In 2012 the political director of The Huffington Post UK, Mehdi Hasan debated Times columnist David Aaronovitch in a Huffington Post debate on the ‘right to offend‘. Hasan argued that his Islamic faith defines him, more so than his racial identity and from this, argues that the right to mock or ridicule faith, is taking the limits of free expression too far. I think this is perhaps where Hasan makes two crucial mistakes, and his statements in the past most certainly back up my assertion that Hasan makes two crucial mistake at that point.
It is my belief, that the freedom to satirise, mock, criticise, as well as question all authoritative ideas, including all religions that themselves are openly critical of how those outside the faith live their lives, is the cornerstone of a progressive, and reasonable society. These ideas include the freedom to satirise and criticise and question deeply held political ideals, including my own. We must not allow religions to be free from satire, nor criticism, simply because it is cloaked in ‘faith’. To close them to criticism/satirism by using State controls and violence, means that the idea becomes taboo, humanity cannot progress the idea, and it gives the idea an authority above what it is reasonably justified in having, over the lives of not just its followers, but those who don’t wish to adhere to its principles. This is dangerous.
When a faith is personal, kept private, and is not used to justify bigotry and the withholding of the rights of others; then we should exercise restraint and human decency and not openly mock that person for no reason… we shouldn’t be banned from doing so, we should be responsible enough not to. It is personal to that person, and has no bearing on my life, or the life of anyone else. Inner faith; regardless of the religion, is, i’m sure, a wonderful thing. Go to Church, go to Mosque, express your inner faith, personally. It is yours to keep, and I will happily defend anyone’s right to believe whatever they wish. As Jefferson quite wonderfully told; it does me no harm for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods or no God. Likewise, it does me no harm if my neighbour believes Jesus rose from the dead, or that Muhammad received revelation from God, or in the beautiful spiritual journey set out in the Tao Te Ching, or in Thor, or Apollo, or any other God. As long as it is personal, and relates only to how that one individual chooses to live.
But when a faith is used to attempt to influence the public sphere in a way that erodes secular values (see my article on the American Christian war on Secularism), or tells people what they should or shouldn’t wear, or fights to withhold rights based on sexuality, or that encourages the individual believer to insult or belittle the individual non-believer, or promotes primitive bigotry regardless of scientific and social advancement, if a faith outwardly promotes the idea that as a non-believer, I am “living like an animal” or destined for hell for eternal punishment and pain, and is so dogmatic in its division between “Muslim” and “Kuffar“, and insists on teaching these putrid notions to impressionable children, all as outwardly displays of ‘faith‘; then that faith opens itself up to mocking, ridicule and criticism, just like every other idea in society, and I see no reason why it should be free from that, nor why we should feel a duty to accept it silently.
If faith is kept personal; it holds no problems. If it promotes outward condemnation of anyone who doesn’t fit its narrow spectrum of what is decent and correct; then it becomes an ideology, and that’s when it opens itself up to ridicule, and contempt in the exact same way as Political ideologies. For Hasan to suggest we mustn’t offend faith, purely because that faith “defines him“, does nothing to convince me that his faith is worthy of being placed above a position of disrespect. Communism may define someone. Fascism may define someone. The moment they start to tell people who awful they are, for not adhering to their “defining” features, is the moment it becomes open to a backlash, and rightfully so. And as such, I expect my ‘ideas’ on secularism, democracy, and liberalism to be open to ridicule and disrespect from believers. Ideas are not, and should never be free from criticism.
If we are to say that religions (remember, to non-believers, they are just ideas) are off limits for ridicule, mockery, or insult…. is it also reasonable to say that the religious must not mock, ridicule or insult Secularism, Democracy, America, The West? What if I were to say that both Atheism and Secularism define my World view? Should they be free from ridicule? I don’t think they should.
The second reason Hasan is horribly off the mark, is he doesn’t seem to extend his restriction on the right to offend, to himself. In the debate Hasan says:
“How do you construct, a civilised society, especially one as culturally, religiously, and racially diverse as ours, if we go around encouraging everyone in it, just to insult one another, abuse one another, offend one another.”
– From this, you would be forgiven for thinking that all Hasan wants, is a World where we all get along, without purposely saying words and phrases that might cause offence.
