crude ideological tool.

Cromwell and Edwards are both proponents of the 'Propaganda Model' of media advanced by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky in their 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent. Their theory - in short - holds that large media organisations are cynical machines which pay lip service to truth and democracy whilst actually manufacturing consent for policies that serve corporate interests. Or as the website's FAQ would have it:
In seeking to understand systematic media distortion, we reject all conspiracy theories. Instead, we point to the inevitably corrupting effects of ‘market forces’ operating on, and through, media corporations seeking profit in a society dominated by corporate power.
So it is with these a priori assumptions in mind that Media Lens attacks British journalists and their reporting, with a view to countering the media's perceived agenda with an anti-corporatist agenda of its own. The extent to which one sympathises with this mission depends almost entirely upon the degree to which one buys into the Chomsky/Herman thesis.

The Tribune article approvingly linked in Monbiot's tweet was the result of another Media Lens twitter spat in which Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson found himself embroiled earlier this year. On May 27, 2 days after the massacre of 108 civilians in Syria's Houla region by forces loyal to Assad's Ba'athist regime, the Guardian had published the following editorial cartoon beneath the headline "Martin Rowson on the Lastest Syrian Massacre":

Media Lens took exception to the presumption of Assad's guilt and, apparently unaware that they were displaying exactly the kind of wounded schoolboy innocence satirised in the cartoon, leapt to his defence.

The meaning of the cartoon is pretty clear to me and eminently defensible in its indictment of Assad and his apologists. But Rowson, perhaps a little taken aback by a request for hard facts about a situation immersed in uncertainty, unwisely sought to justify his conclusions with vague references to media reports and a reliance upon his "cartoonist's hunch". (In his subsequent Tribune piece, Rowson acknowledged this mistake before appearing to back-pedal further, claiming that the "Who? Me??" caption was not necessarily attributable to Assad (who, you will notice, is indicating himself) and rather ungenerously blaming the subber for appending an unsuitable headline.)

Scenting blood, Media Lens began a robotic series of requests for conclusive evidence of Assad's guilt that met a standard of reliability they knew full well Rowson could never hope to produce. Understandably, Rowson finally lost his rag, and the exchange more-or-less ground to a halt (although the feud has fitfully spluttered back into life since).

Armed with 140 character confirmation of Rowson's failure to meet their exacting standards of certainty, Media Lens named and shamed him in a blog post (or "Media Alert" as they like to call them) about alleged corporatist bias in the reporting of the Houla massacre. To Media Lens, the accusation was not one of simple inaccuracy, but of collusion in manufacturing a casus belli for an allegedly profit-driven war in the Middle East. Or, as they explained to Rowson:

Never mind the fact that Rowson was one of the Iraq war's most strident opponents. And never mind the fact that neither the British nor the American governments display the slightest appetite for miltary intervention in Syria. And never mind whether or not Assad was in fact responsible, as the preponderance of evidence available at the time clearly suggested. Rowson was explicitly accused of acting as a shill for war profiteers.

The Media Lens blog about Houla opened with the following quote from the Independent on Sunday:
‘There is, of course, supposed to be a ceasefire, which the brutal Assad regime simply ignores. And the international community? It just averts its gaze. Will you do the same? Or will the sickening fate of these innocent children make you very, very angry?’ (Independent on Sunday, May 27, 2012)
To which the (unidentified) Media Lens blogger responded:
Readers, then, knew exactly where to direct their anger - the 'brutal' Syrian 'regime' was responsible for the massacre.
Not only are we given to understand that Assad's regime must be considered innocent until proven guilty, but the inverted commas also imply that it has yet to be satisfactorily demonstrated that it is either "brutal" or indeed deserving of the perjorative term "regime". By Media Lens's demanding standards, it seems the only thing we can confidently say about the Syrian government is that it is Syrian.

