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Mehdi Hasan’s Fart, the Pope’s Mother and what about Chewbacca?

This is a guest post by Mehrdad Amanpour

As soon the poor victims of that horrific, religiously-motivated attack in Paris are buried, vested interests get busy confusing and deflecting the free speech debate.

Thursday’s Question Time was great example of Mehdi Hasan’s slick oration skills and cunning at muddling arguments.

“You have the right to fart in a crowded lift, but you just don’t do it. But when you do it and someone attacks you for it that’s outrageous. But you don’t expect everyone else in the lift to fart in solidarity with you.”

Hasan’s point more closely resembles the chewbacca defense than a credible analogy for “moral” limits to free speech.

Farting in a lift is about being unquestioningly offensive, with no possible context than to be offensive, to a targeted and trapped audience. This isn’t the same as the freedom to say, write or draw something that might be offensive to some people who are nevertheless free to avoid it.

It’s unlikely that the people who choose to buy and read Charlie Hebdo find its cartoons very offensive. Those who are offended can simply choose not to look. I’m used to looking away from things I don’t wish to see, be they cartoons or images of killing and violence that find their way to my Twitter timeline. It’s not so difficult.

It’s obvious that no one has the right to trap an audience and bellow at them something they find offensive. That’s not ‘free speech’ – it’s harassment.

Harassment is what Hasan’s example reflects and I have no doubt he knew exactly what he was doing when he said what he said – Mehdi’s farting analogy was a characteristically sneaky release of hot air – and credit to him that the Question Time audience and panellists failed to notice its stink.

Moving on, it’s important to dismiss the ubiquitous ‘whataboutism’ being employed by the usual Muslim pundits – Hasan himself cited the banning of a t-shirt with an image of the Last Supper and predictably, there has been lots of whataboutism regarding bans on Holocaust-denial, insulting Jewish people etc.

Whether or not there are double standards – and I accept there may be some – this is a deeply dishonest argument. The terrorists who murdered the Charlie Hebdo’s staff didn’t do so because of double standards. The fatwa on Salman Rushdie & its support among some British Muslims, the attacks on the Danish cartoonists, the death threats to Maajid Nawaz – none of these were motivated by “double standards”.

All of the above were motivated by one thing only – a desire to impose an interpretation of sharia law that bans ANY depiction of Mohammad.

What’s more, is Mehdi Hasan and the usual suspects seriously arguing that Charlie Hebdo, or any other media organisation for that matter, routinely “insults” Islam or Muslims more than other religion or group?

Really? Is it even necessary to waste time refuting such a delusional claim?

The truth is this issue isn’t about cartoons that ‘insult’ Mohammad. This is about people who insult sharia law by depicting Mohammad at all.

Maajid Nawaz proved this point, beyond any doubt, when he tweeted an innocuous cartoon depicting a stick figure called Mohammad that resulted in an outrageously hostile backlash from the very pundits who now talk about “insulting Muslims” and “double standards”.

If there wasn’t already enough muddying of the water going on, Pope Francis had to go and drag his mother into this, telling journalists his assistant could expect a punch if he ”cursed his mother”. ”It’s normal – you cannot provoke, you cannot insult the faith of others,” he said.

The Holy Father was particularly unhelpful as this analogy is THE stock argument employed by those Muslims who argue that ridiculing or even depicting Mohammad is “like insulting my mother” in order to advocate banning it or, more alarmingly, to explain why some Muslims react violently to it.

Again, this is a fascicle analogy that has nothing to do with free speech – unless of course the Pope’s mother is a notable historical or public figure in which case it would be an example of when it would be acceptable for the pontiff’s mum to be subject to criticism or ridicule.

For example, I’m sure Carole and Mark Thatcher feel very aggrieved by the constant and often cruel attacks on their late mother, Margaret. Even upon her death, some people held parties singing, “The Witch is Dead”. I’m sure lots of people found that offensive and horrible but no one would argue that because Thatcher was someone’s mother, she should be exempt from criticism, insult or ridicule.

But like Hasan’s Chewbacca & whataboutism strategies, it’s a shame that some people will have fallen for the Pope’s bogus irrelevance.

Finally, it’s grimly amusing although not surprising how the religious right can’t appreciate how their freedom could be compromised if we simply banned speech based upon it being offensive to a group of people.

Mehdi Hasan infamously described billions of non-Muslims as “people of no intelligence” and “cattle”. I wonder if Hasan had examples like that in mind when he delivered his sermon on the morality of farting in a lift?

More seriously, there are verses in the bible and Koran that could, in certain contexts, be very offensive to homosexuals, Jewish people etc.

If enough people claimed to be ‘offended’, should those verses be also banned?

The Pope, Mehdi Hasan and the various religious & ‘community’ leaders claiming ‘offence’ on behalf of billions would certainly say: “No”.

Because at the end of the day, this entire issue isn’t about what is ‘offensive’ – it’s about what they find offensive.

Don’t fall for it.