|Hizb ut-Tahrir spokesman Uthman Badar|
The Festival of Dangerous Ideas is intended to be a provocation to thought and discussion, rather than simply a provocation. It is always a matter of balance and judgement, and in this case a line has been crossed. Accordingly, we have decided not to proceed with the scheduled session with Uthman Badar. It is clear from the public reaction that the title has given the wrong impression of what Mr Badar intended to discuss. Neither Mr Badar, the St James Ethics Centre, nor Sydney Opera House in any way advocates honour killings or condones any form of violence against women.Simon Longstaff, the executive director of the St. James Ethics Centre, which is organising and curating the Festival, then posted the following statement on twitter:
The session to explore 'honour killing' has been cancelled. Alas, people read the session title - and no further. Just too dangerous.
— Simon Longstaff (@SimonLongstaff) June 24, 2014
It is unclear from Longstaff's use of the passive voice whether he reluctantly assented to the talk's cancellation or whether it was a decision imposed upon him by the venue. Either way, he was clearly unhappy. But, like the venue, he conceded the title had been "a mistake" unreflective of Badar's arguments.
The difficulty with this is that by Badar's own account (which I have yet to see disputed by anyone connected with the event), the title of the session was not his idea, but was suggested by the St James Ethics Centre. He then wrote the talk to order. So if the title really does not match the content, it is because Badar did not deliver on his brief, which was the unambiguous defence of a barbaric practice. In a facebook post, published after the furore erupted but before the event was cancelled, Badar protested that this was indeed the case:
As for the content of my presentation, I wont [sic] be revealing much before the event itself. Surprise, surprise. I will, however, say that the suggestion that I would advocate for honour killings, as understand [sic] in the west, is ludicrous and something I would normally not deem worth of [sic] dignifying with a response. Rather, this is about discussing the issue at a deeper level, confronting accepted perceptions, assumptions and presumptions and seeing things from a different perspective. Is that too much to ask of the liberal mind?Had the talk's title been framed as a question rather than an assertion, this would be an acceptable defence. But it wasn't, so it's simply an admission by Badar that he had failed to defend the pre-agreed proposition. That this failure is now being used to berate his critics is both an amusing irony and indicative of his lack of integrity.
But even his protestation of failure is not entirely honest, since it is obvious from the pompous tone of the accompanying abstract that Badar did feel he had defended the proposition, at least to his own satisfaction. Having agreed to argue that honour killings are justified, he approached the topic as a student might approach an exam question which doesn't quite fit the answer he's pre-prepared. The brief abstract originally published (now deleted) on the Festival's website informed us:
For most of recorded history parents have reluctantly sacrificed their children—sending them to kill or be killed for the honour of their nation, their flag, their king, their religion. But what about killing for the honour of one’s family? Overwhelmingly, those who condemn ‘honour killings’ are based in the liberal democracies of the West. The accuser and moral judge is the secular (white) westerner and the accused is the oriental other; the powerful condemn the powerless. By taking a particular cultural view of honour, some killings are condemned whilst others are celebrated. In turn, the act becomes a symbol of everything that is allegedly wrong with the other culture.Or, more succinctly: "Mind your own business."
While this is not an assertion that honour killings are morally justified, Badar's apparent demand for moral neutrality precludes anything approaching condemnation, least of all from secular (white) Westerners.
Longstaff - who describes himself as "a philosopher focusing on the ethical dimension of life" - reckons this is all fascinating, and has said he finds Badar's arguments to be "sophisticated" and "nuanced". It's really neither of these things. Nor is it remotely surprising or unusual coming from its author. This is simply the expected jargon-sprinkled moral equivalence and cultural relativism which are the bread and butter of Hizb ut-Tahrir's tedious propaganda. No matter how grotesque the traditions and practices of the Muslim world may appear to be, it is always the West - demonic monopoliser of the planet's wealth and power - which is found to have the beam in its eye.