It is here that we start to enter the murky world of atrocity denial. Media Lens strenuously protest this charge, claiming that they are only interested in accuracy. But, as Oliver Kamm has argued with respect to their defence of Chomsky's views on the Srebrenica massacre (see comment thread here), Media Lens have previous form on this front.

In spite of the pre-emptive denials distancing themselves from conspiracy theorising, the logic with which they seek to exonerate Assad of responsibility for Houla is disturbingly similiar to that used by those seeking to discredit any "Official Line", be it on evolotion, climate change, the events of 9/11 or the historicity of the Holocaust. That is, to introduce enough doubt to allow alternative interpretations of events to be considered on a plane of equal validity.

Historical relativism was an early 20th Century reaction to the unsustainable idea that history was the process of revealing objective truth. Memory, it was conceded, is faulty; writing open to interpretation; people are prone to self-deception; the motivation for actions is often opaque, even to the actors themselves; and historians are all prone to personal and cultural bias. In 1931, Carl Becker addressed the American Historical Association as follows:
Much the greater part of [historical] events we can know nothing about, not even that they occurred; many of them we can know only imperfectly; and even the few events we think we know for sure we can never be absolutely certain of, since we can never revive them, never observe or test them directly.
These problems only multiply when dealing with events obscured by chaos (as in Syria) or the passage of time (as with the Holocaust). Survivors die, testimony conflicts and evidence gets destroyed or lost.

Historical relativism was an attempt to come to terms with these truths. However, followed to its logical conclusion, it revealed itself to be just as unsustainable as the historical objectivity it sought to overthrow. Stranded in nihilism, the historian is thrown into what Rowson described in his Tribune piece as a "phenomenological vortex" in which nobody can be sure about anything, and the concept of truth becomes so elusive as to be virtually meaningless.

But it is the very weaknesses inherent in historical relativism that make it so attractive to conspiracy theorists and ideological revisionists. It is into the gaps in our knowledge that they run in pursuit of their agenda, demanding extravagant proofs of negatives and seizing on every circumstantial scrap they can find in order to sow more doubt. "How do you know it was 6 million? Can you show me their names?" Or "Can you produce the document that conclusively proves Hitler personally ordered the Final Solution? No? Then perhaps you ought to admit he might not have known". Or, as Media Lens wonder aloud in the case of Houla:
Perhaps Syrian government forces, or allied militias were responsible. Would that mean the Syrian government, and Assad himself, ordered, or knew about, the killings? Might the killers be rogue supporters of the government acting independently?
This follows speculation that the attack was in fact a false flag operation by Syrian rebels designed to draw the West into war. One Alastair Crooke, interviewed on that noble paragon of objectivity, and introduced by Media Lens as a "highly respected Syria analyst", had this to say:

But all this feverish obscurantism is for naught when a modicum of common sense is introduced. The simple answer to the problems presented by historical objectivity and relativism respectively is to abandon the pursuit of absolute certainty and follow the convergence of evidence. History - whether immediate or distant - can never realistically be a record of what happened. It can only be a record of what probably happened, based upon the best interpretation of the best evidence available. 

It is this approach which forms the basis of both scientific inquiry and historical methodology today, and upon which UN investigators relied to reach the wholly unsurprising conclusions published in their August 2012 report:
The continued investigation since its preliminary report of 27 June 2012, has supplemented the commission’s initial understanding of the events in Al-Houla. On the basis of available evidence, the commission has a reasonable basis to believe that the perpetrators of the deliberate killing of civilians, at both the Abdulrazzak and Al-Sayed family locations, were aligned to the Government. It rests this conclusion on its understanding of access to the crime sites, the loyalties of the victims, the security layout in the area including the position of the government’s water authority checkpoint and the consistent testimonies of victims and witnesses with direct knowledge of the events. This conclusion is bolstered by the lack of credible information supporting other possibilities.
So, in summary?
The commission found that Government forces and Shabbiha members were responsible for the killings in Al-Houla.
The commission confirms its previous finding that violations were committed pursuant to State policy. Large-scale operations conducted in different governorates, their similar modus operandi, their complexity and integrated military-security apparatus indicate the involvement at the highest levels of the armed and security forces and the Government. The Shabbiha were identified as perpetrators of many of the crimes described in the present report. Although the nature, composition and hierarchy of the Shabbiha remains unclear, credible information led to the conclusion that they acted in concert with Government forces.
Pending the emergence of persuasive evidence to the contrary - which, to my knowledge, Media Lens have yet to provide - this is our best understanding of what probably happened.

