Aaro v Mehdi

Here’s a debate which took place last night, and which I missed:

What right is there under freedom of speech to cause offence? On Thursday october 11th at 6.30pm we bring together David Aaronovitch, Times columnist and author of Voodoo Histories with Mehdi Hasan, Political Director of Huffington Post UK and co-author of ED: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader to debate what is at stake.

David Aaronovitch tweeted the following after the debate:

In our debate @mehdirhasan repeated formulation abt Prophet being more important to him than his children. I really have problems with this.

I also find it quite remarkable that people feel this way. But Mehdi Hasan is a man for whom religion is basically his everything. It really is the most important thing in his life. You’ll remember the clip, below, in which a Mehdi Hasan tells the  the story of the aftermath of the Battle of Karbala, in which a small group composed mostly of relatives of Muhammad’s grandson Husain ibn Ali were beaten, captured and then decapitated by the army of Caliph Yazid I.

Mehdi Hasan cannot tell the story without weeping and crying.

The phenomenon of hugely emotional responses to stories with religious flavours is not restricted to Islam – think US televangelists, for example – although it is something which is a particular feature of some forms of Shi’ism. Mehdi isn’t pretending to be upset. He is genuinely expressing how he feels.

I’m a bit distrustful of religious fervor which is expressed in this manner. I’m inclined to mistrust the judgement of people for whom religion isn’t simply a set of moral and ethical lessons, passed from God through the ministries of righteous men and women: but an occasion for wildly emotional fervor.

But, honestly, these are – and should be – private matters for individuals. If somebody wants to cry while telling a religious story, why shouldn’t they? If they really do love a dead scriptural figure more then their children or parents, I’d find it odd: but as long as they’re not neglecting their family, then it has nothing to do with me.

Apparently, the debate did not explore the central question, which goes to the heart of liberalism, secularism and the manner in which religious and non religious people of diverse beliefs can co-exist in a pluralist society: the proper role of the state, and the limits of its authority. If that’s so, it is a pity. I think it is the only question that really matters.

If you did go, I’d like to hear your impressions.


In addition to the comments below, there’s the following at the HuffPo, who say they’ll post a video later in the week:

Mehdi Hasan, political director of The Huffington Post UK, called for a crackdown on the culture of Islamophobia and argued freedom of speech was not an “absolute right” during a debate on Thursday.

Speaking opposite Times columnist David Aaronovitch at a HuffPost/Polis debate, on the right to offend, Mr Hasan argued free speech was being “fetishized” and claimed many free-speech campaigners in the west were guilty of “brazen hypocrisy.”

“We have a civic duty not to offend others,” he told the a packed audience at the London School of Economics.

“How can you construct a civilised, cohesive society if we go round encouraging everyone to insult each other willy nilly?

“Yes we do have a right to offend but it’s not the same as having a duty to be offensive. You have a responsibility not to go out of your way to piss people off.

“I have the right to fart in a lift, but I don’t do it because it is offensive.

“Some people want the right to be offensive but then get cross when people are offended.”

In what soon became a heated discussion, David Aaronovitch challenged his view that freedom of speech could be practised with discretion or restraint, telling Mr Hasan: “you cannot decide from your Olympian aerie what is good and not good.”

He argued that not being offended and being “less touchy” was the only way to live in harmony, saying “at a global level if we are going to get on we are going to have to put up with these things.”

Mr Aaronovitch told the hall it was simply not practical to be offended in a world where social media allows offensive views to circulate with virulent intensity.

“I simply cannot afford to be offended every time someone retweets something obnoxious,” he said.

“People need to get a thicker skin.”

Mr Aaronvitch challenged the HuffPost’s political director, saying: “We are mostly not even talking about what happens in this country. It is mostly the countries where Muslims are the majority where this [the riots] are happening. They are the discriminators in that country.

“Your notion of the prophet is now become important in my life and we have to be able to express what we feel about it.”

The Times columnist said he remained firmly committed to the right to free speech, adding that “the cure to speech is more speech. It’s the only way.”

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