As for what illiberals like Badar may reasonably expect from what he scornfully calls "the liberal mind", the outcry which followed the announcement of the session was entirely foreseeable, not least because no-one - liberal or otherwise - likes to have their intelligence insulted.
Some may, as Longstaff claimed, not have bothered to read past the title, but given its lack of ambiguity that's perfectly understandable. Others may have decided to accept its plain declarative English over the burbling obscurantist sophistry of the attached abstract. Some may have resented the dishonesty of what appeared to be a bait-and-switch, and that it was an indictment of their own alleged hypocrisy to which they were to be treated. Or perhaps it was Badar's cynical racialisation of the argument they disliked. Or the re-description of those men who murder their kin as more properly belonging amongst the ennobled ranks of "the powerless".
For me, Badar's most objectionable claim is that condemnation of honour-based violence is particular to the West. Not only is this assertion demonstrably false, dismissing at a stroke the courageous women and men organising to fight for human rights in the Global South, but it carries the implication that those forced to submit to honour codes accept their subordination and abuse with uniform passivity and equanimity. These people, we are given to understand, have no need for peculiarly 'Western' notions of gender equality and individual autonomy, or the freedom to love and marry as they choose.
Nevertheless, for a number of reasons, the Sydney Opera House's decision to cancel the talk was disappointing, and the latest in a regrettable string of incidents in which speakers have been stood down or disinvited in response to outraged protests. The title ought to have been altered so that it accurately reflected Badar's arguments and an apology ought to have been issued, but the session should have proceeded as planned rather than folding before a censorious campaign. After all, if the West's liberal press and academics are permitted to make identical arguments from moral equivalence, then why not a besuited fanatic at a Festival dedicated to the expression of supposedly dangerous ideas?
Instead, the event's cancellation has afforded Uthman Badar, an Islamist spokesman for a racist, misogynistic, theo-fascist organisation, the opportunity to denounce the West for its disgraceful 'Islamophobia' (which was, in any event, the idea all along) and to complain with righteous bitterness about his victimisation:
Things were assumed and outrage ensued. That is the way Islamophobia works. The assumption is ‘we know what the Muslims will say’. This a very instructive case as far as that goes. I think the hysteria says a lot about Islamophobia and about the extent and the depth of it in this country. It says a lot about the reality of freedom and the space that minorities have to move in in this country, Muslims in particular.You don't say. It is difficult to escape the suspicion that an activist like Badar anticipated this endgame from the moment he agreed to speak. If anyone is guilty of naivety it is the St James Ethics Centre who have inadvertently helped to promote the Islamists' victimhood agenda and accomplished nothing else besides making themselves look ridiculous. But with dismaying predictability, The Guardian found it necessary to clear space for one Yassir Morsi to defend Badar as a guileless naif and unwitting pawn of the 'Islamophobia' industry:
Badar ought to have intuitively known better that this is what Muslims endure. He should have known about the industry of stereotyping. It was bad enough that the festival’s organisers were so insensitive. For a publicity stunt, they exploited the feelings about victims of, and those left to deal with, "honour" killings. What was also distasteful was their exploiting of a persistent Islamophobia to increase ticket sales and gain attention. It says everything about how attractive the Muslim is as a commodity that sells.Islamists who complain of 'Orientalist' paternalism are quite prepared to assume the role of bewildered children when evading personal responsibility for their own choices and actions, and newspapers like The Guardian can be relied upon to provide mainstream support. In a comment posted below Morsi's article, the Council of Ex-Muslims Forum could barely contain its disgust:
[Hizb ut-Tahrir] have utilised the rhetoric of identity politics and multicultural tolerance to position themselves as victims, and this enables a liberal newspaper to publish apologia for them despite being far-right extremists . . . The Left should be on guard against far-right fascists and misogynists who superficially use the rhetoric of progressive causes to peddle their agenda. Let this be a wake up call for everyone about the decadent arrogance of cultural relativists on the Left who seem obliviously naive about who they empower and enable, and the far-right Islamists who make hay in their sunshine. Enough is enough.Morsi neglects, of course, to remind his readership that the organisation of which Badar is a spokesman seeks the imposition of a totalitarian medieval Caliphate in which dissent is crushed, homosexuality and apostasy are punished by death, women and non-Muslims are subjugated, adulterers are stoned, murderers are publicly crucified, and thieves have their limbs amputated. The inclusion of such information might have required him to recalibrate the degree to which Badar’s hitherto wholesome reputation had been traduced.