Let it not be forgotten that Britain, France, the US and ten other nations felt sufficiently certain of the Syrian regime's responsibility to expel their diplomats. Nor that the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to condemn the regime, by 41 votes to 6.

It is also worth noticing the hapharzard incoherence with which Media Lens prosecute their case. Their demand for conclusive proof does not, for a start, extend to their own claim about the Iraq war's alleged illegality.

More damaging still, their own sources are permitted to offer unchallenged, unsubstantiated speculation that comes nowhere near the standard expected of Rowson, and are compromised by serious credibility problems.

I won't waste time going over the abundant evidence of's flagrant anti-Western bias. But it is worth pointing out that their distinguished guest, Alastair Crooke, tends to share his hosts' dim view of the West, and has developed a corresponding sympathy for some of its most unpleasant enemies. Comparing Western Enlightenment values unfavourably with those of Islamism back in 2009, he indulgently described Hamas and Hezbollah as part of "the intellectual tradition [of Islamism] grounded in philosophy and reasoning and in transforming knowledge". How interesting.

Sharmine Narwani is introduced with the scholarly-sounding title "Senior Associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford University" to speculate about how recommendations found in the 2010 Unconventional Warfare Manual of the US Military’s Special Forces might have been applied in Syria. Predictably, she provides no evidence for her insinuations, and the article ("censored," we are told, "by AOL-HuffPost") was published the day the massacre in Houla occurred, so it's no use to Media Lens there.

This is someone, by the way, who has written that "charges of electoral fraud after [Iran's] June 2009 elections are far from conclusive", and who found it necessary to respond to the news of Christopher Stevens's murder in Benghazi with this:

A handy quotation from Major General Robert Mood ("What I learned on the ground in that I should not jump to conclusions") links to a faintly nauseating piece by Hafez al-Assad's notoriously sympathetic biographer Patrick Seale. When not stooging for the Assad family, Seale, like Narwani, is a defender of the necessity of an "axis of resistance" consisting of Syria, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. (For further discussion of Seale's pro-totalitarian apologetics, see Bella Center's excellent post over at MidEastParallelUniverse.)

Quite apart from anything else, the appearance of Seale's article in The Guardian seems rather to undermine the idea that the mainstream media is a homogenous corporatist machine disseminating warmongering falsehood in the pursuit of profit. As does John Bradley's linked article from the Daily Mail, which appears beneath the words: "Yes, Syria is a tragedy but it would be madness for Britain to intervene."

Meanwhile, in seeking to discredit those they attack for their alleged corporatist bias, Media Lens link to the websites of such apparently non-mainstream media organs as The Sunday Telegraph, The Guardian, the AP, Reuters, the BBC and The Daily Mail. Are these exceptions justified with reference to their sources or their supporting evidence? Nope. These particular articles (or, rather, cherry-picked sentences) seem to be validated only by their temporary usefulness to the Media Lens argument.

None of which prevents Media Lens, of course, from discarding the fragile veneer of sober inquiry and dispensing with all nuance in favour of a thunderous, pulpit-pounding conclusion worthy of Lindsey German:
We recognise the bloody ruthlessness of the Syrian Baathists, epitomised by Assad's father and continued now by his son, Bashar. Whatever the truth of Houla, the reaction of the corporate media has, yet again, made a mockery of the claim that it is a 'free press'. Rather, it has propagandised relentlessly in promoting the US-UK view of the conflict. Once again, war in pursuit of regime change is the real goal behind the 'humanitarian' deceit.
War, again war, always war - endless war! But then corporate greed is a form of eternal war in pursuit of profit. We are living, very clearly, in a pathologically violent and structurally insane society. 
That perfunctory condemnation of the Assad regime seems hard to reconcile with their criticism of the Independent on Sunday's nearly identical description. But then, this kind of pro forma declaration is a staple of any defence of the tyranny, reluctantly inserted to provide a semblance of deniability when the accusations of excuse-making for dictatorship inevitably begin. (Even George Galloway would occasionally describe Saddam Hussein as a "brutal dictator".)

