Sunday, 29 June 2014

Defending the Indefensible

Honour Killings and the Limits of Free Speech

Hizb ut-Tahrir spokesman Uthman Badar
On Tuesday 24 June, the Sydney Opera House announced the cancellation of a talk entitled "Honour Killings Are Morally Justified", scheduled to be delivered at the annual Festival of Dangerous Ideas by Uthman Badar, a Sydney-based spokesman for the Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir. The full statement read as follows:
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:

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.


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful (dare I say nuanced and sophisticated) discussion of the issues lying behind the recent controversy surrounding the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. I have recently submitted for publication (on ABC Online's Religion and Ethics site - link to follow) a comprehensive account of what occurred in the development of the session on killing in the name of honour. Amongst other things, it quotes the relevant correspondence in order to correct a misperception that the specific topic title was proposed by the organisers and then reluctantly accepted by Uthman Badar. In fact, the title of the talk was of Uthman's devising. Our role was to evaluate his suggestion - which we did against the following background. Now in its sixth year, FODI has previously held sessions during which speakers have offered a moral justification for a variety of 'dangerous' practices, including: torture, infanticide, flogging, genital cutting, etc. Along the way, we have managed to upset all parts of the political spectrum - sometimes achieving the status of being simultaneously reviled as 'left wing' and right wing'. As my article makes clear, there is an important distinction between offering insights into a moral justification for a particular practice and instead, arguing for its adoption or legalisation. Uthman proposed to do the former. As you recognise in your account, Uthman is in favour of an Islamic Caliphate which would probably not allow much room for the likes of me (firmly committed to the liberal ideas growing out the Enlightenment). Yet, it is precisely because of these ideals that I think that Uthman's point of view should be drawn into the full light of rational discourse - no matter how affronting it may be. My 'acid test' is this - does the speaker imply or deny the essential humanity of any group or person as part of their presentation? If so, then they cross an essential line - not only inviting a repeat of some of the horrors of the past - but undermining the ethical foundations on which rights, like that of free speech, are based. Uthman Badar may stand for a world view that I cannot countenance - but he was not going to cross that line.

  2. As foreshadowed, here is the link to the longer piece giving an account of and exploring the background to this issue:

  3. Simon, would you have ever countenanced a talk titled 'Why Killing Black People / Jews / Muslims is Justified?'

    Why then countenance a talk titled about how murdering women is justified?

    1. I do not think that your question is based on a valid comparison. The FODI session was never going to offer (or even consider) a moral justification for killing people because of their gender. Rather, Uthman was going to provide insights into the beliefs of people who prepared to kill members of their family for 'shameful acts' - especially those involving a breach of Islamic Law. It is true that the majority of those killed are women - but their gender is not the cause of their 'punishment' - which is also meted out to some men (notably gays) in relatively similar circumstances. I do not condone what are, in my opinion, examples of murder. However, the wrongness of such killing does not lie in the contingent fact associated with the gender of those killed. Rather, it is the essential (and I would say unjust) character of the decision to kill anyone for a breach of honour.

    2. "I do not think that your question is based on a valid comparison"

      I find this whole affair to be exceedingly squalid, not just because of the vile fascist racist you gave a platform to, but because you are genuinely oblivious to the nature of the vile misogynist racist Islamist fascist you gave a platform to, and the cartwheels you are currently performing to justify that.

    3. Anonymous - I am very conscious of the views that Hizb'ut-Tahrir represents - and have been absolutely clear about my opposition to its ideology and work view. And I have stated categorically that honour killing is murder and that it is wrong. Disagreement with your reasoning is dismissed as "performing cartwheels". Having denied that validity of Hizb'ut-Tahrir's position and having denounced honour killing, why do you insist that I not put forward a reasonable point in relation to your argument? Do you mean to say that one could fairly describe a discussion of the moral justification of the death penalty in the USA as being the same as a moral justification for killing African Americans (who are the majority of victims killed by this system)? Is not the wrongness of the death penalty to be found in the nature of the act, its motivation, etc. rather than in the identity of the victims? Would honour killing be any less deplorable if the majority of victims were men? If you are to deplore honour killing (as I do) then why not base this on the wrongness of the act of killing anyone in the name of honour? What more is needed to be appalled? As to whether or not the issue should be discussed - that is another matter.

    4. "Do you mean to say that one could fairly describe a discussion of the moral justification of the death penalty in the USA as being the same as a moral justification for killing African Americans"

      Sophistry. Would you host a discussion in which a neo nazi, who was an open member of a fascist organisation and openly advocated anti-Semitic murder, gave the economic and social justification for the murder of Jews during the Shoah? Assuming the answer to that is "probably not" (although based on what you've written so far, anything's possible) could you unpack why the advocacy by an open member of a fascist organisation of the murder of women is more acceptable?

    5. Anonymous - given limits on the length of replies, I have had to make two separate posts.

      You dismiss my argument and explanation with a dismissive taunt (by labeling it as "sophistry") and then pose further questions without actually engaging with the substance of what is being said. Nor do you acknowledge any of the points made about the wrongness of honour killing and why it should be opposed. Even so, I assume that you are sincere in wanting to think this matter through - rather than simply to assert the superiority of your position. I can assure you that is what I am trying to do - to set aside assumptions and think (really think) about these matters from first principles.