Had Longstaff wanted Badar to defend a 'dangerous idea' in which he does believe, then any of these would have sufficed. The Hizb ut-Tahrir constitution is not short on 'provocative' material. On the other hand, had Longstaff really wanted the defence of honour killings their title advertised, he should have found a speaker prepared to provide it.
Simon Longstaff and the St James Ethics Centre's wish to provide a platform for dangerous or taboo ideas is a laudable and important one. Rationalism - the idea that all arguments must be fought and won on the basis of reason - is one of the most important and valuable legacies of the Enlightenment, and no-one has the right to declare a point of view unsayable or unhearable, no matter how controversial or repellent. As John Stuart Mill famously argued in On Liberty, "If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."
Bestiality, paedophilia, incest, infanticide, euthanasia, ethnic cleansing, slavery, torture, eugenics, Holocaust denial, female genital mutilation or any other taboo or abhorrent practices must remain acceptable topics for debate for as long as there are people willing to defend them, either as a critical exercise or from a position of unapologetic advocacy. And the unpleasant reality is that there are plenty of people alive today who hold that honour killing is not simply justifiable but a moral requirement and duty.
A particularly horrifying example occurred in May of this year when a young, pregnant woman named Farzana Parveen was stoned to death by her family in Pakistan for marrying against her family's wishes. "I killed my daughter as she had insulted all of our family by marrying a man without our consent, and I have no regret over it," her father was reported to have said when he was arrested.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reports that 869 women were slain in honour killings in 2013 alone, although this is thought to be a very conservative figure. But what made this particular case so shocking is that Parveen was murdered on the steps of the High Court in Lahore in broad daylight, allegedly in front of police officers who stood by impassively as her skull was smashed with bricks. A mere two days later, her husband, hitherto presented as a traumatised widower, casually revealed that he had strangled his first wife in order to marry his second.
For many in the West who have internalised the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the full implications of this terrible story are incomprehensible. But this is partly due to a reluctance to listen to what cultural chauvinists and religious fanatics actually say. Invaluable online resources like that of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) are making this easier to do. Quite apart from the need to defend the universal principle of free expression, it is now counterproductive to simply declare that the defence of honour violence must be suppressed or confined to mosques and madrasas far away from liberal eyes and ears. On the contrary, it would be instructive, I think, if Western audiences were to hear the murder of Farzana Parveen defended by those who truly value this tradition's survival. For if the honour code's pitiless and lethal misogyny is occasionally laid out by its impenitent defenders, it can no longer be dismissed as an Orientalist's fantastical misrepresentation.
The Festival of Dangerous Ideas are not of course obliged to provide a platform to views like these. But when organisations do, they should not be criticised unless they affirm endorsement. Bring the advocates of honour violence forward. Let them explain why women must be made to bear the honour of their family, while men are excused responsibility. And why this burden of honour necessarily requires women to forfeit their autonomy. And why they must pay with their lives if they resist.
It may then become clearer to those disinclined to criticise any culture but their own how the lives of women can be considered so cheap that families are able to murder their own mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters without the disturbance of conscience. And it may become harder for Islamists like Badar and ethical thinkers like Longstaff to relativise away the benefits of liberal, secular democracy, and the suffering of those not fortunate enough to enjoy its rights, freedoms, and protections.
UPDATE: As I was completing the first draft of this post, CNN reported that a young newly-wed couple had been decapitated in Pakistan by the bride's family, who then turned themselves in.