Media Lens conclude with what they appear to think is damning evidence of media complicity in a warmongering agenda from the Times:
‘What kind of country would Britain be, and what kind of people would young Syrians take us for, if we allowed the slaughter to continue?’ (Leader, ‘Responsibility to Protect,’ The Times, May 30, 2012)
Good question. And not one to which I have yet heard a satisfactory answer from the anti-war camp. The ideological straightjacket to which Media Lens have confined themselves will not accomodate the possibility of humanitarian intervention to prevent ongoing crimes against humanity. But nor do they appear to feel comfortable arguing that we all sit with our arms folded while Assad slaughters his own people like livestock. So, instead, they try to convince us that he may not be culpable; that reality is not what it seems, so as to stun us into impotent agnosticism.

When confronted with accusations of pro-Assad bias, Media Lens are indignant despite the fact that they are in the business of making similar accusations, often on far less evidence. Monbiot, much to my dismay, immediately clarified that he did not consider Media Lens to be "just another leftist groupuscle shilling for tyrants". A shame since, on the basis of this case, Rowson's words strike me as a pretty unimproveable description.

But that's probably because, broadly speaking, Monbiot shares many of their views. After all, Monbiot is himself a confessed disciple of Chomsky (although unlike Media Lens, he has confronted Chomsky's claims about Srebrenica) and he is still pursuing a noisy, and almost certainly futile campaign to have Tony Blair tried for war crimes. But, as Monbiot pointed out in his own blog post following the twitter exchange, what's most odd about Media Lens is their perverse choice of targets. Rowson and Monbiot have both praised Media Lens in the past and their views Iraq (and, I suspect, Syria) are far closer to those of Cromwell and Edwards than they are, say, to mine.

Presumably Media Lens feel that by attacking anti-war figures and fellow travellers with the missionary zeal usually reserved for neo-conservatives, they are demonstrating their incorruptibility. To me it smacks of fanaticism.

But then again, this self-defeating desire to estrange allies will in time simply consign their site to the dustbin of ultra-leftist paranoid crankery. And that is where, when all's said and done, it correctly belongs.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Islam and the Right to Offend

Speakers: David Aaronovitch, Mehdi Hasan
Chair: Charlie Beckett
11 October 2012 in U8, Tower One, LSE.

A con-film about Islam triggers Fundamentalist rage.
"Show us an intelligent film and we'll start the Third World War!"
I give you this point: There is nothing in this film which could destroy anybody’s genuine faith. That I grant you absolutely. Because it’s much too tenth-rate for that.
- Malcolm Muggeridge on Monty Python’s Life of Brian

Last Wednesday's LSE debate on the limits of free speech and the right to offend began with David Aaronovitch screening a series of clips. Among them was an extract from a televised debate about Monty Python’s Life of Brian, during which Michael Palin and John Cleese defended their film in the face of complaints from Malcolm Muggeridge and the then-Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockward.

In 1979, deference to political and religious authority was already beating a retreat, but Muggeridge's point of view still reflected the sensibilities of a significant proportion of the British population. Today his priggishness and pomposity are an embarrassment. Satisfyingly (not least for Cleese and Palin), the existence and continuing popularity of Monty Python’s religious satire are a part of what has made this so. As Aaronovitch pointed out, its closing crucifixion ditty "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life", which he claimed was a source of controversy upon its release, was now so much a part of national treasuredom that it merited inclusion in the Olympic closing ceremony.

