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.


  1. Excellent, comprehensive post. (And welcome to the barricades!) A few points.

    These arguments advocating the suppression of free speech in support of – remarkably, actually – specifically Muslim sensitivities are rarely even arguments at all. They come in the form of claims that present almost no implicative chain of reasoning leading to them. This is because what passes for argument are incoherent assertions easily revealed.

    For instance, regarding Hasan’s second point, the United States, for one, has not outlawed hate speech. It has passed controversial hate crime legislation, but among those crimes is not speech.

    For instance, Hasan (drawing no sympathy from you) states on the nature of prejudice and “Islamophobia,”

    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.

    Hasan is here committing a basic categorical confusion, between a permanent attribute and an acquired characteristic, in Aristotelian terms, between a quality and an affection, a distinction with which Hasan’s medieval forbears would have been familiar. In addition, prohibitions against prejudicial behavior are not based upon how deeply hurt the victim feels by the behavior. Hasan does not get it at all – or the utterly self-contradictory consequences of such a standard.

    Furthering that point to conclude, at your close, I think you may mistake Hasan’s purpose in his challenge to Aaronovitch. Hasan is presuming that Aaronovitch would want the demonstrations stopped, seemingly proving Hasan’s point. (You don’t say how Aaronovitch responded.) But, of course, Hasan would surely defend many such demonstrations against the colonial abuses of the West, demonstrating in yet another instance the total incoherence of his position.

    You suggest that “perhaps the right to offend has become a duty, after all.” Indeed.

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      To clarify, I understood the intention of Hasan's final argument, but wanted to draw attention to the sloppiness with which it had been made. Hasan seems to think that Aaronovitch is analogous to Offended Muslims Everywhere and that the mob is analogous to the Charlie Hebdo drawings. A far more evident (if completely unintended) parallel is mob = rioting Fundamentalists (whose feelings Hasan wishes to protect) and Aaronovitch = besieged author/cartoonist. The irony here is entirely at Hasan's expense. This incoherence seems to be the product of an impulsive tendency to confuse and conflate.

      Aaronovitch did not reply to this point specifically, but I'm pretty sure he *would* object to being persecuted in the lurid manner described. But that's neither here nor there since it's not just a speech issue. Hasan tries to make it appear so by casually mixing up abusive views with threatening behaviour, and the right to organised protest with the harassment of an individual and his family by an ad hoc mob. The confusion he creates only rebounds on him. As you rightly point out, further ironies, no less self-defeating, can be unpicked by taking Hasan's example at face value.

      Elsewhere in the debate, Hasan suggested that if defenders of free speech oppose signs reading "No dogs, no blacks, no Irish" then this was evidence of inconsistency. As if a business owner's wish to enforce unlawful racial segregation is a free speech issue.

      On the categorical confusion wrt belief and race, Hasan is familiar with this objection. Which is precisely why I think he tried to discredit it upfront by asserting that Islamic belief is uniquely analogous to a permanent attribute. But since only observant Muslims can understand and appreciate this, the rest of us are asked to take his word for it. He seems to believe that his argument's apparent irrefutability is its strength. On the contrary. An extravagant claim like that requires pretty solid corroborative evidence to be persuasive. Particularly since it is transparently self-serving.


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