And yet, in 2009, Hasan gave a speech at the Al Khoei Islamic Centre, in which he quite openly states:
“The kaffar, the disbelievers, the atheists who remain deaf and stubborn to the teachings of Islam, the rational message of the Quran; they are described in the Quran as, quote, “a people of no intelligence”, Allah describes them as; not of no morality, not as people of no belief – people of “no intelligence” – because they’re incapable of the intellectual effort it requires to shake off those blind prejudices, to shake off those easy assumptions about this world, about the existence of God.”
– It is important to note that ‘Kuffar‘ is a hugely derogative term used by Muslims referring to non-Muslims, to further create an us VS them mentality, with “them” being below “us“. A term of inferiority. Kuffar is the plural, of Kaffir. It has no positive connotation, it is used as a term of abuse only. It is used to divide their very simplistic World into two groups; one being positive for humanity, the other being negative. One only has to search twitter for the term “Kuffar” and read the horrendous bigotry and threats of violence against non-believers, to see it is a hate term. If that is not enough, look at the use of the term throughout history. Some will claim “It just means unbeliever“. It doesn’t. It is derogatory. If we turned the term around, and it was a Western term used to degrade and insult Muslims, Hasan would be the first to jump on it as a term of Islamophobia, that we shouldn’t use if we wish to live side by side in civilised harmony.
Why use “Kuffar” at all? There is no need for it.
Note; after he explains what Allah describes, he says “because…”. This marks the end of what the Qur’an says, and the beginning of Hasan’s own personal explanation; whether he draws on what the Qur’an says or not, this is what he thinks. In fact, the beginning of the quote, is his own explanation, his own harsh words. He is purposely being insulting. But he demands respect for the faith that teaches him that it’s okay to be insulting to the rest of us. I’m afraid, that’s not going to happen.
Predictably, right winged commentators jumped on Hasan’s quote and branded Hasan an extremist; a crazy bigoted Islamic Fanatic! The typical nonsense from Peter Hitchens. As much as its worth, Hasan for me, most certainly isn’t an extremist. His tirades against Apostasy laws, against Islamic extremism, against the idea of an ‘Islamic State‘, against funding for bombs as opposed to public goods, and his verbal assaults on Islamic oppression across the World are testament to his rational thought processes that quite obviously do not place him in the same category, as, say, Anjem Choudary. But that still doesn’t mean he isn’t playing a game of Us vs Them, he is still guilty of inciting division, with a form of fundamentalism anchored to the notion that the Qur’an, regardless of some of its more vindictive verses, is the unquestionable word of God. His defence for the above quote is also vastly misguided:
“Did I, invoking a verse from the Quran, refer to unthinking, incurious non-Muslims as “cattle”? Yes but – and here’s where context matters! – if you listen to the full speech, you’ll hear me refer to unthinking, incurious Muslims as “cattle” too (“We are the cattle that Allah condemns in the Quran,” I said.)”
– Here, when welded together with the above quote, does not help his case. Why does he think he has a right to refer to individual people, that he has never met, whom aren’t a part of his faith or have anything to do with him, as ‘cattle‘? Notice he doesn’t insist that the Qur’an is perhaps short sighted, nor try to argue that we aren’t all to be considered unthinking. He simply implies it must be true, because the Qur’an says so. What a cop out. Why does he need to mention non-believers at all? If the Qur’an tells you that everyone is unthinking cattle, then say everyone. Why refer to non-believers? Why use the word ‘Kuffar‘? Why is that absolutely relevant to a speech, from someone claiming all he wants is peaceful coexistence? In his words, not the Qur’an, we non-believers are ‘incapable of the intellectual effort it requires‘ about the existence of God. He is exhausting the object. Think of those who are encompassed in the phrase he used. Remember, the context of Hasan’s quote is there to see. He makes no compromise. He is clear; non-muslims are incapable of intelligent thought, and are in curious; Aristotle was not a Muslim; incurious and unintelligent. Newton was not a Muslim; incurious and unintelligent. Darwin was not a Muslim; incurious and unintelligent. Stephen Hawking was not a Muslim; incurious and unintelligent. Ben Franklin was not a Muslim; incurious and unintelligent. He isn’t offering any compromise; we non-Muslims all, in the words of Mehdi Hasan, “incapable” of intelligent thought on the existence of God. We cannot possibly be intelligent, if we consider God, and dismiss the notion. We must be idiots. He is simply reaffirming his view, that Muslims are superior. It isn’t extremism, it is an fundamental Islamic superiority complex.