The iconoclasm permitted by free expression, and the incremental rolling back of religious taboo since someone was last imprisoned for blasphemy in 1921, has allowed for greater freedom to discuss, debate and mock Christian beliefs without infringing upon the believer’s right to hold them. This seems a pretty healthy state of affairs to me.

As the hysterical and sometimes lethal reactions to The Satanic Verses, the Danish cartoons and The Innocence of Muslims have demonstrated, we enjoy no such freedom to discuss Islam in the West. The point about terrorism and death threats is not whether or not they reflect mainstream Muslim opinion (and, as far as I can tell, they do not), it is that they create a disproportionate climate of fear that leads to self-censorship and a consequent strangling of satire and free inquiry.

Aaronovitch’s case was basically a passionate elaboration on the aphorism often attributed to Voltaire: “I disagree with what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it.” He wants to live, as do I, in a society that permits - and even encourages - discussion and satire of Islam.

Mehdi Hasan does not. Or rather, he intends to be extremely picky about what he deems defensible or legitimate. The limits of his tolerance can be discerned in his description of Tom Holland’s scholarly books and excessively timid documentary about the historical roots of Islam as “annoying and sensationalist, but legitimate.”

Hasan began by striking a conciliatory note, stating that he and Aaronovitch agreed on most of the salient issues - particularly that of legality - and that this would therefore be less a debate than a discussion. He then stepped into Malcolm Muggeridge's perfectly-fitting shoes and laid out almost identical arguments.

He broke his case into four points:

  • Free speech absolutism is a myth, as evidenced by the fact that neither the 1st Amendment nor the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provide for unfettered freedom of expression.
  • The West holds a double-standard revealed by the strictures of political correctness and a willingness to outlaw hate speech and Holocaust denial.
  • Muslims deserve special protection from 'Islamophobia' as a persecuted and vulnerable minority.
  • The legal right to cause offence ought not to be confused with the moral right or even the duty to do so.
Hasan's first point is of course correct. But the reason for starting any conversation about the need for censorship or self-censorship from an absolutist position is that it forces the censor to justify the exceptions, be they on the basis of national security, defamation, incitement to violence or anything else. To reverse this formula and normalize such exceptions is to move the burden of proof from the censor to the dissenter and to turn the fundamental right to an opinion into a privilege allowed by unspecified others under unspecified circumstances.

As for Holocaust denial, while this regrettably remains a crime in some European countries (albeit for well-intentioned reasons), there’s no equivalence between the ideological falsification of history and the right to criticize or mock religious, philosophical or political ideas. Neither ought to be punishable by law in my view, but they are not the same.

And I have no trouble agreeing that political correctness poses a threat to free speech, albeit of a different and more insidious kind, precisely because its intentions are so noble. The reasons would require a separate post, but the attempt to enforce limits on the use of language has led to the growth of a new kind of intolerance. And it is this intolerance that Hasan co-opts to give his third argument a superficial plausibility.

'Islamophobia' was a term invented at the end of the 1970s by Iranian fundamentalists seeking to make criticism of Islam taboo. Unencumbered by irony, religious hard-liners used the language of political correctness to try and make criticism or mockery of their beliefs analogous to xenophobia. In short, it was intended, not as a shield for the powerless, but as a tool of the empowered.

The term has regained currency in Western discourse post-9/11 as a well-intentioned way of countering anti-Muslim prejudice and discrimination. However, it has inherited all the ambiguities and incoherence deliberately hard-wired into it at inception, the most important among which is the failure to distinguish between criticism of Islam and the irrational fear or hatred of Muslims.

For an equivalence between Islamophobia and xenophobia/homophobia/misogyny to carry any validity in a free speech debate, it needs to be demonstrated that Islam as a religious and/or political ideology is somehow equivalent to race/sexuality/gender.

