Intellectual dishonesty at the Oxford Union

19 May

Urbane, articulate and well coiffured – a far cry from the bearded, ranting mediaevalist of secular nightmare – Al Jazeera presenter Mehdi Hasan is an ideal frontsman for Islam in the west. The other day he wrote in the Guardian on why calls for an Islamic ‘reformation’ are nonsense:

Ayaan Hirsi Ali [a Somali ex-Muslim] has … been popping up in TV studios .. to urge Muslims, both liberal and conservative, to abandon some of their core religious beliefs while uniting behind a Muslim Luther. Whether or not mainstream Muslims will respond positively to a call for reform from a woman who has described their faith as a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death” that should be “crushed”, and suggested Benjamin Netanyahu be given the Nobel peace prize, is another matter.

I offer the above as a taster of Hasan’s dismissive style. Far be it from me to defend one who thinks the words Netanyahu and peace belong in the same sentence, or that any religion should be crushed, but Hasan neglects to add that Ali needs 24/7 protection to stop ‘unreformed’  Muslims popping up to do righteous duty in ridding the earth of her and her godless apostasy.

The thrust of Hasan’s piece is an Aunt Sally attack on Martin Luther: the antisemite (weren’t they all?) and reactionary (ditto) whose response to 16th century peasant rebellions was a call to “hang em, flog em, burn em”. Hasan is clever. His literalist interpretation of demands that Islam ‘reform’ is no error. I see in it the intellectual dishonesty he displayed in spades when interviewing  Richard Dawkins at the Oxford Union, Christmas 2012.

Showing scant interest in genuine inquiry, Hasan fires one loaded question after another to rattle the atheist cage. When Dawkins responds with ease, Hasan moves on: OK, that didn’t work. Let’s try this. Here’s an example, not untypical. Early on Dawkins allows, as any good epistemologist must, that the existence of God (or fairies and pixies) cannot be disproved. That doesn’t stop Hasan challenging Dawkins to show ‘scientifically’ that Mohammed did not literally fly – as he, Hasan, believes – to heaven on a winged horse. In his reply Dawkins refers to a heaven “up there”. Hasan is on to this like a shot.

Aha! Why do you assume heaven is up there?

Well, says the professor, if it isn’t, why would the horse need wings?

Unfazed, Hasan moves to another line of attack. And so it goes. At times Dawkins looks ill at ease. My sense is that, gentlemanly to a fault (to be honest he can be a tad prissy) he has no problem with the intellectual challenge but is disgusted with Hasan’s way of operating. As am I, but judge for yourself. 47 minutes, including audience Q & A.

PS more dialectical materialist than not, I don’t always agree with Dawkins. Like many scientists he can be  politically naive. He’s too PC to go down the road taken by that other brainy atheist, Sam Harris, in reducing the Palestine conflict to democratic Israel versus backward Islam – thereby joining the multitudes who through ignorance or mendacity disregard the ethnic cleansing of 1947 and earlier – but does play along with Hasan’s idealist view of war: allowing that other idealisms (e.g. Stalinist and Nazi) are “as bad” as religions in war mongering. I see wars as always having material drivers, though they are fought in the name of loftier principles (God, freedom, democracy etc). I’ll be picking up this theme in my next post, on the Ukraine.

PPS 6/11/15. Just to show what a political minefield geonomenclature can be, I was pulled up – on Amazon of all places, by one who didn’t like my review of a book on Putin – for referring to “the Ukraine”. It’s “Ukraine”, she insisted. That she then went on to speak of Russians, all 140 million of them, as thugs and barbarians doesn’t alter the fact that on the narrower point she is right. Sticking definite article before “Ukraine” is like referring to Derry as “Londonderry”. For those in the thick of it – Irish republicans, say, or those who insist there was and is a Ukrainian nation – these are vitally important matters. For others, such as armchair liberals in the west, they are all too often a means of asserting ideological purity. We can get obsessed with such considerations, especially when we’re not actually doing much..


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