Mehdi Hasan takes on David Aaronovitch over ‘Innocence of Muslims’ and Charlie Hebdo cartoons

Mehdi_HasanMehdi 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 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.”

Huffington Post, 11 October 2012