In another 2009 speech, Hasan says:
“We know that keeping the moral high-ground is key. Once we lose the moral high-ground we are no different from the rest of the non-Muslims; from the rest of those human beings who live their lives as animals, bending any rule to fulfil any desire.”
– This is interesting, because in the aforementioned debate; Hasan claims a deep dislike for seeing posters declaring Muslims as ‘savages‘. He is of course right to hold those signs, and the people who put them up, in disdain. But here, he is no different. He is insisting non-Muslims live as animals. He again defends this horrendously bigoted quote with simply “I was just quoting the Qur’an“. Of course, that’s not the context of the quote. He insists the quote was taken out of context. Yes. It was. By himself. Prior to the above quote, Hasan quite rightfully dismisses extremism:
“In Islam, the ends do not justify the means. This idea is totally alien to Islam. In Islam, what’s halaal is halaal. What’s hareem is hareem. We do not bend our law, our morality for short term aim. And we never lose the moral high ground.”
– That is the context with which the quote must be placed. True Muslims do not ‘bend our morality’. Of course, objective morality in all religious context, is nonsense, as i’ve argued peviously. But beyond that, his point is quite clear. True Muslims have clear objective morals, the moral high ground! The best way! The rest of us, don’t. We’re “lost“. We live like animals. It is vicious Islamic bigotry, because it is not aimed at an idea, it is aimed at individual people; and if non-believers say something slightly similar, we are ‘Islamophobic‘. (Note; there appears no term to describe the phobia and hatred toward Western civilisation).
It is within this context that we must place his understanding of free expression and its limits. Quoting the Qur’an, when you believe the Qur’an to be the infallible word of Allah, is not a defence. It is what you believe.
As Hasan insistes; we shouldn’t encourage a civilised society to insult one another. Here, he is indeed correct. We should absolutely be free to insult, but it isn’t something to be encouraged. In other articles, he is unhappy with the rise of Islamophobia, he insists the attacks are unnecessary (that’s most certainly a matter of opinion, and I don’t think he has a right to silence anyone who dislikes any idea from saying so, including Islam). And yet, he seemingly has no issue insulting non-Muslims, referring to us individually as unthinking, incurious, and morally dubious. And he does so, from the context of ‘what the Qur’an says‘. He neither tries to correct this, nor argue against it, taking it instead, unquestioningly, as what the Qur’an teaches. How does he expect those Muslims within those walls listening to him, to take that? A positive view of non-believers? Of course not. It merely strengthens the us VS them mentality that most certainly exists within sections (and not just extremist sections) of the Muslim community. Does quoting the Qur’an’s more abusive and insulting verses, count toward his vision of a civilised society based on respect?
His defence (seen here) is a mish-mash of non-arguments. At one point, even suggesting that he cannot possibly believe non-believers to be inferior, because he works with non-believers. He spends too much time explaining why he isn’t the second coming of Osama Bin Laden, rather than explaining why he thinks he is justified in quoting abusive or insulting Quranic verses, or how he sees those as any different from Islamophobic remarks aimed at him in the past.
He then tries to wiggle his way out of his own words, with the usual “it’s taken out of context” (unless the diatribe was followed by “… and I disagree with what the Qur’an says here“…… then it isn’t taken out of context). Or “I was quoting the Qur’an“. In that case, the Qur’an should most certainly not be free from ridicule and mocking, when it quite openly disrespects non-believers so much. Why should we afford it such respect? Why should we have to put up with the abuse it hands out, the abuse that its believers then so openly quote and not speak out? And if the Qur’an is as openly disrespectful to non-Muslims (even if it affords the same disrespect to Muslims, as Hasan suggests, it is irrelevant… because it is nothing to do with our lives as non-believers, and do not ask for nor care for its opinion on us), I wonder if Hasan would be happy to suggest that the Qur’an falls under his understanding of ‘offence’ that shouldn’t be encouraged, because it seems to me, and by his own admission, his speeches are entirely encouraged by that Book. I suspect he is happy to allow Muslims to keep referring to non-believers as “Kuffar” or “living like animals“, as long as they follow it up with “… Just the Qur’an!” For non-believers, the Qur’an is not a special book, it is not divine, it holds no superior spot on our bookshelf, and so to hide behind it, is meaningless.
In a further defence, Hasan says:
“I grow tired of having to also endure a barrage of lazy stereotypes, inflammatory headlines, disparaging generalisations and often inaccurate and baseless stories.
