No honour in killing debate

The organisers of the 2014 Festival of Dangerous Ideas have made two mistakes in the last week. The first was to call an upcoming talk ‘Honour Killings are Morally Justified’; and the second was to cancel it. The first mistake shows a lack of judgment; the second shows a lack of nerve, plus an almost Neville Chamberlain-like faith in the power of conciliation. For if the organisers thought that by cancelling the event they could also cancel out the controversy surrounding it, they have since been rudely disappointed. Far from having silenced their critics, they now find themselves assailed from all sides.

For this they only have themselves to blame. The decision to call Uthman Badar’s talk, which was to be delivered at the Sydney Opera House in late August, ‘Honour Killings are Morally Justified’ was an irresponsible marketing ploy – one that attempted to generate interest in the event by making it sound more ‘dangerous’ than it was, or, more accurately, was going to be. By all accounts, including his own, Badar had not intended to say that honour killings were justified, morally or otherwise, and the suggestion that he was going to do so was catnip to that constituency of bigots we are now obliged to describe as ‘Islamophobic’. Since such people, when they read at all, tend not to read beyond the headlines, that particular brainless, muscle-bound genie cannot be crammed back into its bottle.

But Mr Badar is no pussycat, either, and there are many people (me included) who think his views should be better known than they are, if only so they can be rejected. A spokesman for Hizb ut-Tahrir – a group banned in many western countries but described in the festival blurb as a ‘global advocacy group working for positive change’ – he is a religious fundamentalist who agitates for Sharia law and the restoration of the Caliphate. Badar claims not to have liked the title ‘Honour Killings are Morally Justified’ (he preferred ‘The West Needs Saving by Islam’) but since he didn’t make his appearance at FODI conditional on its being changed, he should be allowed to have his say and we should be allowed to hear him having it. As it is, the decision to cancel his event, and the charge of Islamophobia that has accompanied it, has allowed Badar to masquerade as the spokesman for a beleaguered community, when in fact he is nothing of the kind.

Judging from what he has said in the past and from what the festival organisers have said in his ‘defence’, we can be fairly sure that Badar’s speech was going to touch on western hypocrisy. Badar’s usual intellectual style is to combine reflexive moral equivalence with strenuous apologetics for Muslim (though not non-Muslim) violence and slurs against an entity he elects to call ‘the liberal west’. The FODI event was to be in the same vein. In an interview with 2UE, festival co-curator Simon Longstaff suggested that Badar was going to ‘tackle the western liberal view that uncritically assumes that because something is done by someone from a different religion or culture it must necessarily be wrong’. Or here is the festival blurb, as was:

For most of recorded history parents have reluctantly sacrificed their children – sending them to kill or be killed for the honour of their nation, their flag, their king, their religion. But what about killing for the honour of one’s family? Overwhelmingly, those who condemn ‘honour killings’ are based in the liberal democracies of the West. The accuser and moral judge is the secular (white) westerner and the accused is the oriental other; the powerful condemn the powerless. By taking a particular cultural view of honour, some killings are condemned whilst others are celebrated. In turn, the act becomes a symbol of everything that is allegedly wrong with the other culture.

Notwithstanding the rather academic prose, this sounds like a potentially interesting debate – one in which a ‘liberal westerner’ (or indeed a liberal non-westerner) may feel called upon to point out that while honour is often invoked during wars, it is rarely if ever the cause of them; that while the 5000 women who fall victim every year to honour killings may become ‘a symbol’, they are also a reality; and that there are plenty of people from within the cultures in which honour killings tend to occur who regard them as a fathomless evil, as well as plenty of westerners who are far more critical of their own societies than anything done in the name of Islam. But alas it was not, is not, to be …

Why not? Because the Festival folded in the face of a social media ‘backlash’ – a backlash that demonstrates once again how a technology that seems, on the face of it, to extend the scope for open debate is frequently used to close it down. The problem is not the technology itself, though what psychologists call ‘deindividuation’ – the loss of social inhibition experienced as a result of anonymity – certainly has its part to play. No, the problem is the people who use it, and who regard the charge that something is offensive, not as the start of the debate, but as the end of it. The problem, in other words, is the great steam-bath of censoriousness in which democracies such as ours now find themselves.

Together, the Twittermob and festival organisers have handed a propaganda victory to Badar, who as well as posing as the helpless victim of general anti-Muslim intolerance has embraced the opportunity to malign the very principle – free speech – on which he depends to make his case. On his Facebook page, he wrote that the controversy ‘highlights, once more, that freedom of speech is a tool of power and nothing more’. Indeed, Badar does not believe in free speech, as was clear from his remarks at an IQ² debate in Sydney in 2013 (Motion: ‘God and His Prophets Should Be Protected from Insult’): ‘Free speech is a liberal position,’ he said. ‘It is an ideological liberal position, not some neutral universal. So here’s a frank memo to the liberal: enough of the self-indulgence. You don’t represent the default position.’

Well, free speech is the default position at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, and it was very open-minded of the organisers to invite a man with such contempt for it to come along and say his piece. It was silly to call his talk what they did and even sillier to cancel it. I very much hope they’ll have him back and invite him to speak on a subject of his choice, in order that we can judge for ourselves just how dangerous his ideas actually are. Sunlight, after all, is the best disinfectant, and there’s no light without a bit of heat.

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First published at New Matilda.