February 24th, 2015



I keep getting this strange sense of déjà vu with respect to the affair of the Observer letter and its aftermath. Two years ago, shortly after Fleet St's finest had lined round the block in order to trumpet the right of Julie Burchill to be offensive even if what she said amounted to hate speech, and Toby Young had defiantly republished her words on the Telegraph website, the Sunday Times published a Gerald Scarfe cartoon that showed Benjamin Netanhayu building a wall that included the body parts of Palestinians. It was offensive to many, and Rupert Murdoch apologized grovellingly. But, as I noted at the time, neither Toby Young nor any of the myriad defenders of free speech who had lined up to defend Julie Burchill and to castigate the Observer for its similar apology just days earlier felt like sticking their heads above the parapet on that occasion. Funny, that.

Now, barely a week after 131 academics, journalists and activists blasted protests against transphobia, warning that that fundamental liberties of expression and academic freedom were at stake, I read that the students of the University of Westminster are protesting against an invitation to Haitham al-Haddad to speak on conceptions of the prophet Muhammed, because he holds offensive views about homosexuality.

Now, I'm not on Twitter as you may know, but I'd be very interested to know whether any of the 131 self-appointed defenders of academic freedom have protested there (or anywhere) against the attempt to exclude Haitham al-Haddad. Peter Tatchell, for instance, or Bea Campbell? Have Mary Beard or Jeremy Hardy rushed to the defence of academic freedom in this case? Or is it a matter of speakers with offensive beliefs being okay, but only if their target is weak enough?

I did try googling Tachell's name with al-Haddad's by the way, but all I came up with was this...