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Mehdi Hasan Part III: A New Direction for the New Statesman?

This is the third and concluding part of Channel 4 Insider’s article on Mehdi Hasan

There are some who people who would dismiss the views of religious people merely because they believe in God. I am not one of them. What is needed, now more than ever, is open-minded liberal journalism that is infused with the compassion, understanding and empathy that religious faith can offer.

The problem is that Mehdi Hasan’s Shiism is not akin to the Christianity of Jeffrey John. Liberal Muslims do not use terms like “kuffar”, or preach that non-Muslims are as “a people of no intelligence”, any more than Liberal Jews or Christians would use the corresponding terms or arguments. Hasan’s orthodoxy would not be an issue at all, were his faith a private and personal one. He is, however, a very active lay preacher.

The boundary between Mehdi Hasan’s particular religious perspective and his political writing is a porous one. Take for example his contrarian defence of the Islam Channel, which takes the form of an attack on the Quilliam Foundation. The article is worth reading in full. Hasan objected to a press release that pointed out that the Islam Channel has promoted an “intolerant and bigoted interpretations of Islam”. He took the view that the claims were mostly rubbish:

As a viewer who also happens to be a British Muslim, I do therefore tune into the Islam Channel myself, on occasion, and – to be quite honest – have yet to see a single example of incitement to violence or terror. To suggest or imply otherwise, as the Quilliam Foundation does, is rather asinine. At worst, there may be the odd rather somnolent phone-in show, featuring a rotating bevy of Muslim scholars from the subcontinent, some with a tenuous grasp of the English language – but none of this comes even close to promoting or condoning Islamist extremism, violent or otherwise.

Even if  Hasan hasn’t seen any of the many listed extremists hosted by the Islam Channel doesn’t mean that the press release is wrong. It isn’t.

Half way through the article, rather surreally, Mehdi Hasan then does an impressive 180 degree handbrake turn. The Islam Channel is suddenly accused of having promoted a vicious anti-Shia demagogue called “Sheikh” Qadhi. Hasan concludes by asking if the Islam Channel is planning to rename itself “the Sunni Channel”.

So, here we have an article which starts off by defending the Islam Channel from the allegation that it hosts anti-Western extremists, but which gets all hot under the collar when it comes to the hosting of anti-Shiite extremists. The strangely incoherent article makes a lot more sense once you have seen Hasan’s performances before Shia audiences.

My second, related concern is that Mehdi Hasan confuses the important task of defending Muslims from prejudice and hatred with the task of defending his orthodox brand of Shia Islam.

Take for example, the following lecture. Hasan starts by railing against Islamophobia. It is very clear, when you listen to this speech, that he is not talking primarily about vicious Muslim-haters. Rather his concern is with the Sunni rulers who “manufacture false traditions” about the Quran, Imam Ali, and the Companions of Mohammed, and who defame the saintly Imam Ali. He concludes:

“THAT is Islamophobia. What we face today is petty.

That is really quite a remarkable perspective to take. A liberal’s primary instinct is to defend Muslims, not to prevent the distortion of “true” and “authentic” Islam. However, the theological differences between Sunni and Shia, per se, are of little intrinsic concern. What counts is the persecution of individuals because of their religious or communal identity. People matter: doctrine does not.

Mehdi Hasan then goes on to urge his audience to resist

“any form of media-induced hostility towards Islam; any form of ignorance – for a large part of Islamophobia is about ignorance towards our religion and its origins.”

Again, Islamophobia isn’t essentially the hatred of Muslims. Rather, it appears to tie in with the phenomenon of kuffar: of the failure to understand, and indeed the propensity to cover up, the self evident truth of God’s “divinely revealed perfect and infallable faith”.

Traditionally, the New Statesman’s writers themselves have not hesitated to scoff at religious enthusiasm when it comes from white Christian evangelicals – one only has to think, for instance, of John Pilger’s mocking of Blair’s “prayer breakfast” with Obama. We have to therefore ask whether the New Statesman will continue to take a robust view of religious doctrine where  Muslim issues are concerned? Or will Mehdi Hasan be concerned to ensure that “misrepresentation” and “ignorance” of his own belief system is not perpetuated by the New Statesman?

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. It will be interesting to see how things map out at the New Statesman. Would Hasan publish an article such as Martin Bright’s piece which reported on at the research of “kuffar” academics like Michael Cook, Patricia Crone and Gerald Hawting which suggested the traditional Muslim accounts of Muhammad’s life and the rise of Islam were open to question? Or will this constitute the “ignorance” of non Muslims and perhaps even “hostility towards Islam” which must be “resisted”?

George Bernard Shaw, who co-founded the New Statesman in 1913, once wrote that: “Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it”. It is difficult not to be reminded of these words, when considering Mehdi Hasan’s own perspective.

UPDATE

Mehdi Hasan replies here.

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