Hasan's attempt to do just that saw him assert the following:
Some liberals believe that beliefs are different. [That] you can change your beliefs. But you can’t change the colour of your skin or your sexuality. Well, first of all, I would argue, that that is a total misreading of what belief is, and how people hold religious beliefs. In particular, Muslims. My Islamic faith defines my identity far more than my racial or cultural background. David wants to be free to mock my beliefs or my prophet but he would never dare mock my race. As a Muslim, I would rather he mock my skin colour than that which is most important – most dear – to me in my life, which is my faith and my prophet. And I know this may be hard for some of you to accept and to understand, but a prophet who is more dear to me than my own parents. Or my wife. Or my children. That is what it means to me.
Hmm. I’ve always found heartfelt public declarations of love for complete strangers, be they the late Diana Spencer or a 7th century religious figure, faintly stupefying. To my ear, Hasan’s declaration and the pride with which it was uttered made him sound deeply silly. But it also carried a sinister implication. By affirming a greater and more profound love for a figure of religious authority than for his own child, he (inadvertently?) brought to mind Abraham's willingness to slaughter his son at his god's behest. And isn't this subordination of earthbound concerns to blind faith the whole reason we're having this debate? In attempting to explain Muslims' violent revulsion to allegedly blasphemous speech, has Hasan not in fact just highlighted the problem?

That's certainly not an interpretation Hasan would allow. Because the other problem with this argument is that it is framed in terms with which Hasan knows his opponents cannot engage, and implies that it is our ignorance and small-mindedness that is at fault. In doing this, it tramples on the secular principle central to rational debate.

One of the great achievements of the Enlightenment was to provide us with a universal language with which to discuss these issues. By retreating into arguments and language incomprehensible to those who do not share his faith (and, I suspect, many who do), Hasan effectively put the matter beyond discussion. “With respect, David,” he said at one point, “you have very little knowledge of Islam”. And are therefore, was the unspoken corollary, disqualified from comment.

Aaronovitch objected. He pointed out that this claim of devotional identification could be – and had been – invoked by Christians for centuries in the name of censorship and far worse. Were Hasan’s argument to be recognized by the secular world, then it would surely have to apply to all religious beliefs. The Life of Brian would have to be treated with the same hostility as the Danish cartoons.

Not so, Hasan responded, for not only is a Muslim’s devotion to their prophet uniquely and incomprehensibly fierce, but there is a second argument for Islamic exceptionalism. 

This turned out to be the familiar narrative of Muslim victimhood. Western imperialism abroad and domestic discrimination at home mean Muslims require special protections from speech only likely to increase their misery. Muslims, Hasan said, are “a small, weak, marginalized minority community in our midst”.

The previous week I had attended another debate on the same subject, also involving Aaronovitch, during which Myriam Francois-Cerrah made almost identical arguments. Islam and the prophet are at the very “core of my being” she declared, so an attack on the prophet is an attack on her, personally and at the most fundamental level. She then proceeded to run through a laundry list of Muslim grievances for which she feels the West bears responsibility. The clear message to guilty Western liberals from both speakers is that, rather than criticizing the beliefs of a vulnerable minority, the West would be better advised to lapse into a penitent silence.

Aaronovitch later mused on twitter that this kind of thinking reminded him of Franz Fanon's Third-Worldism. Hasan and Francois-Cerras's arguments put me in mind of Edward's Said's disempowering doctrine of self-pity. As if to underline the point, during the LSE Q&A an audience member, presumably sympathetic to Hasan's arguments, gently chided Aaronovitch with an accusation of 'Orientalism' for suggesting that Muslims needed to develop thicker skins.

Aaronovitch said that he doesn't much care for "-isms" and I tend to agree. However, there are some rather important "-isms" which are in danger of getting lost in the mix: moral universalism, rationalism and secularism. At the heart of this whole debate lies the following question: is a commitment to these fundamental principles absolute, contingent or unnecessary?

