It was inevitable that the slaughter at the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on January 7th would excite comment on the strained relations between the West and Islam, and the London press was among many who obliged during the last week.
After a three day manhunt heavily chronicled by journalist around the world, and subsequent rallies in France attended by 3.7 million across France on Sunday, the publication of the latest edition of Charlie Hebdo is set to further concentrate minds on the constraints of free speech.
Mehdi Hasan, political director of Huffington Post UK and sometime contributor to the New Statesman (whose owner Progressive Media is linked to my employer), took the initiative and posted an open letter to a “liberal pundit” via both publications:
In the midst of all the post-Paris grief, hypocrisy and hyperbole abounds. Yes, the attack was an act of unquantifiable evil; an inexcusable and merciless murder of innocents. But was it really a “bid to assassinate” free speech (ITV’s Mark Austin), to “desecrate” our ideas of “free thought” (Stephen Fry)? It was a crime – not an act of war – perpetrated by disaffected young men; radicalised not by drawings of the Prophet in Europe in 2006 or 2011, as it turns out, but by images of US torture in Iraq in 2004.
Please get a grip. None of us believes in an untrammelled right to free speech. We all agree there are always going to be lines that, for the purposes of law and order, cannot be crossed; or for the purposes of taste and decency, should not be crossed. We differ only on where those lines should be drawn.
His assessment that the response to the attack on Charlie Hebdo was hyperbolic seems accurate, as is his contention that there are a number of subjects which no paper would dare satirise, such as the Holocaust and 9/11.
Yet whilst Hasan lands a number of serious blows over the hypocrisies of Fleet Street, as well as the governments they write about, he hurts his wider ambitions with what is intended as a knock-out punch:
Then there are your readers. Will you have a word with them, please? According to a 2011 YouGov poll, 82 per cent of voters backed the prosecution of protesters who set fire to poppies.
Apparently, it isn’t just Muslims who get offended.
If Hasan intends to defend British Islam by comparing it to the illiberal attitudes harboured by the white British, the effect is to emphasise that the religion is an enemy of liberty rather than a friend.
And while it is obligatory to admit there are many Islams rather than one, and that not all should be judged by the actions of terrorists, the tendency towards social conservative political philosophy is unmistakeable. To quote Hasan from another New Statesman piece from a year-and-a-half ago:
As a supporter of secularism, I am willing to accept same-sex weddings in a state-sanctioned register office, on grounds of equity. As a believer in Islam, however, I insist that no mosque be forced to hold one against its wishes.
You will note the odd phrasing for the second half of the passage: “As a believer in Islam”. Had Hasan cut that clause one might have assumed his defence of a temple’s right to discriminate against same-sex couples was secular – a respected liberal position.
That the title of the piece claims a “struggle” with homosexuality readily demonstrates the bigotry of his faith, albeit one that is shared with many strains of Christianity. Hasan’s favouring of the Nordic model, with its notably atheistic populace, only furthers the contradiction.