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Hiding Anti-Muslim Bigotry Behind 'Free Speech' Won't Work

19/11/2014 13:03 GMT | Updated 18/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Oh dear. What I am being accused of, and attacked for, now?

Apparently, I want to block all criticism of Islam or Muslims in the press and, effectively, ban free speech.

"A lie," as the old saying goes, "will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on." Never has that particular statement been more apt and accurate than in today's era of social media, of Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, in which a lie goes round the world three or four times before truth has even bothered to go looking for its boots.

First, some background: I gave a talk at Mindshare UK's 'Huddle' in London on 13 November - a talk that I also gave at the Wilderness Festival in August, incidentally - in which I outlined the various ways in which sections of the British press routinely demonises, discriminates against and fearmonger about British Muslims, especially in the form of inaccurate, misleading and dishonest headlines, images and stories. (You can see for yourself a selection of the hysterical and flat-false front page headlines that I presented, via Powerpoint, here.)

I suggested that, in the context of an ongoing British debate over the best form of press regulation, there needed to be tougher action by any proposed new regulator against the promulgation of falsehoods and smears against marginalised minorities of all types - Muslims, Gypsies, asylum-seekers, etc. I made no mention of the religion of Islam, to beliefs, practises, theology and the rest. In the Q&A after my talk, while thinking aloud, I said I genuinely couldn't think of any way of changing press attitudes and practises that didn't involve some sort of sanction or penalty, maybe in the form of pressure from consumers or advertisers. I was referring here specifically to the campaign against the Daily Mail's homophobic response to the death of Stephen Gately in 2009. To be clear, the background and context to all my remarks was the Leveson-inspired debate over press regulation in the UK; I wasn't advocating new laws or financial penalties or restrictions on speech - nor did any of the audience members present at either Mindshare or Wilderness interpret my remarks in that way.

Nevertheless, across the pond, right-wingers of varying hues - taking their lead from this news report in the Guardian and this spin-off report on Mediaite - took great offense at my remarks. CNN's conservative host S.E. Cupp claimed I wanted to "censor anti-Muslim speech". Michael Moynihan, a libertarian writer and editor at The Daily Beast, decided I had "come up with a really stupid and dangerous idea".

JihadWatch's Robert Spencer declared: "Mehdi Hasan goes full fascist, calls for sanctions for criticism of Muslims". (The "fascist" charge is deliciously ironic, given the fact that Spencer, oft-quoted by Anders Breivik, has been banned by the Home Office from entering the UK due to his far-right views on Islam and Muslims.)

Egged on by Spencer and co, the Muslim-baiting trolls on Twitter and Facebook went further, falsely claiming that I wanted to "silence" and "punish" critics of Islam by introducing "genocidal blasphemy laws" and angrily demanding I be "shot" for my supposedly illiberal views. "It would appear that the Huffington Post has been infiltrated at the highest office by Islamists," wrote one charming Facebook commenter.

Why on earth would I want to punish or prevent "criticism" of Islam or Muslims? I spend a good chunk of my time as a writer, commentator and TV presenter criticising and condemning the behaviour of certain Muslims, certain Muslim groups, certain Muslim-majority countries - see here, here, here, and here. Oh, and here, here and here. Would I really call for a "penalty" on myself? Really?

Now, am I guilty of making off-the-cuff and perhaps clumsy remarks, during a brief audience Q&A, followed by an even briefer and impromptu interview with a Guardian journalist in the crowd? Yeah, in hindsight, probably.

But am I guilty of trying to shut down debate or limit free speech on this issue? To quote the great champion of free speech, the late Christopher Hitchens: "Don't. Be. Silly."

I have a long history of defending, and promoting, free speech and open debate - especially (especially!) within Muslim communities. In October 2012, for example, I published an open letter to "Muslim protesters" who were rioting over the controversial YouTube movie about the Prophet, urging them to value free speech and tolerance while denouncing their violent antics.

I also happen to present a discussion show on Al Jazeera English, called 'Head to Head', in which my guests have included high-profile and very robust critics of Islam and Muslims - including atheist Richard Dawkins, 'Muslim refusenik' Irshad Manji, feminist Mona Eltahawy and Israeli settler Dani Dayan. None of them complained afterwards that they had been censored by me; in fact, Manji welcomed the opportunity to set out her stall on Islamic reform on one of AJE's most-watched programmes. I disagree with much of what she says but I not only defend to the death her right to say it, I even offered her a global platform on which to do so (to the annoyance, I should add, of many of my fellow Muslims).

So, as I say, I support free speech, free expression, open debate. Apparently, you're not allowed to add a 'but' after this statement. Hmm. The problem is that there is no such thing as an 'absolute' or untrammelled right to free speech. That's not a controversial or provocative thing to say. It's just a fact. People - especially journalists, 'The Hitch' or otherwise - who suggest otherwise are either being naive or just plain disingenuous.

Consider the European Convention on Human Rights: the ECHR in article 10 says "everyone has the right to freedom expression" before going on to add that "the exercise of these freedoms... may be subject to...restrictions or penalties". Even in the United States, exceptions to the First Amendment include, among other things, incitement to violence, obscenity and child pornography, slander and defamation, copyright and patents and national security. Oh, and don't get me started on John Stuart Mill and the 'right' to shout 'fire' in a crowded theatre...

Regardless, my talk had nothing to do with free speech, or restricting free speech. I was making a much broader, more moral point: you may have a right to be offensive and bigoted towards a group of people, but why should high-profile newspapers and media organisations exercise that right only in relation to one particular community, i.e. Muslims? Does S.E. Cupp want CNN giving TV shows to 9/11 'truthers' to present? Does Michael Moynihan want The Daily Beast to give Holocaust deniers or KKK members a regular column? Why is it that there's outrage when papers are racist or anti-Semitic or homophobic, but not when they're Islamophobic? Why the double standard?

As my good friend Nesrine Malik argued in the New York Times in April, liberal commentators' "preciousness about the right to offend won't be credible until they advocate extending it beyond Islamophobes -- to racists, anti-Semites and homophobes, too". Those who "fancy themselves defenders of free speech," she concluded, "must be consistent in their absolutism, and stand up for offensive speech no matter who is the target".

Attacking me for my off-the-cuff remarks and poor solutions is a nice and neat way of avoiding the problem that I highlight: you can now say things about Muslims that you cannot say about any other minority community, and such an egregious double standard is both morally wrong and, from a counter-extremism and counter-terrorism perspective, completely counter-productive. Can we deal with this point please? Rather than sticking our heads in the sand?

One final point: on Tuesday, the right-wing loons who run Breitbart London, and who bizarrely consider me to be an "Islamist apologist", published online an error-strewn and fact-free 'report' on my comments at Mindshare headlined, "Mehdi Hasan: 'British Papers Should Face Sanctions For Criticising Islam'".

Notice the use of the quote marks around those words - words that I did not say. And have never said, and never will say.

Thanks, Breitbart London! I gave a talk about how so many Muslims in the UK are smeared and demonised as "Islamists", misrepresented and misquoted, and subjected to hysterical press coverage and dishonest and defamatory headlines. And you guys, in covering my talk, then made my exact point for me.

Oh, the irony...