Almost exactly three years ago, I rang Peter Hitchens, the Mail on Sunday columnist, who is a friend of a friend, to ask his advice. A right-wing, anti-Islam blog had edited together, totally out of context, various quotes from me speaking in front of a group of British Muslim students in Manchester and made me look like an ultra-Islamist loon. Would the right-wing tabloid press jump on this "story", I wondered? Would I end up appearing on the pages of, say, the Mail, under the headline of 'Extremist!"? Don't be silly, replied Hitchens, I don't think anything you've said is worthy of publication in a national newspaper. You've got nothing to worry about so you should just calm down.
Fast forward three years: imagine my surprise to discover that a man named Peter Hitchens has produced a column in the Mail on Sunday attacking me over those very same out-of-context quotes.
It would be funny if it wasn't so personally offensive. I'll deal with Hitchens in a moment but first let me deal - again! - with those damned "quotes".
Did I, invoking a verse from the Quran, refer to unthinking, incurious non-Muslims as "cattle"? Yes but - and here's where context matters! - if you listen to the full speech, you'll hear me refer to unthinking, incurious Muslims as "cattle" too ("We are the cattle that Allah condemns in the Quran," I said.) Peter omitted to mention this key point.
Then there's the quote in which I seem to refer to non-Muslims as "animals, bending any rule to fulfil any desire". Again, I was quoting from the Quran and, in fact, if you listen to the full speech, it is very clear that I was referring to those human beings, both Muslims and non-Muslims, who live their lives without a clear moral code, without an ability to distinguish between right and wrong.
In hindsight, I accept in this particular case that my phraseology was ill-judged, ill-advised and, even, inappropriate, but it is a bit of a stretch to claim I was attacking non-Muslims when the entire 45-minute speech is primarily an attack on Muslim extremists who try and justify violence against non-Muslims on an "ends justify the means" basis. But, I suppose, the whole point of a "gotcha" quote is to that it is totally and conveniently context-free.
I've been a victim of plenty of right-wing hatchet jobs but I guess I naively expected more from Peter - who has known me for almost 10 years and knows full well that I am not anti-Christian or an extremist of any sort. I was especially shocked when he admitted to me, over the phone on Friday, that he hadn't bothered to listen to the two speeches in full in order to discover the proper context of those remarks. "Where would I find them?" he asked, apparently having never come across www.google.com.
He also admitted to never having read any of the articles that I've had published in the New Statesman, the Guardian and the Times, over the past three years, on the subject of Islam, Muslims, secularism, extremism and the rest; he preferred to base his entire column on a 45-second quote ripped, out of context, from a four-year-old, 45-minute speech in which, ironically, I not only praise non-Muslims but also encourage Muslims to learn from non-Muslims and, in particular, the West.
The inconvenient truth, for Hitchens and for the right-wing trolls who mimic his smears online, is that I have published hundreds of thousands of words in the afore-mentioned publications; countless articles and columns and blogposts in which I have decried Muslim extremism and intolerance and declared my support for religious pluralism and a secular, multi-faith society.
Here I condemn Iran's anti-Christian apostasy laws; here I unconditionally condemn all forms of suicide terrorism; here I criticise British Muslims for "our navel-gazing and victim mentality"; here I denounce those Muslims like Mahmoud Ahmedinejad who engage in Holocaust denial; here I praise Muslim diplomat Abdul-Hossein Sardari for saving Iranian Jews from the Nazis during the Second World War; here I attack Anjem Choudary for his intolerance and bigotry.
Do these sound like the views of a Muslim extremist or reactionary? And is it too much to ask to be judged on my large body of published works rather than spurious "gotcha" quotes from ancient and dodgy YouTube videos?
The claim that I view non-Muslims as somehow inferior or unequal is not just absurd and offensive but would come as a bit of shock to the hundreds of non-Muslims I have worked with in the British media over the past decade and who I count among my friends, including Jonathan Dimbleby, Jeremy Vine, Dermot Murnaghan, Kay Burley, Eamonn Holmes, Jon Snow, Dorothy Byrne (head of Channel 4 current affairs), John Ryley (head of Sky News) and Jason Cowley (editor of the New Statesman). Ask them if they think I'm an extremist or a bigot.
A few months ago, I received a letter from a man who warned me that "there will not be one live Muslim left in Europe when we have finished" and then threatened to drown me in "a large expanse of water, like the Thames". What had prompted him to contact me? Yep, you guessed it: it had come to his attention, he wrote, that I had referred to non-Muslims as "cattle" and "animals".
Dear Peter, words have consequences. Your recklessly inaccurate, inflammatory and irresponsible column only indulges the Islamophobic fantasies of the UK's violent, far-right crazies - and encourages them to make their vile threats. Frankly, you should be ashamed of yourself.
Update: We have been asked to make clear that Peter Hitchens doubts Mehdi Hasan's ability to recall verbatim their conversation of three years ago. Neither party to the conversation possess contemporaneous notes. We have therefore removed the quotation marks from around the comments.
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