The Right To Offend? Mehdi Hasan Denies 'Absolute Right' To Freedom Of Speech

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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."

muslim right to offend

Mr Hasan argued that 'we do have a right to offend but it’s not the same as having a duty to be offensive'

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.”

The right to offend, and to be offended, has been an explosive topic in recent months, after anti-Islam film The Innocence of Muslims sparked riots across parts of the Muslim world.

US embassies were targeted and dozens of people lost their lives in the ensuing violent clashes.

Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya, was killed along with three American security guards after becoming trapped in the burning US consulate building in Benghazi - though some say this was a premeditated terrorist attack.

In an address to the UN following the attack, Barack Obama denounced the film as “cruel and disgusting”, but maintained the importance of freedom of expression even “with views that we profoundly disagree with”.

The absolute right to freedom of speech was tested further after French magazine Charlie Hebdo published offensive cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, mocking Muslim's offence at the original US film.

Charlie Hebdo’s editor, Stephane Charbonnier, defended the cartoons, arguing that they “would shock those who want to be shocked”.

He added: "If we start to question whether we have the right to draw Muhammad or not, if that is a dangerous thing to do or not, the next question is going to be: can we depict Muslims in the newspaper? And then: can we represent human beings in the newspaper?"

Mr Hasan argued that the debate about the right to offend in relation to the French cartoons and the US movie could not be divorced from the climate of Islamophobia, “depressingly rampant” in some parts of our society - especially the media.

“You can say things about Muslims which you can’t say about any other group of people” he said.

“For Muslims right now there is a huge sense of fear and insecurity. It is irresponsible to suggest we just need a thicker skin. This is a majority-minority debate.

“To pick on Muslims in France...Oh God, how brave you must be."

Mr Hasan told an audience member: “We crack down on anti-Semitism and we don’t allow it to go mainstream in the same way Islamophobia is. I firmly believe this is a debate about racism too.”

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.”

A video of the full HuffPost/Polis debate between Messrs Hasan and Aaronovitch will be posted online, here on at the HuffPost UK, in the next few days.

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