If we are precluded from challenging Hasan's conception of the prophet, is Hasan then not precluded from challenging the Salafi jihadi’s far more lethal interpretation? If Islamophobia is to be afforded the same status as homophobia, racism and misogyny, then how are non-Muslims and liberal Muslims to confront Islamists claiming a religious mandate for sexist, racist and homophobic practices? Does the constant emphasis on victimhood not provide leverage to extremists seeking to indoctrinate the young and disaffected with fantasies of vengeance and martyrdom? And if membership of an oppressed minority affords special rights, protections and privileges to such groups, then is ‘Sam Bacile’, the 'director' of The Innocence of Muslims not entitled to some as a Copt? Is his hatred of Islam and racist portrayal of Arabs not justified by the oppression Copts have suffered at the hands of both, just as hatred of the West is apparently justified by Occidental ‘neo-imperialism’? It is in thickets such as these that the relativist finds himself entangled when he exchanges rights of individuals for special pleading on behalf of groups.

Defending the right to pillory ideas and to assert the fraudulence of beliefs requires an argument on two fronts: one with religious absolutism and another with postmodernism, relativism, post-structuralism and all the other “-isms” currently dominating liberal consensus, not least in academic circles.

I regret to report that this was best demonstrated, not by either of the debaters, but by LSE and the debate's moderator/chairman, Charlie Beckett. Aaronovitch had intended to include Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad cartoons as part of his opening presentation for the purposes of comparison and discussion. But Beckett, we were told, had refused to give him permission to do so. LSE's self-censorship of an utterly harmless satirical drawing was not just a craven gesture; it also infantilized an audience of adults. If this kind of thing, whether the product of fear or of a relativist value system, is de rigeur within institutions ostensibly dedicated to the pursuit of free inquiry, then in answer to Hasan’s fourth and final point, perhaps the right to offend has become a duty, after all.

Hasan made a point of mocking the notion that Charlie Hebdo had displayed any courage. Rather, they had simply targeted an already oppressed minority. So as not to interfere with this portrait of Muslims as the victims of intimidation and abuse, rather than its perpetrators, he neglected to mention that the magazine's offices were firebombed last year for publishing a similar cartoon.

On one level, the decision to publish was a straightforward case of business as usual. As a satirical current affairs magazine, its editor claimed it had a duty to respond to the ongoing fallout of the ‘Sam Bacile’ controversy with its customary irreverence, and that to fail to do so would be both a capitulation and an abdication of responsibility. (Isn’t this kind of stoicism usually grounds for applause?)

But the possibility of violent reprisals and the probability of death threats meant that the cartoons were also a defiant and necessary response to the clerical assault on free expression that has been allowed to gather strength in the West ever since Khomeini first globalised Sharia in 1989. Those of us who care about free expression have a duty to voice and defend opinions that we know in advance will cause offence to some, just as Cleese and Palin did in 1979. It doesn't much matter whether they come from literary giants or genuinely 10th rate film-makers like 'Sam Bacile'. Because it is these opinions, and not just the passage of time as Aaronovitch suggested, that will produce progress. Causing offence is a necessary precondition to the smashing of irrationalist taboos and the widening of legitimate debate.

As a pious and conservative Muslim, Hasan recoils from such a prospect. Unlike Muggeridge, the fragility of his beliefs evidently requires him to shield them from open satire and inquiry. And yet, he chose to conclude his opening arguments with the following rather curious analogy:
David is a very well-known, articulate advocate of the Iraq war. How would you feel, David, if a mob of people turned up across the street from you, set up a little picnic camp and every day, as you went to work, or took your kids to school, or whatever it is, they shouted abuse at you, they shouted all sorts of names at you: Nazi! Warmonger! Blood on your hands! Every day. Every night. I suspect you wouldn’t just say “It’s free speech, it’s fine”…I suspect most people would call the cops and say “This is a public order offence! This is not on! This is not tolerable!"
That strikes me as a pretty clear demand for the peaceful toleration of views with which one disagrees. It would therefore be more productively addressed to those who burned The Satanic Verses and firebombed the offices of Charlie Hebdo than to David Aaronovitch.