– Well, Mehdi, so do non-believers. Lazy stereotypes from a God who considers us unthinking, and incurious. Inflammatory headlines and generalisations and often inaccurate and baseless stories about how non-believers bend our morality to suit ourselves. I am sick of emails from Muslims calling me a “dirty Kuffar” (the perpetuation of that word, Hasan clearly has no issue with), insisting I will have to face Allah and explain why I didn’t believe before facing eternity in hell… and then being asked not to say that the idea of Islam repulses me. When an idea is full of condemnation, and full of us VS them, to the point where even moderates like Hasan use it, and hide behind it, to justify their bigotry; it is not a faith that deserves freedom from ridicule or mockery. It invites it, and it deserves it. When a faith becomes an outward show; degrading others for how they live, what they should think, invoke the notion of eternal punishment for non-believers, either subtly or forcefully insisting on the superiority of its believers, then it is most unworthy of our unquestioning respect.
To a non-believer, hiding bigotry behind “it’s in this book, and this book is true!” is absurd. It is not a reasonable excuse, when the vitriol is aimed at us. “A book written over 1000 years ago, says you’re unintelligent and incurious and living like an animal, so, yeah, it must be true. Don’t insult it. It’s what we believe“. Absurd, putrid, divisive, bigoted nonsense.
You cannot wrap bigotry up in a veil of “belief” and not expect criticism.
We should not feel compelled to respect a belief that insists non-believers will burn in hell for eternity, that we are unintelligent and incurious, that we are inferior, and that we live like animals. Respect the right to believe, not the belief.
Regardless of how much Islam or the Prophet means to Mehdi (“more dear to me than my parents. Than my children” he says at one point), the moment he used the Qur’an to insult and degrade non-believers, the moment an ‘idea’ condemns those who don’t adhere to it, to eternal punishment; is the moment he opened up his beliefs to insult and satire. Hasan tried to exclaim that religious belief is no different than race. This is of course not true. Race is natural, like gender and sexuality. Adhering to the principles of an idea, is a choice; a learned behaviour, regardless of how much it ‘defines’ a person, it is not a natural trait, it is always just a concept, an idea.
The idea itself, which I say is free to be mocked and insulted, is autonomous. It is just a concept. According to Hasan’s logic, the deeper an idea is adhered to, or believed, the more it is comparable to natural attributes, and the less it should be open to satire. This is a dangerous notion, and it strikes at everything a free, open and curious society stands for. If we are free to mock political ideas and values, (which many, hold dear, and which can also define a person) then I see no reason why religions should be free from the same treatment.
“It’s just my belief” or “It’s written in my Holy Book!” is used often by the bigoted religious, for all sorts of reasons. Christians will quote Leviticus in their hostility to all things homosexual, as if that suddenly absolves them of their homophobia. Should we really be expected to respect the Catholic faith, when it’s leader states quite openly of gay people:
“The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today….”
– I wouldn’t stay quiet if someone walked up to my gay friends to tell them that they are unnatural. And yet, because a man with an old book says so, we must be respectful? Religions deal extensively in hate, division and bigotry regardless of their shoddy attempts to insist they are peaceful and respectful. They aren’t. The beliefs themselves do not come complete with unquestioning respect from the rest of us. We must respect a person’s right to believe whatever they wish, but the beliefs themselves; especially when they promote division and hostility, do not deserve complete freedom from insult or satire. From a personal position; if your religion insults my gay friends, wishes to impose power of a woman’s uterus, and tells me I am destined to burn for eternity…. then I absolutely do not like, nor respect your religion.
Mehdi Hasan is no Islamist. He is not an extremist. It is absurd to say otherwise. He is important as a Muslim, in the fight against extremism, of which he is vocal. But he is a Muslim. He believes the derogatory remarks in his Holy Book to be the word of God. And that is where the problem with dogmatic religion ultimately lies. The ‘word‘ of God in the Books are considered final, and unquestionable. The right to offend non-believers comes purely from trusting that one person, had the revelation he claims to have had. Revelation is individual, to the person who experiences it… to everyone else, it is hearsay and taken on faith. We should all therefore feel threatened by anyone who claims divine right, via belief in hear-say, to tell someone other than themselves, how to live, dress, who to love, how to think, talk and act; the very nature of Holy Books. And for they then to claim this must not be mocked, satirised or ridiculed; This is poisonous.