      It is against this background that I offer the following response. As you suppose, I would not provide a platform to a person advocating the murder (let alone genocide) of any group defined by gender, race, religion or ... whatever. To do so would be to cross one of two ethical boundaries that I believe should be set in relation to a presumption in favour of free speech. Free speech is a basic human right which is founded on the principle of 'respect for persons' - a recognition of an inalienable intrinsic dignity of all human beings (and according to some views - dignity attached to some other forms of being - but let's focus on humans here). History shows that whenever and wherever one group denies the essential humanity of another (due to race, religion, gender, etc.) then this gives rise to some of the worst horrors that humanity has known - the Shoah, genocide in Rwanda, slavery and so on. If this was not bad enough (and it is) the denial of the fundamental humanity of any group is, itself, a denial of the foundation of the right to free speech. The basis for limiting free speech would be in cases where a speaker is inciting violence against another group because of their race, religion, etc. Most countries have other laws limiting free speech (e.g. In relation to defamation, or the false crying of 'fire' in a crowded theatre). But I would limit the presumption in favour of free speech as outlined above.

    6. The speech that was to have been given by Uthman Badar was not of this kind. He was not wishing to make a case for why all women should be killed. He was not going to argue that all people (of any gender, religion, sexuality, etc.) should be killed. Rather, he was going to give an account of why - according to his understanding of Islam (a world view with which I do not agree) a person would feel morally justified in taking the life of a person (including a family member) for breach of Islamic Law. He opposes vigilante killings in which the motivation is the restoration of family honour. His argument was to be that, in the absence of an Islamic Caliphate that (in his view) would enforce 'justice' according to Islamic Law, killing a family member (for adultery) may be morally justified. He was not going to argue that all women should be killed because they are women. Indeed, he would expect all women to be kept safe - albeit within restraints imposed by religion (restraints that I do not support).

      It was this aspect of Uthman Badar's argument to which I sought to draw your attention with my earlier reply to your post(s).

      As noted above, I do not think that honour killings are morally justified - but this is not a view I form because of the gender of the persons killed. For example, I do not agree with the moral justification for murder offered by an Indigenous elder who would see his son killed for having sexual relations with a woman 'promised' to another man. I do not agree with the moral justification of a member of the Thai community who might think it right to kill his brother for grossly insulting the much-revered King of Thailand. I do not agree with killing for the sake of honour.

      Yet, in each case, I wish to see such views exposed to the light of day - to be subjected to the critique that comes with rational argument. In exposing such arguments to scrutiny, I do not fear that they will suddenly become 'normalised' - that wider Australian society will suddenly abandon its liberal democratic ways and turn to murder. This did not happen when we had earlier speakers offering moral justifications for torture, infanticide and flogging. These practices are still forbidden in Australia - in part because the community has heard the arguments for such practices and understands at a deeper level why they should be opposed.

      I do not write this lengthy response in the hope that you might change your mind and agree. All I ask is that you consider the argument rather than simply dismiss them with an epithet.

    7. "He was not going to argue that all women should be killed because they are women. "

      No, he was just going to argue that some women should be killed because they are women. So if instead of saying that all Jews should be killed I restricted myself to some Jews, perhaps just Jews that broke rules I defined, you'd be OK with that? Apparently so.

      I'm sorry, it's just sophistry. To you, a white man, this is just a game: you can toss words around to show that you're liberal about everything, and you can appear terribly right-on for being so liberal that you're even willing to provide a platform for someone to advocate murder. It's not "In exposing such arguments to scrutiny", it's providing a platform for someone to preach hatred and violence against women, and then be able to scream "Islamophobia" at anyone who dares to disagree.

      However, for actual, real, live women who face threats of death and mutilation from men like your friend, this isn't just a game, it isn't just a debating point, and it isn't just the topic for a masturbatory love-in amongst liberals. I always thought that protecting groups at risk of violence was one of the precepts of liberalism: not, apparently, in Australia.

      You wanted publicity by being edgy, and you found someone who wanted to preach murder (oh, sorry, you found someone willing to engage in honest intellectual debate about murder, my mistake). You got found out. The difference with the other topics you draw parallels with is that women are being killed for "honour" every week, and therefore providing a platform for someone to encourage such killings is irresponsible.

    8. I am, by the way, a different "Anonymous". I did not come up with the phrase "cartwheels you are currently performing" that another Anonymous did. I rather wish I had.

  4. This is a good summary of the controversy. I have also read Simon Longstaff's detailed explanation at and am grateful for it. I think it was reasonable for FODI to organise the event, and wrong for it to be cancelled in response to a public outcry.

    However I disagree with Jacobinism criticising what he believes Uthman Badar was going to say, since none of us have had the opportunity of reading it. Badar should be encouraged to publish the text of the talk that he was going to give so it can be critiqued.


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